Monday, July 27, 2009

Sikhs, Hindus dread Taliban tax in northwest Pakistan

Sitting on a broken chair outside a Sikh temple in a crowded part of Peshawar, Aman Deep Singh is frantic about his future after losing his business in the tribal district of Khyber.

When the Taliban gave Sikhs and Hindus an ultimatum — leave the land of your forefathers or pay an Islamic tax in protection money — Singh packed up and left his native Tirah valley for Peshawar.

‘We were living under fear. Fear of militants, fear of Lashkar-e-Islam and fear of other armed groups,’ said Singh, his hair swept up in a turban, a long beard touching his abdomen and thick moustache covering his upper lip.

He swapped a general store in the mountains for unemployment in the northwest capital, where he struggles to feed the nine members of his family.

Aman Deep is a fake name. He wants his real name hidden for his security.

As light fades to dusk, Sikhs gather for evening prayers at the Joga Singh gurdwara (temple) in a narrow street of Peshawar’s Dabgari bazaar. Each man removes his shoes, washes his feet in a small pool of water and covers his head.

‘I am not the only one. About 400 Sikh and 57 Hindu families migrated from the town of Bara and Tirah,’ said Singh.

Sikhs and Hindus are tiny communities in Pakistan. In the last year, hundreds have fled their homes after receiving death threats from the Taliban and other militant groups in an increasingly unstable northwest.

After US troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Taliban and Al-Qaeda ideologues fled to Pakistan, where they have increasingly focused their campaign and where 2,000 people have perished in bomb attacks over the past two years.

Pakistan launched a major offensive in the northwest this summer, under pressure from the United States, after Taliban fighters made deep territorial inroads.

Militants need an endless supply of funds for their weapons, communications and training.

Kidnapping, drugs and extortion are typical sources of income. Taxation and protection scams are others, and vulnerable non-Muslims are easy prey.

Local Sikhs mostly trade in cloth, and also run grocer, garment and herbal medicine shops. They are people who can afford the 1,000 rupees per man, per year ‘jizya’ tax.

In the region of Orakzai, the Taliban demanded the tax of adult male Sikhs, forcibly occupying Sikh-owned shops and houses. After two months, the tax spread to Khyber, the legendary tribal region on the main supply line to Afghanistan.

It was there that Lashkar-e-Islam, a group headed by Mangal Bagh, announced Sikhs and Hindus would be free to live anywhere — as long as they paid jizya.

But threats made the situation increasing tense. Hundreds of Sikh and Hindu families fled to nearby areas, especially Peshawar.

‘Minorities in Orakzai and Khyber were warned by some militant groups to become Muslims or leave the area. This was a real threat,’ Singh said.

‘They’re running a parallel government. Hindu and Sikh families did not feel safe, in Orakzai, in Bara and in Tirah. We preferred to migrate, at least here we can breathe in peace and feel safe,’ he said.

The same sentiment was echoed by other shopkeepers from Bara.

‘No female Muslim or non-Muslim is allowed out without a male relative. All women, even the elderly, have to wear a burka,’ said Gulab Khan Afridi, a 38-year-old Muslim.

Gulab Khan said growing a beard and wearing a cap had become compulsory, otherwise Lashkar extremists would dole out beatings or a 200 to 500-rupee fine.
‘Can you believe it? A man cannot wear a ring in Bara,’ he added.

Much like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam acts like police, enforces prayers five times a day and punishes people accused of prostitution and other vices.

Sardar Sahib Singh, a Sikh leader in the district assembly in Peshawar, said his community paid 150,000 rupees a year to Lashkar-e-Islam in protection money.

‘Our community is better off. We only pay tax, while Muslims have to work, like being guards in Lashkar trenches,’ he said. But families are dwindling. ‘At first there were 500 Sikh families in Bara, now only 150,’ he said.

Scholars say only a true Islamic government, no one else, can collect jizya and on condition that those who pay feel safe, but Lashkar-e-Islam insisted the tax was proper payment for services rendered.

‘Women, children and the handicapped have been exempted,’ Misri Gul, a spokesman for the group, told AFP.

‘Jizya is according to sharia. We will provide them protection in exchange for this,’ he said.

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