Sameer Warriach, my friend and travel companion, stood next to the wall of the school and helped me park while Charanjit Singh, our host in Peshawar, spoke to the school’s security guard in Pashtu. It seemed like the language had wiped out the religious differences between them – above all else, they were two Pashtuns from the same city. Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan’s timeless words resonated in my head: “I have been a Pashtun for 6,000 years, a Muslim for 1,300 years and a Pakistani for 25 years.”

The security guard clasped a machine gun, symbolic of the threat to everyday life in this region. In 2014, Army Public School in Peshawar was attacked by militants and 144 people, mostly children, were killed in the massacre. A year later, 20 people died at Bacha Khan University in the neighbouring region of Charsadda in a similar attack.

The Government Girls School we visited was located within the historical walled city. Despite traces of neglect, there were sights to behold. Traditional wooden balconies jutted out onto the street, providing shade to the serpentine narrow streets below. Occasionally, one would drive past the remains of a splendid historical haveli.

Peshawar is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Its earliest references are found in ancient Zoroastrian sources. It was a prominent city, overshadowing at its zenith the splendour of Taxila. Peshawar is also mentioned in Vedic literature, leading historians and archaeologists to trace its history to the 6th century BCE. It was called Purusapura – the city of men – a characteristic that it still retains. There are hardly any women visible on the street and even they are clad in an all-covering burqa.

Walled city

On my last visit to Peshawar, a week before the bomb blast at the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in September 2013 that killed more than 40 people, I had walked the streets of this historical area, where storytellers from all over the world once gathered around a fire, sipping qawa and exchanging stories. At the end of this long bazaar is the heritage site of Ghor Khatri, where some of the oldest archaeological ruins of the city lie. There is a Goraknath Temple here dedicated to the legendary leader of Jogi sect, also revered in the Muslim Sufi tradition because of his association with Ranjha.

Some believe that this temple used to be a Buddhist shrine earlier. At the time of Partition, this temple was abandoned before being shut down. But in 2011, following a special order by the Peshawar High Court the temple was opened to the sizeable Hindu population of the city, about 1,300 families.

The famous haveli of General Avitabile is located within this complex. He remained the governor of Peshawar from 1838 to 1842 on behalf of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, replacing the legendary Hari Singh Nalwa. Any mention of contemporary history of Peshawar is incomplete without the mention of Hari Singh Nalwa, the general from Gujranwala, who expanded the borders of the Sikh Empire beyond the Indus, the unofficial boundary of India.

Historians have pointed out that it was owing to Hari Singh Nalwa’s westward expansion that Peshawar and the current region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa became part of Pakistan. The Sikh Empire, which included Peshawar and this region, was bequeathed to the British, who then handed it down to Pakistan. About 20-km from Peshawar is the fort of Jamrud, marked as the western boundary of Ranjit Singh’s influence. Today it marks the border between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Sikh presence

Even though Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, walked through this region during his 30 years of pilgrimage from one religious site to another, it was through the influence of Hari Singh Nalwa that Sikhism spread through this region. Today, there is a prominent Sikh population in the city of Peshawar – about 550 houses, the most in any Pakistani city.

Over the past few years, Sikhs from Peshawar and the adjoining areas have moved to Punjab – Nankana Sahib, Hassan Abdal and Lahore. An overwhelming majority of the Sikhs in Pakistan are Pashtuns.

During Partition, while Punjab saw the worst of the massacres resulting in the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs, the situation was much better in the areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa owing to the influence of Badshah Khan and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

Founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek, Badshah Khan allied with the Indian National Congress and was opposed to the partitioning of British India. Instead of religious identity, his movement was premised on Pashtun nationalism and was widely popular. Because of his opposition to the creation of Pakistan, he was portrayed as a traitor and was incarcerated for several years after 1947.

When his son Wali Khan uttered the lines mentioned earlier, they were portrayed as further proof of the family’s disloyalty. Because of their emphasis on Pashtun nationalism, which also incorporated Pashtun Hindus and Sikhs, the religious minorities of this area were protected at the time of Partition.

Once in Peshawar, the new community converged towards the existing Sikh community in the city, which was based around the historical Sikh gurdwara of Bhai Joga Singh. Bhai Joga Singh was a devotee of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. He was from Peshawar. Sikh records mention that to test his devotion, the Guru asked him to report immediately to Anandpur Sahib. Joga Singh received the message in the middle of his nuptial rites. He left the marriage ceremony at once and headed east towards his Guru.

A new community

While the rest of the country continued picturing the tribal areas as the Wild West, manned by religious fanatics, Sikh and Hindu minorities continued thriving there after the creation of Pakistan and engaged in business and trading activities. This is in contrast to what happened in the more “civilised” areas of Punjab and Sindh, where rioting and massacres resulted in the eventual migration to India of those who stayed back. There were a few isolated incidents in the tribal areas during the wars of 1965 and 1971 against religious minorities. But for the most part, things remained peaceful until the rise of the Taliban.

Once in power, the Taliban started asking for jizya (protection money) and members of the community were beheaded when they failed to provide it. In a couple of years, an overwhelming number of people from the tribal areas moved to the settled region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, with Peshawar emerging as their regional capital.

Charanjit Singh, our guide, walked hurriedly in front of us while my friend Sameer and I walked leisurely behind him, stopping to photograph old buildings. He greeted his Muslim neighbours as he walked these familiar streets where he had spent almost 20 years of his life after his father moved here from the Kurram Tribal Agency.

Perched atop a high-rise residential building was a plaque that read “Mohalla Joga Shah”. This is where the majority of Sikhs in the city reside. Charanjit stopped in front of another building and told us that it was a school run by the Sikh community to teach their religion to young children. Sri Guru Angad Devji Khalsa Dharmik School Pesh was the name of the school. The reference to the second Sikh Guru, Guru Angad Dev, is significant because there is a segment of the Sikh community here that claims to be the descendants of Guru Angad Dev.

A police official was posted at the entrance to this historical gurdwara, while a few Sikh men stood in front of this tall building. From the outside, most of the building’s original structure seemed to be preserved. However, renovation had completely removed all traces of historical artwork inside the building.

“Even though the gurdwara comes under the Auqaf department, it is the community that gathers money to renovate this shrine,” said Charanjit Singh.

The Auqaf department is a government organisation that was founded in the 1960s to preserve the abandoned properties of Hindus and Sikhs all over the country. The department has become a hub of corruption as lucrative properties of gurdwaras and temples are sold or leased out at throwaway prices. A few years ago, the chairman of the department, Asif Hashmi, was accused of illegally selling property of a gurdwara in Lahore to the private residential housing schemes. A couple of weeks ago, Hashmi was arrested for embezzlement during his stint as the Auqaf head.

“It was the Sikh community of Peshawar that was responsible for the renovation of the Gurdwara Bhai Biba Singh,” said Charanjit Singh as we headed out of the gurdwara. There was a vacant plot next to the gurdwara with a traditional wooden door. “I have no doubt that this building too was part of this Gurdwara Joga Singh. We have requested the Auqaf department to hand over this property to us so that we can renovate it and make it part of the Gurdwara.”

Rightful owners

It was during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that major renovation of historic gurdwaras across the Punjab was undertaken. Massive properties, too, were allotted to these gurdwaras, so that they could become self-sufficient through the resources thus generated. It is this property now that the Auqaf department controls and reaps benefits from.

The two gurdwaras in Peshawar as well were renovated at that time under the supervision of Hari Singh Nalwa. At the time of Partition, both these gurdwaras were abandoned. But over the years, as Sikhs from the tribal communities started moving to Peshawar, one of them, Gurdwara Joga Singh, was handed over to them. The other gurdwara, however, remained abandoned.

Last month, after almost seven decades, the gurdwara of Bhai Biba Singh was handed over to the Sikh community. The event was widely covered in the international press, with the Pakistani government and the Auqaf department quick to earn some brownie points. For the past couple of years, the state has been desperate to recast itself as a progressive tolerant society, contrary to the perception it enjoys globally. The renovation and the opening of this gurdwara was moulded in that framework.

“The department was reluctant to hand over this property to us,” said Bhai Gurpal Singh, 23, as we sit in the courtyard of Gurdwara Bhai Biba Singh. He uses the title “Bhai” because he believes that his family descended from Guru Angad Dev. Behind him, other Sikh men are busy preparing langaar, an essential feature of a functional Gurdwara. Women were conspicuous by their absence. There was no gas connection for the gurdwara yet, so the food was being prepared on gas cylinders. Despite all odds, it seemed as if the Sikh community was desperate to keep this gurdwara functional.

Histories converge

“We have been demanding the handing over of this gurdwara for almost seven years,” said Bhai Gurpal Singh. “All this time the government tiptoed around the issue. But we kept at it and finally were able to wrest this gurdwara from their control. The government says it has spent money on the renovation of this gurdwara. All of that is a lie. It is the Sikh community of Peshawar, most of whom are traders and well-to-do financially, which contributed to the renovation of this gurdwara.”

He said that Muhammad Siddiqul Farooq, the current chairman of the Auqaf department, had visited the gurdwara on its inauguration day and had announced Rs 5 lakh for constructing bathrooms here. “We won’t even be able to make one bathroom with that money,” said Bhai Gurpal Singh.

Behind Gurpal Singh is another part of the gurdwara in a dilapidated state. “That is controversial property,” said an official of the Auqaf department deputed at this gurdwara. Later, when he goes away, Gurpal Singh clarifies that the department is now reluctant to hand over that part of the property, which is why the official declared it to be “controversial” property.

“It is part of the gurdwara but they do not want to acknowledge it,” he said. “The samadh [tomb] of Bhai Biba Singh used to be there. We don’t know much about him, only that he was a devotee of Guru Gobind Singh. Once the Guru asked him to travel to Anandpur leaving everything aside and he followed his orders.”

It appears as if Gurpal Singh has confused the story of Bhai Biba Singh with that of Joga Singh. Back in Islamabad, I approach Iqbal Qaiser, the author of Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan. “The gurdwara of Bhai Biba Singh is not associated with any particular historical event,” he said. “It was a gurdwara constructed by the Sikh community for their needs.”

Threads of history

On the way out of the city we pass a massive fort in the middle. This is the Bala Hisar Fort, constructed by the Mughal Emperor Babur as he descended from Kabul eyeing India as his prize. Strategically located, it was later renovated by Hari Singh Nalwa. It was at this fort that this famous Sikh general was betrayed and killed by Gulab Singh Dogra, who was infamously awarded Kashmir for his services to the British and for his betrayal of the Sikhs. Bala Hisar Fort is currently under the control of the paramilitary forces of Frontier Constabulary. It faces westward in the direction of the tribal areas, from where a new threat to the city and the country emerges. The fort represents a city and a country under siege. Lying in the middle of the city, it is also symbolic of the hold that the military establishment has on the politics of the country.

Driving next to that fort, I could not help but wonder how the different threads of history come together here. It was here that the seeds of the Kashmir issue were sown when Gulab Singh Dogra killed Hari Singh Nalwa. It was to gain strategic leverage in Afghanistan that could be later used in Kashmir that the military establishment of Pakistan supported the Taliban all these years, the same Taliban who now represent an existential threat to the country.

Caught up in the middle of these forces is the Sikh minority of Peshawar, fighting for their existence and striving to carve out a space for themselves in the landscape of this city. They are the descendants of Hari Singh Nalwa, because of whom today's Pakistan has Peshawar.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.