On March 29, 2011, a day before the keenly anticipated World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan – arch rivals both on and off the field – I visited the Gurudwara Dera Sahib in Lahore. This small place of worship is said to have been constructed at the spot where Guru Arjun, the fifth guru, or spiritual master, of Sikhism, died after being tortured for days by Mughal emperor Jahangir and his men.
The gurudwara represents the brutal religious antagonism that has plagued the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Before he disappeared after taking a dip in the Ravi river, where he is believed to have been martyred, the guru was made to suffer – he was starved, scalded and suffocated – on the orders of Jahangir. The emperor, in his diary, said that Guru Arjun, in his “garments of saint-hood and sanctity…had captivated many of the simple-hearted of the Hindus” and called his religious beliefs, which were eventually codified into the Sikh religion, a shop that had been kept warm for four generations.
The assassination of Guru Arjun marks the beginning of a bloody relationship between the Mughals and the Sikhs, which resulted in several battles, the imprisonment of Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru, and the assassination of the ninth guru, Tegh Bahadur.
Closer to Partition, when India was to be divided along religious lines, many Muslims starting looking at Mughals as their own, a trend that continues till this day, while Sikhs had an in-built anti-Mughal sentiment, seemingly embedded in their DNA.
These historical hostilities again came to the forefront at the time of Partition. While a majority of Sikhs migrated to India, some stayed back in Pakistan, to which they have strong historical links. Lahore was the capital of the Sikh Empire established by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, while the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak, is believed to have been born in the country.
A positive side
However this gurudwara, also has a second, contrasting history, one that represents religious syncretism – something that got lost at the time of Partition and in the subsequent journey of the two nascent countries. This is the story of Mian Mir, the Muslim saint from Lahore. It is widely believed that Guru Arjan had invited Mian Mir to lay the foundation stone of the Harmandir Sahed, Sikkhism’s holiest shrine in the Golden Temple complex. Mian Mir, in turn, is said to have asked for Guru Arjan’s permission to punish the Mughal authorities who had tortured the Sikh master.
This story is as sidelined in the pure Muslim Pakistan – the name of the country translates to “land of the pure” – of today as the gurudwara, which stands in the shadows of the iconic Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, across which it is located.
Every day, as hundreds of tourists visit the fort and the mosque in Walled City of Lahore, they peep through the gate of the gurudwara to see what is inside.
Signs of rupture
Traditionally, gurudwaras have four entrances, each for separate religions, which symbolise that everyone is welcome here. It is believed that Bulleh Shah, the mystic poet from Kasur in Pakistan, once sought refuge in a gurudwara when he was being chased by his fellow Muslims, perhaps for offending their religiosity, as he often did.
Today, no Muslim is allowed inside the Gurudwara Dera Sahib, or any other gurudwara in the country, pointing to how different a time and reality this is.
I was let into the gurudwara on that day in 2011 as I was visiting for a story on Sikhs in Pakistan. I saw the news team from a prominent TV channel interviewing Sikhs about their sentiments on the India-Pakistan match the next day.
Later in the day, perhaps as a spectacle, or on being prompted to, some Sikhs performed a ritual prayer at the gurudwara for Pakistan’s victory. Similar prayers at other Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras were telecast on Pakistani news channels and covered by the print media.
It is in this context that I read the recent news in a local newspaper about Sikhs, Hindus and Christians in Pakistan protesting the atrocities in Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Pakistan remarks and India’s attempts to rake up the Balochistan issue.
The idea here is not to undermine their political expression. It is safe to say that religious minorities of the country, particularly Hindus and Sikhs, have in recent years found a voice they had lost at the time of Partition. However while witnessing such displays of loyalty to the country, one cannot hide under the carpet decades of questioned patriotism and perceived Indian sympathy.
Past and present
Nankana Sahib, the city where Guru Nanak was born, about 100 km from Lahore, now hosts a considerable population of Sikhs. Many families here reiterate how their loyalties towards Pakistan were questioned at the time of the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan. The first few Sikh families migrating to Nankana Saheb were those who were escaping the wrath of such nationalist vigilantes who believed they could gauge the nationalistic affiliation of people based on their religious identity.
In Lahore, I interviewed the daughter of an affluent Hindu man who chose to stay back in his ancestral city even after the division of India and the creation of Pakistan. She told me that during the ’65 war, her father had been taken away by state authorities and hidden in the dungeons of Lahore Fort for his safety because of the heightened anti-India sentiment in the country – which often translates into anti-Hindu sentiment.
A similar craze took over the country in 1992, after the demolition of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in the neighbouring country, when hundreds of abandoned and some functional Hindu temples were attacked by mobs seeking revenge. In Multan, I interviewed a singer trained in Hindustani classical music who narrowly escaped the wrath of a mob who wanted to set her on fire to avenge the desecration of Babri Mosque.
On September 21, 2012, a mob burned down a historical church in Mardan, about 60 kilometers from the city of Peshawar, to avenge the controversial movie Innocence of Muslims, produced by an American writer, which was considered blasphemous.
It is no surprise then that non-Muslims in Pakistan, living in the shadows of questioned loyalty, have to be proactive in exhibiting their nationalism. In September 2010, the Christian community of Lahore was one of the first groups to protest against Terry Jones, a pastor from Florida, who had announced that he would burn the Holy Quran.
Though not as extreme, reports of Hindus and Sikhs praying for the success of the Pakistan cricket team against India fall under the same framework of questioned loyalty as attacks against non-Muslims in Pakistan.
It, therefore, makes sense that the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians came out to protest against Modi last week, given the heightened anti-India sentiment in the country. It could almost be read as a pre-emptive effort, an overdrive exhibition of their nationalism in a society that has always doubted it.
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