I met Charanjeet Singh just once, in April of 2016. He was shot dead on May 29 this year by unknown assailants in Peshawar, a city that had been his home for the better part of his life. His family had moved there from Kurram agency, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

At the time we met, it was being widely reported in the media that a gurdwara in Peshawar that had been abandoned during Partition had been renovated by the government and handed over to the local Sikh community. Charanjeet Singh was a prominent activist in the city and had lobbied for years for the historical Gurdwara Bhai Biba Singh to be handed over to the Sikhs. For a community that had grown from negligible numbers to become several thousands-strong in just a few years, there had been only one functional gurdwara in Peshawar.

As we walked the narrow alleys of the city, Charanjeet Singh, in a blue turban and white kurta shalwar, pointed out important monuments. “This is Mohalla Joga Shah. The majority of Sikhs in Peshawar live here,” he said. “This is Sri Guru Angad Devji Khalsa Dharmik School Pesh. Here, young Sikh children are taught the basic precepts of Sikhism.”

Langar preparations underway at the renovated Gurdwara Bhai Biba Singh in Peshawar in 2016. (Credit: Haroon Khalid)

While he spoke to me in Urdu, Pashtu was his primary language. On our short walk, he greeted several residents, non-Sikhs, as their attire signified. He seemed to be well-integrated in the local community. Just a few days before he was killed, Singh and other community leaders had organised an Iftar for members of the Muslim community in the city to break their Ramzan fast. The event was widely covered by the media and projected as a symbol of inter-faith harmony.

But despite its inter-faith overtones, the act itself reflected a power dynamic. It is usually the religious minorities who are expected to make such displays of harmony. In 2011, I had attended an Iftar at a Hindu temple in Lahore. If the Muslim majority were to organise similar events on Sikh or Hindu festivals, that would have greater symbolic significance.

However, regardless of the power dynamics, the act itself cannot be easily dismissed. It does represent strong community ties despite different religions. While the fasting Muslims sat on the mats, the Sikhs served them food. This in a society where untouchability is still practised and many Muslims refuse to share utensils with non-Muslims. At Nankana Sahib, I came across a few restaurants that had separate utensils for Sikhs.

A Sikh businessman in Peshawar distributes sweet drinks during Ramzan. In Pakistan, it is usually the religious minorities who are expected to make such displays of inter-faith harmony. (Photo credit: Akss Ali Khan / via Facebook)

Image makeover

Having walked us to the Gurdwara Bhai Biba Singh, Charanjeet Singh told me it was not the government that had renovated it but rather the community itself, whose members are largely well-to-do with their self-owned businesses. This was not the narrative the government had promoted.

According to that narrative, at around the same time the gurdwara in Peshawar was renovated, two others in Nankana Sahib, which is said to be the birthplace of Guru Nanak, were handed over to the local community while the historical well at Kartarpur Sahib, the guru’s final resting place, was also renovated. In addition, the Pakistan government gave permission for the export of water from this well, believed to have been used by the founder of Sikhism himself. There is now a plan to set up a Guru Nanak University at Nankana Sahib. A few months ago, the government of Punjab signed a contract with the World Bank and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation or Unesco for the renovation of several historical sites around Punjab, many of which are Sikh.

These are the popular stories that have found a place in the mainstream. But during my travels across the country, I came across several lesser known historical gurdwaras renovated by the government. Tibba Nanaksar in Pakpattan, Nanak’s gurdwara in the village of Tibba Haji Deen, and Gurdwara Ber Sahib in Sialkot are some of the shrines that have been renovated in the past 10 years to 15 years. Through their stories, it is clear that the government is aware of the tourism potential of these sites. And that this would help the country’s soft image.

The promotion of a few prominent Sikhs and their achievements in the past few years has also gone towards strengthening this image. Major Harcharan Singh is the first Sikh officer in the Pakistan Army. Amarjeet Singh, a resident of Nankana Sahib, is a member of the Pakistan Rangers and is often sighted at the beating retreat ceremony with Indian soldiers at the Wagah border. There are several others – Dr Mimpal Singh, the first Sikh doctor in Pakistan; Kalyan Singh, the country’s first Sikh PhD scholar. Days before Charanjeet Singh was killed, news of Manmeet Kaur becoming the first Sikh woman to appear as a news reporter on a private television channel was doing the rounds.

This is a powerful narrative, of the Sikh community asserting itself and the government of Pakistan renovating Sikh shrines. But it has been dealt a blow by Charanjeet Singh’s murder. A prominent Sikh activist who worked tirelessly for inter-faith harmony was killed in broad daylight in the city he called home. This has highlighted once again the deep-seated structural biases that religious minorities continue to face in this country. It challenges the government’s narrative of promoting Sikhs and Sikhism. It, therefore, becomes imperative for the government to find Singh’s killers and bring them to justice. This cannot be treated as just another target-killing. This murder has shaken the foundation of the government’s narrative and it needs to deal with it urgently, for not many would accept its projection of a soft image if people like Charanjeet Singh continue to be targeted and killed.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail