A few years ago I met Boota Singh, sewadar at Gurdwara Sacha Sauda in Chuhrkhana, now called Farooqabad. The shrine marks the spot where a young Guru Nanak is said to have fed starving ascetics, buying food with the money his father had given him to do business. Nanak described his act as “sacha sauda” or true trade, hence the name.

As we spoke, Boota Singh kept referring to a dilapidated gurdwara at a village called Nainakot, around 40 km from Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib near the border with India. The Nainakot gurdwara, he said, was associated with a descendant of Baba Budha Singh, the legendary Nanak devotee who had the unique honor of serving five Sikh Gurus.

Boota Singh belonged to a small community of Punjabi Sikhs who stayed in Pakistan after the Partition – most of the nation’s Sikhs are of Pakhtun descent – and his family came from Nainakot.

“My grandfather had good ties with everyone living around us,” Boota Singh said, explaining why they stayed put. “His Muslim friends did not allow him to leave. They told him they would protect him and they did.”

In 1965, when Pakistan and India went to war, a Muslim family from another village made an attempt on the Sikh family’s property. Boota Singh’s grandfather went to the Martial Law Administrator in Faisalabad who sent an army officer with him. The officer not only got him his land back but told the village to protect the family at all costs.

Many Sikh families weren’t as lucky. Nankana Sahib, for example, is now home to several Sikh families that were driven to the city from the Tribal Areas during the wars of 1965 and 1971. As the war caused an outpouring of jingoism, Sikhs who had lived peacefully with their Muslim neighbours for ages were suddenly branded as representatives of the “enemy” India. Their loyalty to their nation was doubted because of their religious faith.

Protestors shout slogans after violence broke out in Jammu following the Pulwama attack. Photo credit: Reuters
Protestors shout slogans after violence broke out in Jammu following the Pulwama attack. Photo credit: Reuters

Chauvinistic nationalism

It was no better for the Hindu community. In Lahore I once interviewed a woman whose father was among the few privileged Hindus to stay back in 1947. He was taken away during both the 1965 and 1971 wars, she recalled, and kept in the Lahore Fort “for his own safety”. Being a prominent Hindu in the city, there was a danger he or his family would be attacked.

In the early 1990s, as Hindu nationalism swept through India, resulting in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, its repercussions were felt on this side of the border. Many Hindu temples and a few Jain shrines – most of them long abandoned – were attacked by Muslim fanatics who wanted to avenge “the dishonor of Ayodhya”.

Bhagat Lal Khokhar, priest of the Valmiki Neela Gumbad Mandir, one of the only two functional Hindu temples in Lahore, recalled watching a mob enter the shrine’s courtyard on December 7, 1992, destroying old idols and stealing from the kitchen before burning it all down. The priest, fearing for his life, had to go into hiding.

In Multan, I met a classical singer in her mid-40s who would regularly feature on local radio and television stations. She was perhaps the only well-known Hindu in the city which is why when a mob attacked her neighbourhood, populated predominantly by Hindus and Christians, they specifically searched for her, with a canister of petrol in hand. “They wanted to burn me,” she recalled. She managed to escape, however.

Pakistan’s Christian community has been similarly targeted. On September 21, 2012, a historical Church in Mardan was burned down to “avenge” the production of a blasphemous film written by an American.

Such mindless violence is engendered by the constant “otherisation” which plagues not just Pakistan but also India. Across the border, it is currently manifesting as attacks and discrimination against ordinary Kashmiris in the wake of the Pulwama attack. It flows out of the same narrative of doubting the patriotism of the minorities, of seeing them only in the context of the “enemy country”. It is not the loyalty of the minorities that is the problem, though, but chauvinistic nationalism whose essence is hatred of the “other”. Yet, it appears to be growing only stronger in South Asia, threatening the safety of millions of people apparently caught on the “wrong side” of the border.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.

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