A bizarre religious conflict has erupted in a Pakistani town -- and it doesn't even involve Muslims, the overwhelming majority in Pakistan.
In the city of Shikarpur in Sindh province, a controversy over the alleged desecration of a holy book broke out between a group of Sikhs and Hindus, each of whom form a tiny minority of Pakistan’s total population.
According to a report in Dawn, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan, Sikh students shared on Facebook photographs depicting the head of the local Hindu temple holding the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) bare-handed; other pictures showed him scrawling Hindu signs and symbols –- including a portrait of the elephant deity Ganesh -- on the book.
The spread of the offending images created a fury among the Sikh community (who apparently are outnumbered by Hindus in the town), leading to an intervention by the chairman of the Pakistan Sikh Council, Sardar Ramesh Singh, who came to Shikarpur to sort things out.
Some Sikhs have also reported being threatened by local Hindus.
“Young men were ready to fight and kill each other if we hadn’t reacted in time,” Singh told Dawn by phone.
The imbroglio was resolved when the local Hindu leader, Swami Narayan Bhajan, apologized to Sikh community leaders, and emphasized that he did not intend to offend them.
Tara Singh, chief of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdhwara Prabandhak (Temple Managing) Committee, said he wants Sikhs and Hindus to get along peacefully.
“We don’t want the situation to get out of hand. And believe in forgive and forget,” he added.
Sikhs and Hindus are both besieged minorities in Pakistan, a country that was artificially created in 1947 by the partition of what had been British India. Designed as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan’s formation sparked the greatest forced mass migration in human history – millions of panicked Sikhs and Hindus fled eastward to the new republic of India, while millions of Muslims went west into the new nation of Pakistan.
In the ensuing chaos, untold millions of people were killed or wounded or lost homes and property.
More than 65 years after those cataclysmic events, India and Pakistan remain enemies, while the descendants of Hindus and Sikhs trapped in Pakistan try to make the best of a unpleasant situation.
According to data from the U.S. State Department, 96 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim and only 2 percent are Hindus. Sikhs are believed to account for less than 1 percent.
For example, the News International newspaper of Pakistan reported last month that Pakistani law still does not recognize Hindu or Sikh marriages, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and accusations of adultery by the police.
According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Hindu girls have suffered a wave of kidnappings and forced conversion to Islam in recent years.
Threatened by Muslim extremists, Hindus and Sikhs, as well as Christians in Pakistan, have little recourse to fight back and seek justice.
The Hindu American Foundation complained that Pakistani Hindus face “discrimination and widespread violence, including attacks on temples, kidnappings for ransom and the abduction of Hindu girls. The abject failure of government authorities and law enforcement to protect them has led large numbers of Hindus to seek refuge in India.”
As for Pakistan’s tiny Sikh community, fears intensified late last year when two Sikhs were kidnapped in the lawless Khyber Pass tribal region – one was found beheaded and mutilated, the other, a woman, also murdered.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.