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PESHAWAR: Sikhs in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have welcomed a recent court ruling allowing them to carry a ceremonial dagger known as a kirpan in an obligatory religious practice, but say the court does not use the object as a weapon should classify for which a license is required.
Wearing a kirpan is one of the five articles of faith in Sikhism, and the Sikh community has fought – both won and lost – legal battles around the world to get the item worn in public.
Last year Sikh social activist Gurpal Singh petitioned the Peshawar Supreme Court demanding that local Sikhs wear the sacred object in public, including in government offices and on public transport. The court granted the right this week, but ordered Sikhs to apply for renewable licenses for the kirpan and to pay fees.
“The reason I went to court was because of the deteriorating law and order in the province and a ban on us transporting kirpan to government offices and the city’s public transport system,” Singh told Arab News on Friday, saying, that the Sikh community would no longer have any problems with the kirpan when entering public places.
Pakistan is considered the birthplace of the Sikh religion. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born in 1469 in the small village of Nankana Sahib near the eastern city of Lahore. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh Empire, defeated the majority Pashtun tribesmen of the region at the Battle of Nowshera in 1823.
His Commander-in-Chief Hari Singh Nalwa then transferred thousands of Sikhs from Punjab to Peshawar and the surrounding area, to what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
Since then, the community estimates that at least 500 Sikh families have lived in Peshawar and the surrounding northwestern regions. In recent years, however, thousands of Sikhs have emigrated from the region to other parts of Pakistan or neighboring India for fear of militant attacks and an increase in targeted killings.
“People of our faith were attacked in Peshawar and I took the case to court to ensure they were protected,” said Singh. “They are all grateful to the Peshawar High Court for its verdict, although they are also injured as they need a license to use the kirpan, which has to be renewed regularly.”
Singh said he would now turn to all “relevant forums” and meet with parliamentarians to lobby for a license exemption for the kirpan.
The Pakistani government has made many commitments to safeguard the rights of minority communities while trying to develop religious tourism in the country. They jointly built a visa-free border crossing to India – the so-called Kartarpur Corridor – to make it easier for Sikh pilgrims from the neighboring country to access the final resting place of Guru Nanak. The corridor was inaugurated in 2019.
While violence against religious minorities, especially against Christian and Shiite Muslims, is a painfully well-known history in Pakistan, Sikhs have long been considered to be one of the best protected minorities in the country. In Peshawar they have lived peacefully with Muslims for more than 250 years, mostly working as traditional healers and running pharmacies, cosmetics and clothing stores.
But a spate of murders in recent years has raised concerns that Sikhs may be the newest target for militant groups in Pakistan, leaving parishioners uncertain about their future in the country.
Sikhs were not included in the 2017 census, and there are no hard numbers as to their numbers, but social workers estimate that more than 60 percent of the 30,000 Sikhs in Peshawar have emigrated to other parts of Pakistan or to neighboring India in the past six years are.
The religious group is also constantly fighting the Pakistani government for ownership of hundreds of their temples called Gurdwaras. An agreement signed between Pakistan and India after the partition of India in 1947 prohibits the sale of religious lands and temples. But community members complain that this rule has been violated.
Sikh temples and crematoriums were disposed of by the Evacuee Trust Property Board, a body responsible for the maintenance of property abandoned by people who traveled to India during the partition.
Speaking to Arab News, human rights activist Imran Takkar praised the court’s recent ruling on the kirpan, calling it “important for civil rights in the country.”
He said, “All citizens have the right to practice their belief. We should make it easy for the Sikh community to do this.
“Pakistan should follow the example of the US and European countries that allowed the Sikhs to wear the kirpan.”