From Kabul through Kashmir: Thoughts on Af-Pak-India and the Sikhs

taliban.jpgWith Obama’s move for a new strategy, recently, we have seen an avalanche of different articles from Af-Pak, the newly vogue name for the region. I will begin with some more macro-debates, before turning to the Sikh-specific.

An interesting analysis was recently featured in the London Review of Books, in an article titled Taliban versus Taliban. In the article, the Economist correspondent, Graham Usher, notes that Americans have a problem in understanding the complexities of the Taliban phenomenon because it means different things to different people at different times.

All politics is local and that is how the Taliban should be treated as well. Made up of diverse factions and groups with widely separate ideologies, we lump them under a specific tag – “Taliban.” While for the US, anyone that attacks them in Afghanistan is Taliban, for the Pakistani Army, their perspective is a bit different. The only issue that really matters is if the group works in Indias strategic interest. Thus there are ‘good’ elements and ‘bad’ elements:

The short answer is pro-India, in practice if not intent. Insurgents in the tribal areas are deemed anti-Pakistani if their actions advance the perceived goals of India in Afghanistan. They are pro-Pakistani as long as they dont attack the Pakistani state or army, even if they launch attacks against Nato forces in Afghanistan, Islamabads supposed allies in the war on terror. Indeed, the Afghan Taliban is considered an asset, a hedge against the day when the US and Nato leave, but also a counter to Indias expanding influence in Afghanistan.

While some Indians will decry this as nothing other than Pakistani paranoia with a knee-jerk India-phobia, handling (or mishandling in Pakistani eyes) by the Obama administration of this issue has only provoked Pakistani reactions.

Undeniably there has been a India-tilt in US foreign policy. Lured by Indias markets as well as the increasing power of the India Lobby (I have discussed it in detail earlier), the move is pronounced:

The Pakistan army believes India is responsible for the CIAs new belligerence. Some even believe India wants to create such turmoil in the tribal areas that Nato forces and the new Afghan army are compelled to invade, destroy the terrorist havens, and wrest back Pashtun lands claimed by Kabul. Others think that India wants to dismember Pakistan because of the danger it poses as the worlds only Muslim nuclear state. According to another source in the army, the Americans have decided India will be the regional power. And India thinks a fragmented Pakistan would reduce the threat level.

Obama after exertion from the India Lobby took off the issue of Kashmir off and in fact India in general from Richard Holbrookes brief as Obamas envoy to the region. However, for the Pakistani army, the issue of Kashmir remains central to India-Pak relations:

The process collapsed partly because of the political crisis that engulfed Musharraf after he sacked Pakistans chief justice in 2007. But it also fell apart because India did not reciprocate: military rule in Indian-occupied Kashmir remained as entrenched as ever. The armys recent experience with India is very bitter, a Pakistani analyst told me. After 2004 the army scaled down militant intrusions into Kashmir by 95 per cent. And Indias response was to refuse to talk about Kashmir.

While I, as a promoter of human rights, do not believe that India or Pakistan has the best interest of the Kashmiri people at heart (as I discussed last year, hopefully we can begin thinking of a true Azad Kashmir and ‘think the unthinkable’), for Americas own military goals to become similar to that of Pakistans it must move beyond the pressures of the India Lobby or the lure of markets to push for a resolution on this critical issue.

With recent articles about the appeal of hard-line interpretations of the Sharia in Punjab and tactical coalitions between Taliban groups and Punjabi groups, the situation in Pakistan may become bleak.

I dont think a lot of people understand the gravity of the issue, said a senior Punjab police official. If you want to destabilise Pakistan, you have to destabilise the Punjab. An NYT reporter claimed seeing abundant signs of creeping militancy in towns and villages around Dera Ghazi Khan. Some villages, the report said, were so deeply infiltrated by militants that they were already considered no-go zones.

“Traditional ceremonies that include drumming and dancing have been halted in some areas. Hard-line ideologues have addressed large crowds to push their idea of Islamic revolution. Sectarian attacks, dormant here since the 1990s, have erupted once again,” the report said. Tracing the genesis of the new alliance between Pushtun Taliban and Punjabi militants, the report said Punjabi militants, who once carried out Pakistan-sponsored militancy in Kashmir, went underground or migrated to the tribal areas when Gen Pervez Musharraf clamped on them under US pressure.[link]

A Punjabi wedding without the dhol? Seems almost hard to imagine.

One of my favorite Pakistani Punjabi bloggers believes that some of this doom-and-gloom reporting about Pakistan is exaggerated spin (another one of my favorite Middle East bloggers believes the same).

Now to a note on the issue of Sikhs in Afghanistan, while widely reported in the Indian media, but finding only one account in the Pakistani media, it seems:

The Sikh community living in Orakzai Agency on Wednesday conceded to Taliban demand to pay them jizia tax levied on non-Muslims living under Islamic rule and paid Rs 20 million to Taliban in return for protection.

Officials told Daily Times that the Taliban also released Sikh leader Sardar Saiwang Singh and vacated the communitys houses after the Sikhs accepted the Taliban demand.[link]

The Sikh community paid the extortion money (which is what it is for a rag-tag army) and it is abhorrent that other agencies could not protect such a small minority. Almost as abhorrent is that the Hindustan Times (seems almost as bad as the Times of India) start mentioning completely irrelevant details, trying to play up some imagined history of Sikh-Muslim antagonism. They write:

Sikhs living in Pakistans Orakzai Agency have reportedly paid Rs 20 million as jazia to the Taliban, a tax previously levied by Mughal rulers on non-Muslims to exempt them from military service and protect their person in the sub-continent.

The Mughal ruler, Akbar, abolished jazia on his subjects, which was re-imposed by Aurangzeb in the 17th century.[emphasis added][link]

I am some Sikhs that also seek to promote Sikh-Muslim antagonism will have no problem with this caricature, but for a journalist to make simplistic connections seems stupid. It was extortion money and it was wrong, no matter what the Taliban tries to call it. Responsible news agencies should do a little more than just parrot such stupidity. It also is a moment for us to reflect on the actions of another group of Taliban that had rescued two Sikhs last year and even hung their kidnappers.

There are no easy stories or “easy” answers.


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12 Responses to “From Kabul through Kashmir: Thoughts on Af-Pak-India and the Sikhs”

  1. xbat says:

    Face it. Jiziya is a tax levied on non Muslims in many Muslim country including Saudi Arabia. You can call those "extortion" too but thats what you Sikhs would have been paying regularly to the government had the Taliban in power. The Hindustan Times and Times of India werent trying to rain on your Sikh-Muslim love fest, they were just calling it for what it is.

  2. xbat says:

    Face it. Jiziya is a tax levied on non Muslims in many Muslim country including Saudi Arabia. You can call those “extortion” too but thats what you Sikhs would have been paying regularly to the government had the Taliban in power. The Hindustan Times and Times of India werent trying to rain on your Sikh-Muslim love fest, they were just calling it for what it is.

  3. Hari Singh says:

    Jodha,

    Why do seem to find a problem with Indian Media all the time?

    So now should we start making friendship with Taliban?

  4. Hari Singh says:

    Jodha,
    Why do seem to find a problem with Indian Media all the time?
    So now should we start making friendship with Taliban?

  5. Jodha says:

    xbat – Taxes by a state-authority may in fact be discriminatory. I don't know enough about the situation in Saudi Arabia, but that may or may not be the case. As far as the Hindustan Times and Times of India "calling it for what it is" – that would be the day.

    hari singh – I have a problem with simplistic media that attempts to distort in the skin of 'objective' news. No one is suggesting friendship with anyone. There are no monolithic "Taliban" just as there are no monolithic "Sikhs." If I was a Sikh in Afghanistan, I probably would not be friends with the elements that were extorting money from me, but I might be friends with different elements (also called Taliban) that did save my life from kidnappers (as I also linked in the story)

  6. Jodha says:

    xbat – Taxes by a state-authority may in fact be discriminatory. I don’t know enough about the situation in Saudi Arabia, but that may or may not be the case. As far as the Hindustan Times and Times of India “calling it for what it is” – that would be the day.

    hari singh – I have a problem with simplistic media that attempts to distort in the skin of ‘objective’ news. No one is suggesting friendship with anyone. There are no monolithic “Taliban” just as there are no monolithic “Sikhs.” If I was a Sikh in Afghanistan, I probably would not be friends with the elements that were extorting money from me, but I might be friends with different elements (also called Taliban) that did save my life from kidnappers (as I also linked in the story)

  7. Jaz Dosanjh says:

    Theres a massive Afghan Sikh community here in west London, originally from Kabul and Jalalabad. Talking to some of them, they tell me that the taliban were the best thing that ever happened to Afghanistan. They tell me the period of taliban rule in Afghanistan was the only period in living memory when a sikh businessman could go about his business without the fear of being murdered by armed robbers and thieves. They say the taliban brought law and order to an otherwise lawless land. They say life for sikhs in Afghanistan was a lot harder pre and post taliban rule.

    Also, I'm told, that contrary to media reports from that era, Sikhs were not ordered to wear yellow badges at all times. That rule was only for the hindus.

    As for this current situation regarding Sikhs in the Swat valley Orakzai Agency area of Pakistan…we need to read up a little on Sikh history before making judgments. The fact is that after 1947 something like 99% of Pakistani Sikhs have lived in those remote mountain tribal areas where the Pakistani government has little or no control. The reason they live in those areas is because at the time when the plains of Punjab were being consumed with bloody madness in 1947, it was the tribal hill chiefs of the north west frontier province and Swat valley that gave Sikhs refuge. In exchange, the sikhs paid the tribal elders a jizia tax. This 'news' of today is no news at all. Its been going on for 60 years and its been working very well.

  8. Jodha says:

    Jaz,

    Thanks for the additional information. You paint a much more realistic story and show the real gray behind the too-often black-white headlines.

  9. Jaz Dosanjh says:

    Theres a massive Afghan Sikh community here in west London, originally from Kabul and Jalalabad. Talking to some of them, they tell me that the taliban were the best thing that ever happened to Afghanistan. They tell me the period of taliban rule in Afghanistan was the only period in living memory when a sikh businessman could go about his business without the fear of being murdered by armed robbers and thieves. They say the taliban brought law and order to an otherwise lawless land. They say life for sikhs in Afghanistan was a lot harder pre and post taliban rule.
    Also, I’m told, that contrary to media reports from that era, Sikhs were not ordered to wear yellow badges at all times. That rule was only for the hindus.

    As for this current situation regarding Sikhs in the Swat valley Orakzai Agency area of Pakistan…we need to read up a little on Sikh history before making judgments. The fact is that after 1947 something like 99% of Pakistani Sikhs have lived in those remote mountain tribal areas where the Pakistani government has little or no control. The reason they live in those areas is because at the time when the plains of Punjab were being consumed with bloody madness in 1947, it was the tribal hill chiefs of the north west frontier province and Swat valley that gave Sikhs refuge. In exchange, the sikhs paid the tribal elders a jizia tax. This ‘news’ of today is no news at all. Its been going on for 60 years and its been working very well.

  10. Jodha says:

    Jaz,

    Thanks for the additional information. You paint a much more realistic story and show the real gray behind the too-often black-white headlines.

  11. seek says:

    I have met sikhs in afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly NWFP tribal areas since 2002 and they have been consistent in their 'praise' of the Taliban. Most of the Sikhs in Pakistan do appear to have spent a lot of time in the tribal areas, mainly Orakzai and Khyber Agencys, and speak fluent Pashto, as well as share the fair-skinned light-eyed characteristics of their Muslim brothers. Many Sikhs have taken up their tribal names as a surname and so you have Swaran Simgh Afridi, or Shaam Singh Mehsud. At Nanakana Sahib in Lahore there is a resident blue-eyed grey-bearded old man known inevitably as Baba. When I visited the temple last year with some friends from the tribal areas he instantly recognised that they were Afridi and began telling us in Pashto how he was born and raised in Orakzai and indeed had taken the name. Look out for him….

  12. seek says:

    I have met sikhs in afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly NWFP tribal areas since 2002 and they have been consistent in their ‘praise’ of the Taliban. Most of the Sikhs in Pakistan do appear to have spent a lot of time in the tribal areas, mainly Orakzai and Khyber Agencys, and speak fluent Pashto, as well as share the fair-skinned light-eyed characteristics of their Muslim brothers. Many Sikhs have taken up their tribal names as a surname and so you have Swaran Simgh Afridi, or Shaam Singh Mehsud. At Nanakana Sahib in Lahore there is a resident blue-eyed grey-bearded old man known inevitably as Baba. When I visited the temple last year with some friends from the tribal areas he instantly recognised that they were Afridi and began telling us in Pashto how he was born and raised in Orakzai and indeed had taken the name. Look out for him….