“I don’t know if it’s a customer or an assailant who will reach out for his gun,” Amarjeet, a member of Pakistan’s tiny Sikh minority, told Reuters.
Easily recognized because of their colorful turbans, members of Pakistan’s Sikh community say they have been singled out and attacked increasingly in the South Asian nation where radical Islamist militants see them as infidels.
Their plight highlights a growing atmosphere of intolerance in a country long plagued by sectarian violence. Like Shi’ite Muslims, Christians and other minorities, Sikhs live in a paranoid and hostile world where every stranger is assumed to be an attacker.
Many Sikhs see Pakistan as the place where their religion began: the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 in a small village near the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
Wearing a large pink turban and sitting cross-legged in his shop, Amarjeet, 40, said the community was so afraid that most people stopped showing up for prayers in the traditional Sikh place of worship – the Gurdwara, or the gateway to the guru.
“I have run this business for last 22 years. Never in my life have I experienced such insecurity,” he said. “Around 60 percent of our shops are closed due to security concerns. Many parents are not sending their children to schools.”
Last month, Harjeet Singh, another Sikh shopkeeper, was shot dead at his herbal medicine shop in Peshawar, near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan which is home to most of the country’s 40,000 strong Sikh community.
Peshawar, a sprawling and chaotic city of 3.8 million lies in a conservative region awash with radical Islamist ideology. Pamphlets praising Islamic State, a group fighting to set up a global Islamic caliphate, have recently appeared.
According to police, at least eight Sikhs have been killed in the past year and a half – the first ever recorded sectarian killings of Sikhs in Pakistani history.
Sikhs have a long and colorful history in Pakistan. Originally persecuted by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century, they fled to the remote mountains on what is now the Pakistan-Afghan border and settled among Pashtun tribes.
Sikhs have praised their Pashtun hosts for allowing them to hide in their lands thanks to the tribal principle of sanctuary but growing instability in the region has changed the picture.
At least 500 Sikh families have recently migrated to Peshawar due to a military operation against Taliban militants in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.
“They were forced to leave their established businesses … They were also doing well in Peshawar until the latest wave of attacks,” said Haroon Sarab Diyal, chairman of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement, a group advocating Hindu and Sikh rights.
“Sikh are not sending their children to schools, especially boys who stand out due to their head dress.”
A multi-story shopping mall in Peshawar, Orakzai Plaza, where Sikhs own a range of shops, stands abandoned after Sikhs closed their businesses for security reasons.
Senior police officer Najeeb-ur-Rehman said police were regularly patrolling Sikh areas and were deployed at the main temple, its facade, painted in a light golden color, shining gently in the sun above a narrow maze of dusty alleys.
“Pakistan is land of the pure for us, it is the birth place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. It’s our mother land, we love this soil. Why are we being targeted here?” asked Sardar Charanjit Singh, a Sikh elder.
“People are very frightened, it’s a time of sorrow for us.”