by Asa Willoughby
The Pakistani flag consists of a green background with a crescent and star, both representative of Islam. Over 95% of Pakistanis are Muslim and of course Pakistan was founded as a homeland for the Muslims of north India, although whether it serves that purpose continues to be a topic of discussion. There is, however, also a white stripe on the flag, this represents the religious minorities of Pakistan, I suppose nowadays that is me.
I am of mixed English and Pakistani heritage, the Pakistani side being, for the most part, staunch Sunni Muslims and part of Pakistan’s majority Punjabi ethnic group. I however converted to Sikhism 10 years ago, back then I had no idea how much it would shape my experience as a Pakistani. I have always identified with Pakistan, always seen it as the motherland my mother left when she was 10 years old and the place my entire maternal family still call home. When I felt left out for not being white or English enough at school, the passed down memory and connection to Pakistan is where I found solace. I had never questioned that identity. We wore salwar kameez, we spoke Urdu (because Punjabi was apparently not refined enough, the language of dogs my native Punjabi-speaking grandfather called it), we greeted any Muslim we met with As-Salaamu-Alaikum regardless of our personal faith, we loved Noor Jehan. These were all just part and parcel of being Pakistani for me. This narrative and experience changed as soon as I fell in love with Sikhism and chose to make it the centre of my life.
Suddenly speaking Urdu was seen as a foreign tongue at the Gurdwara, wearing salwar instead of churidar was seen as feminine, I was told that Muslims were once our enemies and that speaking Urdu and wearing salwar were signs of Mughal imperialism. I was told not to celebrate Pakistani independence day on 14th August because it was the day we lost Punjab. When I came into a more religious and educated circle of Sikhs many of these prejudices were no longer present but then I learnt about Khalistan, how could I be both Pakistani and Khalistani? Am I being somehow hypocritical if I argue that Amritsar should belong to Khalistan and Lahore should remain with Pakistan?
The simple answer to all of this is that I am both. I am Pakistani and I am Sikh. This affirmation makes both parties uncomfortable. Being proudly Pakistani and sporting a dastar (Sikh turban) makes a lot of Pakistani Muslims uncomfortable, it is often felt that not being Muslim means I don’t deserve to claim Pakistan as my own. Being an Amridhari Singh (initiated Sikh male) and speaking Urdu instead of Punjabi, not unequivocally fighting for pre-1947 Punjab to be the borders of a modern Khalistan and choosing to continually wear my salwar kameez is somehow seen as heretical and as a lapse in my spiritual discipline.
I have always been perplexed by the Pakistani communities’ reaction to me, I am after all represented on the national flag. Last year I did an interview for BBC Asian Network in which I stated I was Pakistani, I remember several comments from confused viewers utterly perplexed at how I could be both Pakistani and Sikh, as if it was somehow an impossibility. I have spent years making the case for Pakistani Sikh identity, the fact that vast amounts of our religious history took place in what is now Pakistan, the fact that there are more historical Gurdwaras in Pakistan than in India and I could go on, but I believe the real issue is that for the vast majority of Pakistanis, the national culture and identity is Islam. In a lecture recently the teacher asked the class to name one thing that represented Pakistani culture to them, nearly all of them said Islam and I was faced with a shocked class when I stood up and proclaimed that Islam simply isn’t the only narrative in Pakistan and it isn’t the definition of Pakistani culture.
The truth is that scores of people chose to remain in their ancestral homes in Pakistan in 1947 and help build up the new nation, who weren’t Muslims. There were Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and for a while even Jews in Karachi. Our narratives deserve to be told too, we also deserve a place not only in the collective national memory but also in that of the diaspora. It seems to me unbelievably ignorant to challenge someone’s right to identify with the culture they grew up around, simply because their religion is not that of the majority. I would be a fool to try and separate Islam and Pakistan because they are intrinsically linked but that is something I can still be comfortable with as a non-Muslim. I can acknowledge the many benefits that our forefather’s faith in Islam brought for the country but that does not mean that my narrative is simply wiped away.
My Pakistani grandfather and I
I also strongly believe that the Muslim majority in Pakistan and the diaspora has a responsibility to recognise us, the minorities, as a part of the same nation. A video surfaced recently of Sikhs in Pakistan serving food for iftar for the Muslim community, which is great but anyone with the most basic knowledge of Sikhism knows this is langar and we serve it to all people all year round. However, what really irked me is that it was reported in such a way that the Sikhs were so highly praised because they were seen as outsiders serving the natives of the country. Not once were they referred to as Pakistani Sikhs but rather Sikhs in Pakistan, as if they are some kind of refugee who should be grateful for the chance to be in Pakistan. But that is not who we are and not who those in the video were. They were born in Pakistan post-1947, educated in Pakistan and are valid members of Pakistani society, they were in fact speaking perfect Urdu in the video not Punjabi.
I have learnt over time that my cultural identity will never be validated by those around me, it is a personal journey of understanding and acceptance. I will, however, always fight for this narrative to be heard. That, I, as a non-Muslim have every right to love and respect the nation of my forefathers as it stands today. I have every right to jump to its defence where due, to speak on behalf of the culture I know if asked. The acceptance of our narrative seems to me to be far in the distant future because the narrative of the majority is so ingrained, both in Pakistan and in the diaspora. I can recall having to fight for a vegetarian option at a Pakistani event I was co-organising because the other organisers could note comprehend that there would be any there who wasn’t a meat-eating Muslim. It tends to be assumed that because we are a minority that our contribution to the country has also been minute.
I believe that the majority groups in Pakistan and the diaspora also have a duty to speak out against the abuse of the blasphemy laws and the number of systematic killings of minorities in Pakistan. We are here to stay, our families fought for the freedom of this nation too, we also died in the struggle, we continue to walk along the streets of generations of our non-Muslim families. We face daily persecution as Sikhs, Hindus, Christians amongst others and yet we do not forsake our Pakistani identity. Every one of us had the chance to leave in 1947 but we chose to stay. Things are beginning to improve for minorities slowly. To speak specifically on behalf of the Sikh community, Hercharn Singh became the first Sikh in history to join the Pakistan army, Dr. Gulab Singh the first Sikh traffic Sub. Inspector, Amarjeet Singh of the Pakistan Rangers and Behram Singh of the Pakistan Coast Guard have also risen to prominence. Pakistani Sikhs are present in politics too, Ramesh Singh Arora became the first Sikh member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab after he was nominated by the Pakistan Muslim League, Dr. Suran Singh was nominated to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and earlier this year Sikhs in Pakistan won the right to their own marriage act. These stories and narratives are of just one minority group that call Pakistan home and their faith is no reason to erase their Pakistani identity.
Ramesh Singh Arora, Member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab
Major Hercharn Singh, the first Sikh officer to be commissioned in the Pakistan Army
I am and will always remain both Sikh and Pakistani. I am a physical representation of the white strip on our national flag. My narrative and that of all minorities in Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora cannot be erased.
Asa is studying BA South Asian Studies at SOAS, University of London. He is of mixed Pakistani and English heritage and is an Indian Classical Dancer.