Lawmakers and officials have joined relatives in denouncing a controversial former Sikh lawmaker in Pakistan for seeking asylum in neighboring India after he accused the Muslim-majority country of mistreating its non-Muslim minorities.
Earlier this week Baldev Kumar, a former member of the provincial assembly in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told journalists in India that he is seeking asylum in their country because he was not safe in Pakistan.
“Even Muslims are not safe in Pakistan. How can a Sikh like me be safe there?" he said.
But in Pakistan his brother Tilak Kumar says Baldev’s actions have disappointed his family because minorities do not face problems in the country. Non-Muslim communities mainly comprising Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs make up around 3 percent of Pakistan’s 208 million people.
“No one has even lifted their finger at us,” he told Radio Mashaal. “The minorities are happy in Pakistan, and what he has said is plainly wrong.”
Tilak says the community in the northwestern Swat Valley has assured them of their support. “Our Muslim neighbors have approached us to tell us that we should not feel vulnerable because of Baldev’s move.”
The former lawmaker is a controversial figure. In April 2016, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police arrested him in connection with the murder of fellow lawmaker Soran Singh. Both were members of the current ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party. Baldev replaced Singh because he was second on the list of the candidates the PTI had nominated for representing minorities.
The PTI, however, expelled Baldev from its fold. He finally formally became a member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly in April 2018 after a local court acquitted him in the murder case. But the assembly completed its five-year constitutional term the next month. Singh’s family challenged his acquittal in the higher courts, which are expected to take up the case later this month.
Ajmal Wazir, an adviser to the PTI’s provincial administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, rejected Baldev’s accusations that minorities are being mistreated in Pakistan.
“He has escaped to India to evade the justice system here,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Baldev, 43, his wife, and two children traveled to India last month. He is reportedly seeking treatment for his 12-year-old daughter, who suffers from thalassemia.
Shaukat Yousafzai, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s information minister, also dismissed Baldev’s claim that he fled Pakistan because of the mistreatment of non-Muslims.
“His allegations about the mistreatment of minorities in Pakistan are unfounded and shameful," he said. "Minorities living in Pakistan enjoy freedom in all aspects of their lives, including religion.”
But Haroon Sarabdyal, a minority rights activist in Khyber Pakhunkhwa, says their communities do face many problems.
“The Hindus and Sikhs still do not have [their own separate] family laws. Our representatives are selected, and there is no popular election for choosing them,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are mostly uneducated and therefore do not have good jobs or economic prospects. We have freedom to practice our religion, but we do not control our places of worship.”
Former lawmaker Amarjeet Malhotra also rejected Baldev’s accusations. He told Radio Mashaal that more than 400 Hindu and Sikh families still live in Swat Valley but none has complained of facing any threats.
“If none of them is threatened, then why would anybody threaten him [Baldev]?” he told Radio Mashaal. “His pronouncements have created a headache for [his brothers and remaining family members], who now face constant questions from the media.”
Seventy-two years after British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, prospects for some religious and ethnic minorities have not improved. More than 10 million people were displaced in the aftermath of the 1947 partition while hundreds of thousands were killed in riots that preceded and followed the partition.
Even today, New Delhi and Islamabad frequently accuse each other of mistreating their religious and ethnic minorities.