A prominent Sikh rights campaigner and political activist from Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province has fled the country after facing harassment and attacks.
Radesh Singh Tony says he left Pakistan nearly 18 months after he began receiving threats that forced him to flee his hometown and seek shelter in two of the country’s safest cities.
“I am under great stress and want to relocate to a safe place together with my wife and children,” he said in a January 23 video posted on Twitter. Authorities in Pakistan, however, have rejected his claims.
Tony’s case is the most recent example of harassment and shrinking space for the Muslim nation’s religious minorities. In recent months, Pakistan has criticized neighboring India for mistreating minorities while priding itself on opening a major shrine for Sikh pilgrims from the country.
After a year of harassment and intimidation, Tony was attacked. On December 7, unidentified men attacked him and his 16-year-old son, Balvinder Singh, in the eastern city of Lahore.
“We were on our way home when four young men attacked us. They slapped us and kicked us,” he said in a Pashto-language video sent to Radio Mashaal on January 22. “We kept asking why they were beating us, and they said they wanted to expel us from the city.”
One week later, Tony moved to Rawalpindi, a city 400 kilometers away, where he took refuge in his cousin’s house. He had been living in Lahore, the capital of eastern Punjab Province, after fleeing his native Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in January 2019.
He later went back to Lahore to lodge a formal complaint with the Kot Lakhpat police station in Lahore on January 10. But he claims the police didn’t investigate the incident and refused to provide him security.
Speaking from an undisclosed location, Tony said that “relentless threats” from Islamist groups recently forced him to leave Pakistan with his wife and their three sons.
But Muhammad Munawar, head of the police station in Kot Lakhpat, said Tony failed to cooperate with them in “verifying” his complaint.
Munawar said he believes Tony “fabricated” the attack to claim asylum outside Pakistan. “We could not establish that any such incident took place in the Kot Lakhpat police station’s jurisdiction against Radesh Singh Tony,” he told Radio Mashaal on January 23.
Tony, however, rejects the police’s view and claims it was the job of the police to investigate the attack.
Tony’s life took an unexpected turn when he decided to contest the polls in July 2018 as an independent candidate from his native Peshawar for the provincial legislature.
He received his first threat from an unknown telephone number. The unidentified man threatened him “to take back nomination papers,” but “I told him its my right as a citizen of this country” to contest an election, he said via phone from an undisclosed location.
“We will silence this voice,” the caller said after Tony told him he was the “only voice” fighting for the rights of the Sikh and Hindu minority community.
He survived a militant attack during the campaign after which police offered him security, that he declined.
Although he lost the election, harassment and threats to his life continued, which eventually forced him to flee to Lahore.
Tony says that while he was harassed for his political views and campaigning in Peshawar, extremist groups began to threaten him for his faith in Lahore. Muslims as well as Sikhs and Christians refused to rent him a house in the city.
He says he still receives threatening calls from Pakistan. He hopes that the UN and Sikh campaigners around the globe will be able to rescue him before his $3,000 run out.
Minorities in Pakistan have long complained of discrimination, persecution, harassment, threats, and forced conversions to Islam. They also complain of little or no protection from the authorities.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned vandalism at a Sikh Gurdwara in Punjab’s Nankana town.
“The major difference between the condemnable Nankana incident and the ongoing attacks across India on Muslims and other minorities is this: the former is against my vision and will find zero tolerance & protection from the government including police and judiciary,” Khan wrote on Twitter on January 5.
Pakistan used to be home to a large community of Sikhs, but most members migrated to India at the time of partition in 1947. A sizeable part of the remaining several thousand Sikhs lived peacefully in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But they were forced to leave their homeland after the Taliban controlled large swathes following their emergence in 2003. Many of them have taken refuge in Punjab, but some have sought shelter in India and Western countries.