QUETTA, Pakistan -- Home to several secular political movements, the vast mineral-rich province of Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan once prided itself on tolerance and diversity as its various religious and ethnic communities lived in harmony.
But more than a decade of simmering violence in the region has prompted its minority Sikh and Hindu communities to flee Balochistan, and many have even left Pakistan altogether for neighboring India.
The plight of the 100,000 Hindus and Sikhs -- who comprised a small part of Balochistan’s estimated 13 million people -- showcases the suffering of an impoverished but resource-rich region reeling from a separatist insurgency, attacks by Islamist militants, high criminality, and military crackdowns.
Rahul Kumar, a Hindu trader in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, says violence and threats have overturned their once peaceful lives.
He says he longs for the days when he could mingle among the majority Muslims while freely observing his faith.
“We used to celebrate our religious ceremonies in the open. We use to even have fireworks outside temples and in the streets [to mark festivals],” he said. “Now police guard our temples all the time.”
Rahul says he particularly misses Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of lights typically celebrated in autumn with fireworks and light displays.
Kumar estimates that violence and kidnappings have forced hundreds of Hindu and Sikh families to leave Balochistan. Many have gone to neighboring India, where Hindus make up a majority of the country’s billion-plus population.
“We had small communities in towns such as Sui, Harani, Dera Murad Jamali, and Dera Allah Yar. But now most have left,” he said. “All our relatives living in those cities have left, and if my family could gather enough resources we would also leave.”
Kumar says most of the people fleeing Balochistan do so because of the fear of being kidnapped. He says scores of Hindu and Sikh traders have endured abductions and tortures since 2005.
“We will need enough money to survive in a new place for one year,” he said.
Quetta’s central Masjid Road once boasted scores of Sikh-owned businesses. Now local Muslims have overtaken most shops. After repeated visits, it was possible to find a Sikh trader, a traditional healer Ravi Singh.
He says the signature Sikh beard and turban add to their security woes because, unlike the Hindus, they cannot mingle in the crowd outside their homes.
“With every passing day, we feel more insecure. The government is helping us and even ensures that we can worship freely in our temples,” Singh said. “But overall security is a big worry. We are not confident that our lives and livelihoods are safe here. If we felt safe, I would want future generations to live here.”
Balochistan’s Hindu and Sikh communities date back centuries. The region is home to ancient Hindu temples such as the Hinglaj Shrine in Lasbela and the Kali Devi temple in Kalat. These tiny minority trading communities were seen as part of the local social fabric across Balochistan.
But after a separatist insurgency gripped the region a decade ago, their fortunes changed. Thousands have been killed in attacks by secular Baluch separatist guerrillas and a Pakistani military crackdown.
Violence in the region is magnified by attacks attributed to or claimed by Islamic extremists. Criminality, particularly kidnapping for ransom and targeted assassinations, mushroom amid the lawlessness. Since 2005, Hindu traders have been frequent victims of abductions and killings.
Raj Kumar, a leader of the Hindu Panchayat or council in Balochistan, however, says the recent kidnappings and targeted assassinations of Hindu traders in the province were orchestrated by foreign powers.
“The recent killings of [two] Hindu traders in the border town of Chaman were orchestrated to malign Pakistan,” he said. “Some people might have moved because of their jobs, but I do not see conditions here to prompt a mass exodus.”
But Singh disagrees. He says the deep hatred enshrined in the Pakistani school curriculum is a major threat to their future survival. Many Pakistani textbooks single out Hindus as infidel enemies.
“I am really opposed to planting the seeds of bigotry in the minds of children,” he said. “We need to teach them tolerance, love, unity, and coexistence.”
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Barakwal Miakhel’s reporting from Quetta, Balochistan.