KHYBER PASS, Pakistan -- Wilson Wazir Masih, a Christian, and Gormeet Singh, a Sikh, are proud of a new prefix to their names: Malik.
Pashto for tribal elder, the title conferred by Islamabad recognizes them as “tribal leaders” in Pakistan’s western mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
They now receive a small monthly allowance from the government as their “lungi” or turban. But more, significantly, local and senior government officials will engage them in consultations, and they can participate in government-sponsored local jirgas or tribal councils to adjudicate disputes or petition authorities for addressing grievances.
Masih and Singh, both middle-aged men, are among a handful of Christian, Sikh, and Hindu elders who have been appointed as Maliks for the first time. They now represent an estimated 30,000 members of their communities amid the region’s estimated 10 million Muslim residents divided into more than a dozen Pashtun tribes. Many of FATA’s seven tribal agencies or districts such as Mohmand, Waziristan, and Orakzai are named after these tribes.
In addition, in a more consequential decision, these minority communities can now legally claim to be FATA residents -- giving them a stake in the region’s future and the ability to claim jobs, scholarships, and other privileges, rights, and services.
“I am very happy and looking forward to participating in the tribal jirgas with the president and other senior officials,” Masih said. “We will now be able to bring attention to our problems.”
Singh says that in recent months, authorities in the Khyber tribal district have been helpful in resolving their issues. “We can now get drinking water, schools, and other amenities for our communities,” he said.
Many of FATA’s Hindus and Sikhs are remnants of invading armies from India who were defeated in the Khyber Pass in the 17th,18th and 19th centuries. Some were part of trading communities who preferred to stay in their homeland at the time of the Subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan in 1947, when most Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India.
The Christians, however, are more recent arrivals. Most of them accompanied the British military as janitors. Their children and grandchildren later assumed their jobs. But over generations they learned local dialects of Pashto and began to see themselves as part of the community.
While most of these minorities lived peacefully for decades, they suffered after the onset of the Islamist militancy in FATA following the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
As FATA became a safe haven for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, their radical members turned on local non-Muslim communities. Attacks and repressive measures such as religious taxes and attempts to regulate their lives forced thousands to flee FATA and seek shelter in towns and cities across Pakistan.
Masih said he hopes the new measures will change his community’s circumstances for good.
“Our people have now become part of the society’s fabric in FATA,” Masih said. “We will now get all the jobs reserved for minorities in FATA, and our children can be admitted to colleges, universities, and other professional institutions.”
Abdul Razzaq Afridi, a Pashtun tribal leader in Khyber, is happy that the lot of FATA’s religious minorities is improving as militant violence recedes and Islamabad attempts to gradually implement long-awaited reforms.
“We would like to have good relations with minorities and would also like them to have a better life in our homeland,” he said. “Now the government must follow up on its announcements and make sure the minorities are represented and that they can enjoy their rights in peace.”
FATA’s Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians still have a long way to go to join the region’s egalitarian Pashtun mainstream.
As FATA still largely comprises collective tribal properties, minorities in Khyber are petitioning Islamabad to build homes for them.
They recently approached the FATA Secretariat to build a residential compound for them so they can truly call Khyber home.
“We were sometimes taunted because we were not considered locals. I hope it will change now,” Masih said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Farhad Shinwari’s reporting.