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How Pakistani Sikhs fleeing the Taliban made the city of Nankana Sahib a cultural hub

Pakhtun Sikhs have revived many festivals that had not been celebrated since Partition.

The only time I attended Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti celebrations at Nankana Sahib was on January 10, 2011, a few days after the assassination of Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab. In an empty ground next to Guru Nanak Janamasthan Gurdwara, the city’s Sikh community had organised a cricket tournament. Sikh boys, almost all of them of Pakhtun descent, sat near the edge of the ground, watching the final match. Another group of boys sat on a raised platform, giving live commentary of the match over a loudspeaker. An assortment of vendors, mostly Muslim, looked on, joined by other members of the local Muslim community. There was a separate tent for women.

Traditionally, on Guru Gobind Jayanti, mock battles are enacted to honor the warrior spirit of the tenth and last Sikh Guru. But in Nanakana Sahib, they had organised a cricket tournament. One of the organisers, a young Pakhtun Sikh, said they wanted to have tournaments for hockey, volley ball and other sports too, but there was not enough time. Many of the Sikh boys lived in Gujranwala, Sialkot and Lahore, some studying and others engaged in business, and they had returned to Nankana Sahib for the festival. A few days later was the winter festival of Lohri, after which they would go back.

In the couple of years before 2011, Nanakana Sahib, about an hour’s drive from Lahore, had emerged as the centre of the Sikh community in Pakistan. A handful of Sikh families had moved to the city from tribal areas along the country’s northwestern frontier following the wars of 1965 and 1971, when members of the community were attacked by jingoistic mobs who took them to be representatives of the belligerent Hindu/Sikh neighbour they were fighting. A few more families arrived after the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, in 1992, led to attacks on several Hindus and Sikhs as well as their places of worship around Pakistan. The arrival of most Sikhs who now live in Nankana Sahib, however, was precipitated by the Talibanisation of the northwestern frontier region during the 2000s.

Hundreds of Sikh families had for generations lived peacefully