Situated in the midst of a verdant landscape, 43-year-old Manjeet Singh sits in his small grocery shop humming to Pashtu music and enjoying the surrounding natural beauty. Asked whether tea is ready, Manjeet responds in the affirmative and begins preparing a kilo of daneydaar chai for the Levies officials passing through the bazaar.
This is Tirah Valley of the erstwhile tribal agency of Khyber, which borders Afghanistan, and where Manjeet’s family has been residing for over five generations along with some 60 Sikh families. Gazing at the lush green valley, Manjeet recalls how dejected he and his family, which includes seven children, were when they had to leave their home around six years ago owing to the deteriorating security situation. “It was heartbreaking when I looked back at my hometown as we were leaving. The pain of that separation is worse than the most painful death,” he stressed.
Before the country’s security situation improved a few years ago, and the former tribal agencies were merged with the province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa, Khyber was infamous as a hotbed of a range of terrorist and militant groups. After Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in 2014 to clear the tribal areas of terrorism once and for all, military operations Khyber-1 and 2 were subsequently launched to rid the remaining miscreants. As a result, many of the around 8,000 Sikhs who reside in the district had to abandon their homes and businesses and migrate to safer areas.
Recalling his migration to Peshawar when Operation Khyber-1 began, he said it was the worst three months of his life as he couldn’t be near the mountains of his home nor his people. He asserted that no matter what happens now, he will never leave his land.
Manjeet shared that those viewing the tribal areas from the outside see two separate peoples — Sikhs and Muslims. “Whereas the fact is that we have been living together for the last 300 years and I have never felt like an outsider,” he stressed. “I take ownership of all that you can see,” he said, pointing to the scenic landscape of Tirah Valley.
Shahid Khan, an official of the local administration, informed that Manjeet was an active member of the government-backed lashkars (militias) which were raised to ward off terrorist attacks during the last decade. Around that time, Manjeet began to be known among his comrades as ‘nakhtar’ — Pashtu for Deodar tree. Khan explained that Deodar trees are known for their strength and durability as they do not fall despite heavy winds and storms, adding that as a commander representing the district’s Sikhs, Manjeet was a force to reckon with and bravely engaged the enemy several times — hence the title.
“Protecting and defending my village is my responsibility as much as it is anybody else’s. I am ready to sacrifice anything for this land; even pick up a gun — which I have — and put my life on the line,” said Manjeet. After a long pause, he concludes, “I may be referred to as a Sikh due to my religion, but no one can doubt my patriotism.”