A string of attacks against Sikhs in Peshawar has raised alarm
t was like any other day at the bazaar on the fringes of Peshawar city, Ranjit Singh and Kuljit Singh were at their spice store, when a clamour of bullets was heard. In an instant, they were no more.
The entire market was in disbelief. Nine months ago, a similar incident had taken place in the heart of Peshawar city when Satnam Singh, a Sikh hakeem, was killed by the Islamic State-Khurasan’s (ISK) target killers. By now the terror of that incident seemed to have dissipated somewhat.
The Sikhs had been displaced, butchered and tortured at the hands of the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) and Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) before resettling. Life was just beginning to get to normal after two decades of violence. A day after an intelligence-based operation where the prime suspect of a series of bombing and target killings was killed along with a suicide bomber who was planning to bomb a Church in Peshawar, the city was gasping for fresh air. The Islamic State (IS) was quick to accept responsibility for the attack.
“It’s an unusual way for a targetted attack,” Operations SSP Haroon Rasheed Khan tells The News on Sunday (TNS).
“Such attacks are usually carried out with a 9mm pistol, in this incident an automated assault rifle has been used,” he says, adding that they are putting the clues together and we will soon have some leads.
The bodies of the deceased were brought to Muhalla Jogan Shah, an ancestral abode of the Sikhs. The gurdwara in the locality, which had been closed after Partition, had been renovated when the Sikhs from the Tribal Areas decided to move to the area permanently.
“We have asked the police and law enforcement agencies to protect us,” says Manmohan Singh, a neigbour of the deceased.
“Each time we resolve to move on, there is another attack – we’re not leaving this place, this is our land. But we need protection,” he concludes.
The Sikhs of Peshawar, accompanied by other residents of the area, held a peaceful protest. Their demands were agreed to. Mourners have been visited by many people, from government functionaries to local residents and religious clerics.
Investigators believe that target attacks against minorities and different sects are a tactic to create disharmony.
“It’s an unusual way for a targetted attack,” Operations SSP Haroon Rasheed Khan tells The News on Sunday (TNS). “Such attacks are usually carried out with a 9mm pistol. In this incident an automated assault rifle has been used,” he says, adding that they are putting the clues together and we will soon have some leads.
“The ISKP has used the same tactic in Afghanistan, by targetting Shias and Sikh’s – their targets have multiplied since then,” says an investigating officer.
“We managed to get rid of one cell of theirs, but it’s very clear that there are more cells operating,” they add.
Hassan Shah was a twenty-year-old from Khyber tribal district, he first came under the radar when a police van was attacked in Peshawar late one evening in 2018, the attacker had dropped his pistol and wallet with his identity card. Six months later, Shah was arrested and sentenced to 30 years of rigorous imprisonment under the Anti-Terrorism Law. Documents available with TNS show that he was also fined Rs 160,000. He was later released by the Peshawar High Court and cleared of all charges after an appeal was filed by him. Nine days after his release he was back on the radar for a sectarian target killing of an Afghan businessman. In the subsequent years, Shah’s list of attacks mounted till he actually came to prominence with a target killing in the outskirts of Peshawar that featured in ISKP’s weekly magazine – Al-Naba.
The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) and law enforcement agencies (LEA’s) could not trace Shah till he finally emerged in a CCTV footage escorting a suicide bomber in a rikshaw to the imambargah in Peshawar city. The attack killed 67 people during Friday prayers. After the attack, he disappeared into the wilderness until the night of May 14 when an intelligence agency acted on a tip-off, killing him and the suicide bomber who officials say was an Afghan of Persian origin. The very next day the two Sikhs were killed in broad daylight.
“We are looking at all possible aspects of these attacks”, CCPO Aijaz Khan told reporters at the place of incident.
“We are not leaving out the possibility that the attack was a revenge for Shah’s death,” he says.
In the days following murder of the Sikhs, an Intelligence Bureau officer and a police officer were killed in a similar way.
The writer is a freelance journalist and a former editor