Sikhs protest march on to the Parliament House

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 24, 2014.

Islamabad – In an unprecedented move which exposed chinks in Islamabad’s security, members of the Sikh community protested outside the Parliament House on Friday against incidents of desecration of their holy book, the Guru Garanth Sahib.

The protest demonstration, which lasted a couple of hours, ended only after a ruling party senator assured Sikh leaders their demands will be met. One Sikh demonstrator was injured during an early scuffle between police and the protesters.

Sikh leader Sardar Mahesh Singh, who led a 15-member delegation of Sikh leaders inside the Parliament House compound, said they had presented two main demands to the government.

“There is a code-of-conduct associated with the placement of the Guru Garanth Sahib in the Sikh Gurdwaras,” Singh said. “Our first demand is that holy book should not be kept in a state of disrespect at temples and its manuscripts should be returned to the Gurdwaras for proper care.”

The Sikh protesters said there were seven alleged incidents in Sindh in the recent past where the Guru Garanth Sahib had been desecrated.

“Our second demand is that the culprits should be identified, charges should be pressed against them and they should be put under arrest,” Singh, who traveled from Sindh for the protest, said.

He said he was not sure who was behind the desecration of the Sikh holy book, but said the culprits can be found if the government launches a proper inquiry.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Senator Zafar Ali Shah participated in the negotiations with the Sikh leaders, who crossed the outer gate of the Parliament House after some resistance from security officers deployed there.

Flanked by senior police officers and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration officials, Shah told the Sikh representatives the government will speak with the Sindh police chief to expedite police investigation into the desecration incidents.

Singh told Shah the Sikh demonstrators were Pakistani patriots and they had not meant to cause any trouble for the police. He apologized for the unruly behaviour of some Sikh youth. The demonstrators peacefully marched back along the Constitution Avenue towards the Serena Hotel.

The protest was unusual as the Parliament House and adjoining buildings are located inside the heavily-guarded Red Zone of the federal capital and law-enforcement agencies never allow demonstrators to reach the Constitution Avenue.

But around 1pm on Friday, dozens of Sikh protesters sauntered past the security checkpoints on the Avenue on foot without facing any resistance. After reaching outside the Parliament House, they tried to enter through the main gate en masse.

Police and security personnel tried to block the forward march of the demonstrators. The protesters alleged that police shot and injured one Sikh protester in the arm.

Around 15 Sikh leaders were able to enter the Parliament House compound and moved towards its outdoor garden where the police chief Aftab Cheema, Chief Commissioner Jawad Paul and Deputy Chief Commissioner Mujahid Sherdil tried to negotiate with them until Shah, the PML-N senator, arrived.

Anti-riot police contingents were called to the spot along with elite commandoes and two armoured personal carriers.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar suspended half a dozen senior police officials on Friday after Sikh demonstrators stormed through the gates of the Parliament House in a massive breach of security in the high-security Red Zone of the federal capital.

While the joint opposition in the Senate was in the middle of a press conference the voice of angry protesters could be heard inside the premises. The leader of the opposition continued his speech but the slogans rose to a crescendo. Soon after, the protesters broke through the main gate amid teargas shelling to protest the alleged desecration of their holy books and temples in Sindh.

Some senators instantly made a run for it, abandoning the press conference, after which the demonstrators took over the dais while security officials surrounded them.

They held placards inscribed with slogans against the desecration of their holy book in rural Sindh. They said their religious sanctity had been violated as many as seven times during the last few years. The most recent of the incidents being the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Mirpur Mathelo, district Ghotki. They demanded justice from the government.

When the attention of the house was drawn to what was happening outside, Senate Chairman Nayyar Hussain Bukhari asked the leader of the house in the Senate to direct the interior ministry to conduct an inquiry and submit a report by Monday.

Senator Heman Dass told the house that he had submitted a call-attention notice on this issue but he was not allowed to speak. The Senate chairman maintained that nobody was allowed to force entry into the Parliament House premises.

The gates were closed for more than two-and-a-hours while PML-N Senator Zafar Ali Shah and MNA Dr Darshan Punshi as well as Senator Amajeet of the Awami National Party negotiated with members of the Sikh community.

The demonstrators ended their protest around 3pm after presenting their demands to the parliamentarians and receiving an assurance that their demands would be addressed.

Speaking to the media, IGP Islamabad Aftab Cheema conceded that it was a security lapse for which the police was to be blamed. He also admitted that despite repeated calls by SHO Bhara Kahu Sattar Shah, no steps were taken to stop the protesters. Asked why they could not stop the protesters, the police officials said they kept on waiting for orders from the top officials but none came.

Police officials suspended

Taking notice of the incident, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar suspended SP National Assembly Habibullah Niazi, DSP Secretariat Fida Hussain, DSP National Assembly Khalid Virk, DSP Bani Gala Safeer Shah, SHO Bhara Kahu Sattar Shah and SHO Secretariat Abdur Rehman for the security lapse. He also ordered these officers be immediately charge-sheeted.

During a meeting Friday evening, the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration and police officials told Nisar that the protesters were violating the route assigned to them. The Sikh demonstrators were supposed to hold a demonstration outside the National Press Club but they moved towards the Parliament House when the police were busy keeping an eye on the PTI protest.

Earlier, ICT administration officials had said the Sikh demonstrators did not have any permission to protest in the capital whatsoever.

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