There is a saying that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
This applies to Radesh Singh Tony the only Sikh who dared to contest as an independent candidate from a general seat in Peshawar despite repeated threats to withdraw from the race.
Though Hindus and Sikhs make-up a significant part of conservative, northwestern Peshawar’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) population, they have to remain content with seats reserved for minorities but not fit to contest elections from “unreserved” general seats.
Radesh Singh Tony’s biggest achievement is that he has broken this trend. He is today the only sikh who contested as an independent from an unreserved general constituency.
The country’s complicated electoral system allots minorities and women a small number of “reserved” seats, based on their parties’ gains at the polls.
A small time trader – doubling up as a human right activist and civil society member Radesh Singh’s grandfather was just 11 years old when he left his village in India’s Punjab province to move to Kana Kach area near the Changa Manga forests in Lahore. This was in year was 1901– and never returned to his village, not even in 1947. Tony was born and brought up in Peshawar where he graduated and started his own business in Peshawar.
A prominent member of the local Sikh community and President of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Pakistan Minorities’ Alliance, Tony was successfully elected as councilor from a seat reserved for minorities.
Tony had won the seat with a huge margin– 1,499 votes against his rival who managed only 280 votes. But still no political party seemed inclined to allow him to contest on a general seat as its candidate from the Peshawar cantonment an independent.
This is when Radesh Singh Tony decided to take up the plunge and resigned from his councilor seat to contest as an independent candidate in the recently concluded general elections.
“No one has given a party ticket to a minority member for a general, non-reserved seat so far. Hence I have decided to contest the elections as an independent candidate and try my luck,” he said.
“I am probably the first minority member in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) who is contesting the elections as an independent candidate,” he claimed.
A small time businessman Tony soon realized how difficult it is to contest an election without a political party’s financial and tactical support behind the political campaign.
Money was something that Tony needed urgently so he sent out an appeal to his friends, relatives and supporters to come forward and bankroll his campaign.
Luckily many of his relatives and friends—including Muslims came forward to support him financially.
But at the same time many others tried to tarnish his image by spreading false and fabricated rumors.
One such controversy or disinformation campaign tried to discredit Tony’s claim to be a loyal and faithful Sikh – who had converted from Hinduism to Sikhism.
Tony tried his best to deny such comments by clarifying that he was a pure-blooded Sikh. Even his family members now living in Indian Punjab were also Sikhs. But the fact that his brother was a Mona (a Sikh who does not cut or trim his beard or hair) does not change anything as everyone had a right to live the way they wanted.
The heavily stacked odds are already against Tony considering the fact that the demographic profile of his constituency – shows a population of around 130,000 mostly Muslim voters and just 160 Sikhs.
Even this is not all as; at least two of his opponents enjoy the support of hardline militant groups and radical Islamic religious organizations.
But this did not deter the small time businessman and father-of-three from going door-to-door and meeting local people for election campaigning.
“If we win, we will be in better position to raise our issues at the parliament,” he declared.
Besides Tony two other Sikhs contesting election from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province include — Ranjeet Singh and Farid Singh contesting on behalf of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a major political alliance of religious parties in Pakistan. The only difference though is that while they are contesting from reserved constituencies, Radesh Singh Tony is the odd man out and first Sikh to contest as an independent in the unruly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The atmosphere of uncertainty and fear –in the region can be judged from the fact that — Charanjeet Singh a prominent Sikh community leader was shot dead just a few months ago.
Recently over 20 people were killed in a bomb attack in an election rally in the provincial capital.