Massacre of Sikhs in Kabul

By K.N. Pandita

“Sikhs have suffered widespread discrimination in the conservative Muslim country (Afghanistan) and have also been targeted by Islamic extremists. Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, they were asked to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands, but the rule was not enforced. In recent years, large numbers of Sikhs and Hindus have sought asylum in India, which has a Hindu majority and a large Sikh population.

In July 2018, a convoy of Sikhs and Hindus was attacked by an Islamic State suicide bomber as they were on their way to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the eastern city of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Nineteen people were killed in that attack,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in its issue of 26 March.

On Wednesday, 24 March, heavily armed terrorists attacked a group of nearly 200 Sikh and Hindu worshippers in the gurudwara at Shor Bazaar in the civil lines of Kabul city. The ISIS claimed the attack. At the same time, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid not only denied any involvement of his organization in the carnage but also disparaged it. However, the July 2018 attack on the Sikh and Hindu delegation in Jalalabad in which 19 of them were killed and 21 injured was victoriously claimed by the Taliban.

The Wednesday attack raises some important questions on the subject. It is useful to know something about the Sikh-Hindu minority of Indian origin in Afghanistan before we attempt an analysis of the tragic event in Kabul.

India-Afghanistan relations are of great antiquity going back to the times of the migration of Aryans from Central Asia to the plains of India in the hoary past. Kushan Empire with its capitol at Pushkalavati, modern Peshawar, was the disseminator of many strands of common culture among the peoples of the vast geographical region. It was only during the British colonial rule over India that strict restrictions were imposed on Indians in perpetuating their age-old relations with the peoples to the immediate west of India namely the Afghans, Iranians and those in Central Asia.

During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a large number of Sikhs and Hindus of Indian origin, conducting trade in Afghanistan, settled down in that country and with time became its nationals. These brave and adventurous people not only conducted their affairs honestly but also befriended the Afghan people and their culture, language and lifestyle. They felt proud to be called Afghans, and conversely, they received very friendly rather fraternal treatment from the Afghans. As an integral part of Afghan society they took part in the political process of the country as well and even today two names have come to us that can be mentioned. One is Anarkali Kaur Hunaryar, a Sikh lady who is a member of Afghan Senate and Narendra Singh Khalsa, an MP in Afghan Parliament.

Appreciably, the Afghan Hindu-Sikh minority never became a source of embarrassment either for the Afghan or the Indian government. Conversely, they usually contributed to the strengthening of Indo-Afghan ties over the centuries especially in recent cataclysmic times. The attachment of the Sikh and Hindu religious minority to Afghanistan, which is now the motherland of those who were born and brought up in that country made them build temples and gurudwara and never met with any obstruction in performing their religious rites and ceremonies. This was a true and happy picture of secularism, a philosophy about which neither Afghans nor Indians made any fetish and took it as a way of life.

For the first time when in their history in Afghanistan the religious minority of the Sikhs and Hindus apprehended danger was in 1996, the year when Pakistan-sponsored Taliban captured power in Kabul and declared Afghanistan an Islamic Caliphate. The Taliban showed no sympathy to them because of deep ideological brainwashing through which the Taliban had gone in Pakistani seminaries. Even then, the Sikhs and Hindus tried not to panic and brace a difficult time with great fortitude.

When the Taliban rule became atrocious and unbearably oppressive and the Talibs began massacring their brethren, the Sikh and Hindu religious minority members became fear struck. Some of them left Afghanistan and came to India seeking their relatives and near ones for succour.

When the US decided to take on the Afghan Taliban after finding that Taliban had links with Osama and his Al-Qaeda, the Sikh and Hindu minority members in exile in India began moving gradually back to their country. A national government replaced the Taliban in Kabul in 2001 and the members of the religious minority felt safe under the new dispensation. They resumed their normal chores of life though the threat of the Taliban did not leave Afghan society as such, and recurrent incidents of Taliban attacks on nationalist forces and civilians continued throughout the US and NATO operations against the Taliban.

In July 2018 there happened the tragedy of Taliban attack on a Sikh-Hindu delegation, while it was headed towards Jalalabad. The question that was often discussed in political circles in New Delhi and Chandigarh was why the Sikhs and Hindus were staying back and not moving in the face of the rising threat of instability that was likely to engulf Afghanistan once the American troops were withdrawn.

The process of engaging the Taliban for talks with the US through the instrumentality of Pakistan was well-known to them. They and the entire world both were aware that the Americans wanted to wriggle out of the stranglehold of Taliban somehow. It should have prompted the Afghan religious minority to reconsider their position in an Afghanistan where now the Americans were not averse to the Taliban becoming a component of the new government. The religious minority failed to make a dispassionate assessment of the upcoming situation.

Finally, the axe fell when the US-Taliban deal was signed in Doha recently and not only the Sikh-Hindu minority but also the large segments of nationalist Afghans were also under the threat of decimation. The threat was loud and clear when only a day after signing the US-Taliban deal, the latter launched a massive attack in an eastern province of Afghanistan and killed many people. They made it clear that unless their 5000 captives with the American forces were released, their attacks would continue. The hand of Pakistan agencies in th is dastardly massacre cannot be ruled out although officially Pakistan has condemned the heinous crime.

The tussle for power between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah for the position of the presidency has become complicated and the US Minister of State Pompeo, after failing to bring about reconciliation between the two claimants of the post of President, out of frustration announced cutting off of one billion dollars annual aid to Afghanistan. The deal does not seem to stabilize.

The Sikh and Hindu community in Afghanistan numbering more than ten thousand is in a state of threat and uncertainty. In all probability, they may have to repatriate to their country of origin viz. India. At this point we would like to put a question to those in India who are opposing the CAA tooth and nail what will they have to say if all these tens of thousands of Sikh and Hindu minority members approach the Government of India for asylum under human considerations and they elect to change their nationality. The CAA was brought about keeping in mind these realities. And strangely, the Punjab government has decided not to implement the CAA. Will the Kabul gurudwara episode make them re-think their opposition and talk realpolitik.

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