Despatch from Kabul | International

For Afghan Sikhs, it’s between violence and exodus

Sikh community leader says the latest attack on a gurdwara will prompt more of them to flee

A brutal attack on Wednesday targeting a 400-year-old gurdwara in Kabul claimed 25 lives, including two minors and three women, further terrorising Afghanistan’s already dwindling minority Sikh community.

“They had gathered for the morning prayers organised specifically for the nation that was hit by the coronavirus outbreak. They made mannat from god to help the nation pass through the coronavirus crisis with as little difficulties as possible,” says Charan Singh Khalsa, an Afghan Sikh, who lost many relatives in this week’s attack. Two insurgents stormed the historical temple, detonated bombs and opened fire on the worshippers and residents. About 40 families lived on the compound of the gurdwara.

The massacre was claimed by the Islamic State, but authorities believe it to be the work of the Haqqani Network. Either way, for many in the small congregation, this attack was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. “There are less than 100 families of Hindus and Sikhs combined living in Afghanistan. And if you slaughter 25 members of an already small community, what makes you think the rest will want to stay?” asks Mr. Khalsa.

But for Mr. Khalsa, the push was long time coming, with growing number of threats and intimidation. “The Afghan Sikhs have faced a lot of humiliation and persecution over the recent years. Many incidences in the last few years have targeted the Hindus and Sikhs,” he says. “My own brother was kidnapped last year and murdered. We found his body in a grave two months later. More recently, a Sikh home in Kabul was attacked and robbed; an old lady in the house was killed. And earlier this month, on Holi, a Sikh shop was attacked, and its owner was injured,” he narrates incidents after incidents, the frustration evident in his voice.

Living in fear

Historically, the Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan have a rich history intertwined strongly with the local cultures. Prior to the start of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, the population was estimated to be around 3,00,000. Many of them were forced to leave, much like their Muslim compatriots, by the growing violence.

While many returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the country they called home was not the one they had left behind. “Today, the Sikhs are afraid to even go to the gurdwaras. In the last 24 hours (after the Kabul attack) alone, there have been three other explosions close to the community, although no one was hurt. We are living in fear,” Mr. Khalsa says.

While Mr. Khalsa’s frustration was echoed among many in Afghanistan, there was also an outpour of grief and solidarity for the endangered community.

“At a time when the entire world is facing a pandemic, Afghanistan faces the usual killing of innocents by terrorists and evil soldiers,” says Lima Ahmad, an Afghan academic. “Yesterday (Wednesday) Harundar Singh lost seven members of his family, including his child, mother, and wife, not to coronavirus, but to the virus called terrorism that has been killing innocent people in Afghanistan for many years,” she points out, referring to one of the survivors of the attack.

“In such an uncertain time where most of us are suffering from lockdown and the unknown future, many people such as Harundar Singh are left with no family members,” Ms. Ahmad says. Afghanistan is currently dealing with 110 cases of COVID-19 and threats of a possible medical emergency, which has resulted in the lockdown of two major cities, including the capital and the western city of Herat that borders Iran.

But despite the solidarity, Mr. Khalsa is certain that the gurdwara attack will trigger another exodus of the Sikhs. “This incident will ensure that the remaining few of us will also leave the country. There will be hardly any Sikhs or Hindus remaining in Afghanistan in the coming weeks,” he adds, urging government and international organisations to step in and help the Sikhs. “I hope the government and international organisations will at least protect our historical and religious sites here once the community has all left.”

Mr. Khalsa clarifies that his appeal does not mean that he doesn’t love his country. “I am proud to be Afghan. No matter where we go, we will wear that identity with pride. We will not forget our country, but we have sacrificed so much already. But if something brings you pain, there is only so much you can tolerate,” he explains, adding a common Hindi-phrase altered to fit the situation, “Agar jaan hai, toh Afghan hai— If I am alive, I am an Afghan.”

(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 7:08:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/for-afghan-sikhs-its-between-violence-and-exodus/article31194107.ece

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