A recent spate of violence against Afghanistan’s Sikh community by Islamic extremists is part of an ongoing – and unwarranted – cycle of persecution. Sudha Ramachandran reports
Afghanistan’s Sikh community came under attack on March 25, when heavily armed militants stormed the Rai Sahib Gurudwara in Kabul’s Shor Bazaar. The gurudwara (a Sikh place of worship) was packed with over 200 devotees when the rampage began. Over 25 people were killed, including two minors and three women, and eight others injured.
The ISIS’ Afghan affiliate the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for the atrocity. Its chief Mawlawi Abdullah, aka Aslam Farooqui, who is believed to have plotted the attack, was arrested by Afghan security forces a few days later.
This is not the first time that the ISKP has targeted Afghanistan’s Sikh community. In July 2018, an ISKP suicide bomber attacked a delegation of Sikhs and Hindus who were travelling to the governor’s residence in Jalalabad to meet President Ashraf Ghani. At least 19 people, most of them Sikhs, were killed in that act of terrorism. Among the victims was Avtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate contesting the parliamentary elections in October that year.
Unleashing violence on unarmed civilians is always indefensible. What made the attack on the gurudwara in Kabul all the more reprehensible is the fact that terrorists opened fire on people when they were at prayer. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Sikh community was targeted again the next day, when a bomb was set off outside the cremation ground where members of the community had gathered for the last rites of those killed in the Rai Sahib attack.
Afghanistan’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim (99.7%), with Sunnis and Shias accounting for 84.7-89.7% and 10-15% respectively of the populace. Hindus and Sikhs are the country’s main religious minorities, but it is Shias in general and Hazara Shias in particular who have hitherto borne the brunt of persecution in Afghanistan. Indeed, they were the target of genocidal massacres by the Taliban in the years the insurgent group was in power. Since 2016, the ISKP have targeted dozens of Shia mosques in Afghanistan and killed hundreds of members of the Shia community.
Now, the twin March attacks in Kabul have rattled Sikhs in Afghanistan. Many are reported to be keen to leave the country, fearing for their lives and their way of life as Afghan-Sikhs. The community is in a precarious situation today. Its numerical strength has shrunk dramatically in recent decades. In the 1980s, there were around 200,000 Sikhs in Afghanistan but that number has fallen to an estimated 800 over the last couple of years. It is likely to shrink further following the recent atrocities in Kabul.
Like all Afghans, the Sikhs suffered on account of decades of civil war. Caught in the crossfire between warring factions, several lost their lives or were injured, while shelling by rival mujahideen groups resulted in the destruction of several gurudwaras in Kabul and other cities. Many Sikhs suffered the travails of displacement, lost land and livelihoods. Still, their industriousness enabled this community of businessmen and traders to bounce back. Consequently, they were perceived to be prosperous and thus often targeted by militias and criminals. They were abducted for ransom and even killed when their families were unable to pay up.
Sikhs in Afghanistan have long been persecuted for their religious faith and traditions. During the Taliban regime, all Sikhs were required to wear a yellow armband to identify themselves in public, a measure reminiscent of a Nazi policy that required Jews to wear yellow badges.
Things improved somewhat for Afghanistan’s religious minorities after 2001. The new Afghan Constitution declares the country to be an Islamic Republic but recognises the rights of ‘followers of other faiths’ to exercise and perform their religious rights freely ‘within the bounds of law’. Furthermore, one seat in the Afghan Parliament is reserved for Sikhs and Hindus.
However, the Afghan government has not been able to do much to address social prejudice. Sikhs continue to be harassed and insulted; their children are bullied in schools.
An important issue of contention is that of cremation. Unlike Muslims, who bury their dead, Sikhs (in common with Hindus) practise cremation. Muslim fundamentalists fiercely oppose cremation and mobs often hurl stones at Sikh funeral processions and disrupt cremations, forcing the community to sometimes take bodies across to Pakistan for cremation. The Afghan government is said to have provided compromise solutions: it has provided security for Sikh funerals and cremation grounds inside cities have been moved to the suburbs. But this has not protected Sikhs from being attacked and humiliated.
As in other countries, ignorance underlies prejudice in Afghanistan. Sikhs are often described as ‘outsiders’ and told to go back ‘home’ – that is, to India, where a large Sikh population resides. However, for Afghan-Sikhs, Afghanistan is home. They are very much a part of the Afghan social fabric, having lived there for several centuries.
Following the 2018 attack on Sikhs at Jalalabad, ISKP said that it had targeted ‘polytheists’. Yet, like Muslims and unlike Hindus, Sikhs are monotheists. The ISKP claim laid bare the terror group’s inability to distinguish between the basic tenets of Hinduism and Sikhism. In the wake of its recent attack on Sikhs at the Kabul gurudwara, ISKP justified the act as revenge for anti-Muslim violence in India. But it is not Sikhs who targeted Muslims in various incidents of communal violence or pogroms in India.
Persecution and violence against the Sikh community in Afghanistan have prompted its members to seek asylum in various countries. Those who remain have hunkered down and sought to maintain a low profile. Celebrations, social and religious events and last rites have been increasingly confined to within the four walls of their gurudwaras. Over the decades, the height of the walls and iron gates around Kabul’s Rai Sahib Gurudwara has been raised to prevent people from stoning worshippers inside or desecrating the place of worship.
However, such measures were not enough to prevent terrorists from storming the gurudwara to punish worshippers for crimes neither they nor their co-religionists in India ever committed.