Pursuit of ‘Peace’ brings some of the last Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan to India
Anwesha Ghosh

On 26th July, 11 members of the Hindu and Sikh communities of Afghanistan reached New Delhi after being granted priority visas by the Indian Embassy in Kabul.1 In the light of decades of persecution and the relentless attacks in the recent years on these microscopic religious minority communities of Afghanistan, the Indian government decided to expedite their visas and possibility of long-term residency in India. Earlier this month, an announcement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India stated that India is gravely concerned about the targeting and persecution of members of the minority communities in Afghanistan by terrorists “at the behest of their external supporters” and thereby, has decided “to facilitate the return of Afghan Hindu and Sikh community members facing security threats in Afghanistan to India.”2

The MEA statement was issued along with the news of the release of the abducted Afghan Sikh leader Mr. Nidan Singh Sachdeva, who was kidnapped from a Gurudwara in Paktia province of Afghanistan on 22 June 2020. Singh, a Sehejdhari Sikh originally from the Khost province of Afghanistan had fled to India along with his family at the height of the civil war. He had gone back to Afghanistan a few months earlier to perform sewa at the Gurudwara and was abducted by terrorists from there.3 Around the same time, another minor Afghan Sikh girl was kidnapped from Kabul who was later reunited with the family.4 The repeated targeting and persecution of minority community members have been a matter of concern for India. In 2018, a deadly suicide attack in Jalalabad, nearly wiped the entire Afghan Sikh leadership and shook the members of of these communities and forced most to seek refuge in foreign lands.5 A gruesome attack on the Shorbazaar Gurudwara of Kabul carried out by the Islamic State (IS) on March 25, 2020 that killed over 25 people was the tipping point for many members belonging to Hindu and Sikh communities of Afghanistan.6 Following that attack, about 600 members of the Afghan Hindu and Sikhs communities, who are presently left in Afghanistan, made multiple appeals to the Indian Embassy and wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs in India, seeking immediate evacuation and rescue of the members of these communities.7

Reliable data on religious demography is difficult to locate in a country that has experienced war for over four decades. It is believed that in the early 1970s, the number of Hindu nationals residing in Afghanistan was estimated to be 20,000-30,000 and that of Sikh nationals at 15,000; however, there are unverified claims that the number of Hindus in 1990 was around 200,000 and those of Sikhs was 80,000 with some 30,000 residing in Kabul.8 Over the years, the number of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus has dropped significantly and according to a report by Tolo Television in 2019 suggested about 1,3509 members of these communities continue to live in Afghanistan, a number that further shrunk to about 60010 after the recent attacks.

The members of the Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities have welcomed the emergency option and are thankful to the Indian Government. Pritpal Singh, a journalist and documentary film maker and a prominent member of Afghan Sikh disapora currently based in London expressed that that India’s decision comes as a great relief for the entire Afghan Sikh and Hindu diaspora and they are “delighted to hear the news that members of our community in Afghanistan, who had been the target of extremist atrocities, are being allowed to come to India.”11 He feels that these communities have endured tremendous suffering over the years; India’s decision not only signals an end to that suffering but also promises to bring ‘peace’- something that has been largely missing from their lives. An Afghan Sikh gentleman who was granted Indian citizenship stated Afghan Sikhs and Hindus exodus began after the Soviet withdrawal and accelerated after the Mujahedeen takeover in 1992. Over the past few decades of war 99 percent of the members of these communities left – “those who continued to live there, were mostly stuck as they did not have adequate resource and support to undertake the journey- India’s recent decision will be beneficial for those helpless people.”12

Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management (DSGM) has taken the responsibility to provide temporary accommodation to the members of the communities upon their arrival in India and they were taken to Gurudwara Rakab Ganj in New Delhi where they will be quarantined for the required period and then their paper work will be initiated.13 The Afghan Sikh and Hindus diaspora around the world are providing support to the new arrivals and also backing the community in India who are helping them in the transitional phase in a new country. A section of international media14 has highlighted the ‘agonizing dilemma’ India’s emergency option brings with it. On one hand, in Afghanistan they had their livelihoods yet they spent their days dreading the next attack; on the other hand, in India a new beginning would most likely entail battling poverty, especially due to the economic slump brought by the coronavirus pandemic. Members of Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities in India accept that the initial phase in a new country can be challenging. But with the support of the community and host government they can overcome that- “the important thing is to be alive! They deserve to live and live in peace. We all struggled but eventually reached a stable position in India, they will too… but it is important to survive, be alive!”15

The members of the community are hopeful that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, which reduces the period of mandatory stay in India from 11 years to five years for minorities from three countries including Afghanistan, will help those Afghan Hindus and Sikhs in getting the Indian citizenship who moved to India before the cut-off date of December 31, 2014. Despite all the criticism, for Afghan Sikhs and Hindus living in India, the CAA came as a ray of hope that provided them with a sense of belonging and identity that they have been longing for decades.16 As far as the new arrivals are concerned, there are options, which the members of these communities can avail (both in India and from India) in order to acquire a stable and peaceful life, for that the first step would be to take them out of Afghanistan safely which the recent decision of the Indian government promises to offer.

Endnotes
  1. “11 Afghan Sikhs, including Nidan Singh abducted from Gurudwara last month, reach Delhi.”The Times of India, July 26, 2020. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/11-afghan-sikhs-including-nidan-singh-abducted-from-gurudwara-last-month-reach-delhi/articleshow/77181145.cms (Accessed on 27.7.2020)
  2. “On safe return of Shri. Nidan Singh”. Press Release, The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, July 18, 2020. Available at:https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32839/On_safe_return_of_Shri_Nidan_Singh (Accessed on 27.7.2020)
  3. DivyaGoyel, “In Afghanistan to perform sewa at Gurdwara, Sikh man abducted”. The Hindustan Times, June 22, 2020. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/chandigarh/sikh-man-abducted-armed-men-afghanistan-gurdwara-6471370/Accessed on 27.7.2020)
  4. “Missing for three days, minor Sikh girl in Afghanistan reunited with Family”.The Indian Express, July 21, 2020. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/missing-for-three-days-minor-sikh-girl-in-afghanistan-reunited-with-family-6515650/?fbclid=IwAR3dD7Qq7hgaXpwdFjucnQVfVZT8hPMT1sqmfqDVwD1vN3yUZmvXXXojs9c
    (Accessed on 27.7.2020)
  5. “Suicide attacks target Sikhs in Jalalabad, 19 killed”. The Tolo News, July 1, 2018. Available at:https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/four-killed-jalalabad-explosion(Accessed on 26.7.2020)
  6. “25 killed in attack at Dharamsala, A Sikh Temple in Kabul”. The ToloNews,March 25, 2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/fighting-inside-sikh-worship-area-kabul.(Accessed on 26.7.2020)
  7. “Among 11 Afghan Sikhs granted visas by India: abducted man, minor rescued from marriage”.The Indian Express, July 26, 2020. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-offers-11-afghan-sikhs-visa-man-who-was-abducted-to-girl-rescued-6523547/?fbclid=IwAR3jnF-ZIPcPqtqnEu8R3eG0x2dhXjkWwBlyhhJptMV3p5d032J-2sV8owA (Accessed on 26.7.2020)
  8. HafizullahEmadi, “Minorities and Marginality: pertinacity of Hindus and Sikhs in a repressive environment in Afghanistan,” The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, 2013, pp.1-15.
  9. “Nearly 99% of the Hindus, Sikhs left Afghanistan in Last Three Decades”,ToloNews,December 9, 2019,Available at: https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/nearly-99-hindus-sikhs-left-afghanistan-last-three-decades (Accessed on 27.7.2020).
  10. Mujib Mashal and Fahim Abed, “India offers escape to Afghan Hindus and Sikhs Facing Attacks”. The NewYorkTimes,July 19, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/19/world/asia/india-afghanistan-sikh-hindu.html(Accessed on 26.7.2020)
  11. Pritpal Singh, Journalist, Broadcaster and a Film Maker behind the documentaries ‘Mission Afghanistan’ (https://youtu.be/0h11jAyO0zg) and ‘Hindu Khush to Thames’ (https://youtu.be/usmOTLiWQTw )and belonging to the Afghan Sikh community in an interview with the author, July 27, 2020.
  12. Member of the Afghan Sikh community in New Delhi, unwilling to disclose his identity in a telephonic interview with the author on July 26, 2020.
  13. A senior leader of the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee in New Delhi, unwilling to disclose his identity in a telephonic interview with the author on July 27, 2020.
  14. “India offers escape to Afghan Hindus and Sikhs Facing Attacks”. The NewYorkTimes,op.cit.
  15. Khajinder Singh Khurana, Head, Afghan Hindu Sikh Welfare Society in New Delhi, in an interview with the author on July 27, 2020.
  16. Anwesha Ghosh, “Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019: What does it mean for Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in India?”,Issue Brief, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, February 19, 2020. Available at: https://www.icwa.in/show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=4830&lid=3422 (Accessed on 27.7.2020)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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