In 1521, Guru Nanak Sahib witnessed the terrible suffering of people at Saidpur (Eminabad), The Panjab. The Guru documents who to question while accepting the Command of the Creative and Pervasive 1Force:
A powerful lion attacks a [cattle]-herd, the owner of that [herd] is to be questioned.
Dog-like [soldiers] violated and exploited jewel-like [beings], no one cares for the dead.
1-Own-Self connects, 1-Own-Self separates, see Your 1-greatness-power.
- Guru Granth Sahib 360
Avtar Singh, one of the victims of the March 25th attack, pictured in Shorbazar, 2012. Photograph by Pritpal Singh (tweets @TheDutchSikh1)
On Wednesday, March 25th, 25 Sikhs were killed by four gunmen claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) who attacked Gurduara Harirai Sahib in the Shorbazar district of Kabul. This brutal attack was not the only blow, as there have been two subsequent attacks in two days. The future of the few hundred Sikhs that remain in Afghanistan, almost all in Kabul, is now hanging by a thread.
The Sikh community worldwide has witnessed these attacks and many are expressing an interest in providing financial assistance. In the spirit of Sikhi, an eternal solution must be sought. Despite publicized campaigns by diaspora organizations, there are no such organizations that are operating on the ground. There is no local charity established to receive funds, begging the question of how the money will reach the people in need. This is where the diaspora based Sikh-Afghans like London-based Pritpal Singh (tweets @TheDutchSikh1) can provide much better context and guidance to those willing and able to help. The call from within the Sikh-Afghan community is not for short-term monetary relief, but for long-term resettlement in a country that can provide safety and support.
Sikhs in Afghanistan
The Sikhs of Afghanistan are an indigenous group, with several oral histories that speak to the origins of the community. The general consensus is that the community descends from Hindus and Buddhists driven underground by the institutionalization of Islam by the Ghaznavid dynasty. In the early 1500s, when Guru Nanak Sahib passed through Afghanistan, he revealed Sabad (Divine Word) that inspired the creation of dharamsalas or principle-centered sanctuaries for non-Muslims. Many of these newly liberated individuals were inspired to join the path of Sikhi.
Women and children standing outside of Kabul's Gurduara Harirai Sahib in 2012. Photograph by Pritpal Singh(tweets @TheDutchSikh1)
Violence against Sikhs in Afghanistan is not a new phenomenon, but the past two years have reopened traumatic wounds. The exile of Sikhs from Afghanistan has taken place over a span of 40 years since the Soviet Invasion of 1979, with the vast majority leaving during the era of Mujahideen rule between 1992 and 1996. The Taliban era between 1996 and 2001 was marked by extreme social and economic isolation, but less violence. Over 90% of Sikh-Afghans were abroad by 1996. Today’s population is composed of those with the least social capital and connections abroad. In the post-Taliban era, there was hope for a more stable future, shattered by an attack on Sikh and Hindu political leaders.
On 30 Jun 2018, ISIS targeted and killed 19 Sikhs in Jalalabad as they were awaiting President Ashraf Ghani for a scheduled political meeting. The then President of the National Committee of Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan, Avtar Singh, was killed in the attack as he planned to regain a minority seat in Afghanistan’s parliament. His son, Narender Singh, went on to run for the seat and became a Member of Parliament. After that incident, the local community debated: whether to stay in Afghanistan or relocate.
Narender Singh convinced the Sikhs to stay and President Ashraf Ghani expressed his support for the community, but no formal agreement or survival plan was created or implemented. Current MP Narender Singh and current member of the upper house, Dr. Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, must play a bigger role in leveraging their positions to deliver direct support to the vulnerable remaining Sikhs.
Why were they not armed?
The call for arming Sikh-Afghans as a means of protection must remain situated in the broader context. Afghanistan has one of the most armed populace’s worldwide, but the danger of terror attacks weighs on everyone nonetheless. Attacks by a bomb or suicide bombers are not easily thwarted. Furthermore, in conflict zones, the enemy is difficult to identify. Wednesday’s attackers entered dressed in police clothes. There are added difficulties with cost, permits, and available volunteers. If an outside militia were hired, any state or non-state actor available would carry its own agenda and further embroil the community in violent tensions.
Sikhs can certainly take on today’s ISIS, but it requires preparedness, internal and external, and it cannot be done overnight. Sikhs of the eighteenth century answered their call to resistance; the cost was multiple genocidal campaigns against the Sikhs, but the Panjab was freed in 1765 after 700 hundred years. Ghazni born Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’ penned the Love-laden poetry for the Beloved. Honorable Commander-in-Chief Hari Singh Nalua fought fearlessly from the Jamraud fort. Both the fighter and the writer were trained with the Sabad-Wisdom of Guru Granth Sahib.
The resounding consensus is that the first preference is Europe or North America. Most Sikh-Afghans who relocated 20-30 years ago have ended up in Europe and were able to do so only through their own resources. The Canada relocation option via private sponsorship to-date is a good model to emulate, but it needs to be scaled for serious consideration. The Manmeet Singh Bhullar Foundation and the World Sikh Organization of Canada are leading this initiative.
The second preference is India, which provides fairly easy initial entry because of complex geo-political relationships amongst Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. In past decades, India has been the first destination for many Sikh-Afghans, however, India is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, and therefore there are no official avenues for naturalization or welfare provisions. Unless one has prior resources or a business to carry over, prospects in India are quite bleak.
Almost every family that moved to India has since sent the next generations to Europe or North America for stability. Until these attacks, the remaining Sikh community in Afghanistan explicitly expressed they did not want to have to fare for themselves in India, but this opinion is changing due to a need for immediate relief. However, these families would not be eligible for the naturalization pathway proposed by the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which declares fast-track citizenship to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but only applies to arrivals prior to 2014.
Sikh-Afghans await our response. Charities need accountability and transparency. Governments need to go beyond their rhetoric and red tape.
Once again, Sikhs are reminded to emulate Guru Nanak Sahib:
“Nanak voices 1-Eternal’s writ: speaks the truth, it is time for the truth.”
- Guru Granth Sahib 723
Asha Marie Kaur is a writer, activist, and scholar. She is a researcher at the Sikh Research Institute. Her thesis on Afghan Sikhs is the longest English language study on the community. She tweets at @Asha_MKS.
Harinder Singh is a thinker, author, and educator. He is the co-founder of the Sikh Research Institute. His current focus is on critical thinking in Sikh institutions and availing the wisdom of Guru Granth Sahib to a global audience. He tweets at @1Force.