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  • Angad Pal Singh

Sikhs in Afghanistan

The history of the Sikhs in Afghanistan goes back to the time of their Gurus. Their first Guru, Guru Nanak visited Afghanistan on two of his four Udasees in the early 16th century. His travel is documented to the cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, and their memory preserved in historical Gurdwaras including Gurdwara Choha Sahib Patshahi Pehli and Gurdwara Guru Nanak Chashma in Jalalabad. A number of others were built in the city of Kabul, however, only one of them remains today in the Karte Parwan area of the city.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Karta-E-Parwan, Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been an important route and destination for trading since centuries. It lies strategically along the Silk Road halfway between the Far East and the West. The first Sikhs to arrive in Afghanistan were traders who sustained small colonies in the region, perhaps around the time of Guru Nanak himself. Many of them are ethnic Pashtuns calling Afghanistan their home, and speak the local languages such as Pashto and Dari. The migration picked up during the 19th century when they were sent there while serving in the British armies. Many of them settled down along with their families and started to integrate with the local communities, and made Afghanistan their home.

By the time of Punjab’s partition in 1947 there were a large number of Sikhs living in Afghanistan. In fact many of them learned about the partition only from Sikhs of Western Punjab who moved to Afghanistan. Their numbers increased steadily and peaked in the 1970’s when nearly 700,000 Sikhs and Hindus were living there. However, the once flourishing community has since struggled to survive. After the fall of the Soviet occupation in 1989, the civil war of the early 90s under Mujahideen rule was one of the worst for Afghanistan’s minorities. Their numbers had already fallen to around 220,000 and have only continued to drop since.

A Sikh family in Kabul, Afghanistan

In 1996, the Taliban, known for their strict interpretation of Sharia Law, their brutal treatment of women and minorities including Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and Hazaras, took over Afghanistan. Under the Taliban rule, the Sikhs were a persecuted minority and forced to pay the jizya tax. They were required to wear yellow patches to identify themselves. The Sikh custom of cremation of the dead was prohibited, and their cremation grounds were vandalized. Fearful for their lives and the lives of their families, many of them left the country for North America, the UK, Europe and even India. Even after the US invasion in 2001, regional insurgencies and instability remained as the Taliban continued to control many small towns and parts of the countryside. Where once over half a million were thriving, only a few thousand remain today at best.

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban once again captured the capital city of Kabul. The NATO and American troops had been slowly withdrawing and the Taliban used their military force to seize control of the country, and declared the reinstatement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Immediately, people across the world started crying out over the plight of the Afghans under extremist rule especially that of the women, children and minorities. The Taliban are promising a moderate and inclusive government this time. They are also promising amnesty to the Afghan Government, it’s Defense Forces and to American allies. However, just days earlier they killed dozens of American allies and their families at the country’s southern border including an Indian journalist for “lack of cooperation”. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals are sheltering at the Kabul Airport in hopes of exiting the country, and also because that is the only place being guarded by the few remaining American forces.

The Taliban leadership at Kabul Airport after the exit of NATO Defense Forces

Such brutality is not indicative of a moderate or just rule especially for its ethnic and religious minorities. On 25th March, 2020, suicide bombers affiliated with ISIS, attacked Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul leading to 25 deaths. In July 2018, another suicide bombing killed 20 Sikhs and Hindus in Jalalabad. Such incidents have been common since the times of The Afghan Civil War 30 years ago. For the Sikhs and Hindus it has been a daily fight against extremist forces in Afghanistan. So it is no surprise that today, only a few hundred Sikhs remain behind. Most of them desperately want to leave the country. The rivalry between the Taliban and ISIS increases the danger to the local population. Even after the Taliban takeover, multiple bomb blasts have taken place outside the Kabul airport credited to ISIS. The ruling Taliban are unable to protect themselves or the people by providing stability to the country. The situation is so bad that the Canadian, American and other NATO forces have rushed to exit the country leaving thousands of their own citizens, permanent residents and many more interpreters, informants and other Afghan aids behind. When the US is unable to rescue even its own citizens, the rescue of Afghan Sikh seems out of the question. This is now primarily a responsibility of the global Sikh community. What are our Gurdwaras and Sikh organizations doing to save our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan?

Organizations such as SALDEF and Sikh Coalition in the US have issued press releases regarding the current situation. Others, such as the World Sikh Organization in Canada have been raising money for the Afghan Sikhs since many years. They, along with the Jakara Movement have written about the plight of Afghan Sikhs in the past. Still, there isn’t much to find in terms of direct or indirect assistance from them while raising money for the cause. United Sikhs has also been working with Afghan Sikhs for a long time providing direct financial aid to the locals and also sharing firsthand accounts from the ground. After the March 2020 attack, Afghanistan United Sikhs Coordinator, Charan Singh said, “the Sikhs of Afghanistan love Afghanistan, but right now our situation is critical and tense with imminent danger…”. In May 2020, 26 US members of Congress led by Congressman John Garamendi, signed a letter urging Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to take steps to ensure “safe and expeditious relocations of Sikhs and Hindus trapped in war-torn Afghanistan”. Other US Senators and Congresspersons have written too while Rep. Jackie Speier introduced a resolution in Congress condemning the attacks.

Sikhs leaving Kabul Airport with swaroops of The Guru Granth Sahib

But despite the letters written and resolutions passed, little progress has been made towards resettlement efforts. In Kabul last week , a caravan of 9 mini-buses of Sikhs and Hindus attempted to reach the airport when one of the vehicles came under gunfire and was hit. While no one was hurt, after a gruelling 18 hour journey to cover 7km they were finally forced to go back. With the last of the American forces now having left the country no immediate hope remains. At a time when even citizens of Western nations have not been evacuated by their militaries, the safety of the Afghans is a reality to be reckoned with for the future. While we continue to call our government officials for evacuation efforts, the nearly 260 people left behind and those that have managed to flee still require our financial assistance. The United Sikhs team in Delhi has set up a help desk number and is helping those arriving with rehabilitation, legal aid, immigration and medical help, and direct financial assistance. The ones that are left behind continue to ask for our help. There is a long journey ahead of us in terms of securing the lives, history and a 500 year long heritage of Sikhi in Afghanistan and while our options are temporarily limited, we must continue to do what we can to preserve it all.

Written By Angad Pal Singh

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