Saturday, 19 Sep 2020

Afghan Sikhs evacuate to India, looking for a more secure life

NEW DELHI – In March, Mr Gurjeet Singh and his family were in the Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul after a suicide bomber attacked the place of worship, killing 25 people.

The 30-year-old shopkeeper’s father was among those killed and his six-year-old daughter suffered a shrapnel injury in one eye.

The attack left Mr Singh, who had grown up in Kabul, with difficult choices to make.

“It is very difficult to leave the land where you have grown up,” he said.

“This attack took place inside the gurdwara. When they can get into the gurdwara and carry out such an attack, our lives are not safe anymore.”

Last month, he and his family packed their belongings into half a dozen bags and relocated to India to carve out a new life.

“My heart is broken,” said Mr Singh, as he sat on a double bed in a small room with his wife and three children at the Rakabganj Gurdwara in capital city Delhi.

Around 100 more Sikhs are expected in the coming weeks, with the Indian government facilitating evacuations for those desperate to escape the cycle of violence.

Sikhism spread to Afghanistan in the early 16th century when Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism visited, laying the foundation of the religion there.

Mr Inderjeet Singh, a historian who has chronicled the life of the community in the book Afghan Hindus And Sikhs: A History Of A Thousand Years, described how the community was once rich and prosperous, numbering well over 60,000 in the early 1990s.

But their numbers have declined as many moved away to escape persecution and violence.

At present, the community numbers some 600, concentrated mainly in the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad and Ghazni. Most are shopkeepers or traders.

In July 2018, a convoy of Sikh and Hindu community leaders was attacked by an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide bomber in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Nineteen people were killed.

Afghan Sikhs face a tough choice of starting over in an unfamiliar country or risking an uncertain future by remaining where they are.

Kabul’s Gurdwara Kartae Parwan president Gurnam Singh, speaking on the phone from Kabul, said: “Afghanistan is no longer ours. We want to save our lives and it has become our compulsion.”

Mr Gurnam Singh, who has four children between the ages of 12 and 20, said: “I can’t leave right now because members of the community need me. But once most people have left, I have also decided to leave Afghanistan.

“We don’t know when the Taleban or Daesh (another name for ISIS) will come for us.”

For Afghan Sikhs, India is their best means of escape. The process of migration, complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, takes far longer in other countries.

India’s Sikh community has pledged its help.

Mr Manjinder Singh Sirsa, president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, said: “We will do everything that we can to help the families out. We will help them with the education of their children.

“They will stay with us. Some have relatives here and they are getting together.

“The (Afghan) government is trying to help them but the situation is such that they are also helpless.”

India and Afghanistan share close ties, with New Delhi having spent since 2002 over US$3 billion ($4.12 billion) to build infrastructure, from schools to dams, in the reconstruction effort.

There was disquiet in Afghanistan when India passed its controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last year that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Ministry of External Affairs had clarified at the time that the Afghan government had addressed the concerns of minorities.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai even told the Hindu newspaper early this year that there were no persecuted minorities in the country as the entire country, including Muslims, were equally persecuted.

India is already home to some 20,000 Afghan Sikhs, many of whom have lived here for decades.

But a substantial number of people are still largely unable to gain citizenship, let alone access the government benefits that come with it. The community hopes that CAA will help them get citizenship.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava noted at a recent briefing that the government would consider citizenship for Afghan Sikhs.

“Their cause for permanent settlement will be examined and will be facilitated as per existing rules and policies… We are in touch with others who would like to return and we would facilitate their return,” he said.

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