The senseless killing of Sikhs in a Gurdwara in Kabul raises questions of safety of minorities in Afghanistan.
No country for minorities
The senseless attack on a Gurdwara in Kabul where 200 worshipers were present, sent shock waves around the world. Coming so soon after the US-Taliban peace deal, the incident is seen as the harbinger of times to come, once the Taliban are ensconced in Kabul. Twenty-five civilians, mostly Sikhs, perished in the attack, the worst on the small Sikh community in the last two decades.
Ashraf Ghani's government laid the blame on the Haqqani network for the attack, which the Taliban vehemently denied. Later, the IS –Khorasan Province claimed responsibility which they said was in retaliation to the Indian action in J&K. Sadly, the perpetrator of the attack has been identified as Abu Khalid al Hindi, an Indian citizen from Kasargod district of Kerala. Abu Khalid was a fugitive from India’s National Intelligence Agency in connection with a 2017 terror case and had joined the IS Khorasan in 2018.
This is the second attack in two years by the Islamic State against Afghan Sikhs; the first being at Jalalabad in 2018.
The Sikh community in Afghanistan
The Sikh community of Afghanistan has a history stretching back more than 500 years. It is said that in the 15th Century when Guru Nanak visited Jalalabad, some locals joined the Sikh faith and their progeny continued to flourish till date. Many merchant families from Punjab settled in Afghanistan in the 18th Century and dominated the regional trade in dry fruits and herbs. In the 19th Century, the dominant Sikh Empire made several incursions into Afghanistan, capturing large swathes of territories around the Khyber Pass. The Sikhs were well represented in business, and government positions in the 1940s and a lot of them were wealthy landowners. In fact, many Sikh families, fleeing the violence of partition in 1947 in northern Punjab, sought sanctuary in Afghanistan rather than escaping to India. The Sikhs totally assimilated in the local culture, adopted local customs and spoke Dari or Pashto.
Why target the Sikhs?
In the 1880s the population of the Sikh's were about 220,000. Sikhs lived in small pockets and were spread over Jalalabad, Ghazni, Kabul and few in Kandhar. In 1992, thousands of Sikh's fled their homes to India, the better off going to the UK and Canada. The population of Sikh's dwindled to about 1500, and there are only about 250 families as of today.
Afghanistan's constitution, while recognising only Islam as the official religion, assures protection to minorities including the Sikhs to practise their religion. However, as the extremist influence has grown, the Sikhs have been finding it increasingly difficult to co-exist. The bulk of the Sikhs left during the civil war (1989-96) and later when the Taliban was ruling, many were given asylum in India. In fact, during the Taliban regime, they had to pay jizya, the religious tax for non-Muslims and had to wear a yellow patch on their breast pocket, like the Jews under the Nazis. The Karzai and Ghani governments have been considerate towards the Sikh community, but discrimination still persists as they are barred from government jobs, viewed as immigrants or threatened for ransom because they are considered rich.
More recently, they have become even more vulnerable. With international focus once again on Afghanistan and interplay of multiple interest groups, minorities like the Sikh and the Shia’s provide lucrative and relatively easy targets to embarrass the Kabul government and the U.S. Such attacks highlight the shaky grip of the U.S. supported government. Also, the Pakistani ISI supported militant groups occasionally target Indian interests in Afghanistan to embarrass India and highlight its vulnerabilities in Afghanistan.
The boiling cauldron in Afghanistan
Afghanistan today is in a state of flux and the rising tide of violence, including the attack on Sikhs, is indicative of the turmoil that lies in wait once the last of the American soldiers have departed.
Since President Trump said that he would leave Afghanistan, there seems to have been a free for all situation. On March 9th 2020, two presidents took oath simultaneously, with neither having any kind of control over the war-torn country. The "peace" agreement between the United States and the Taliban only sped up the process of the Taliban's return to mainstream insurgency. The United States had ousted them out of power in 2001. After waging a bloody and costly counter-insurgency campaign for almost two decades, the U.S. has not been able to extinguish their fighting capacity militarily. Today, the Taliban appear to be an even stronger military entity.
The IS, perhaps chose to target the Sikhs to drive home the point that they too exist in the power equation in Afghanistan. The IS’s central group operates in Afghanistan through Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). Territorially, the IS may have diminished and its hierarchy remains uncertain post the death of Abu-Bakr Al Bhagdadi in October last year. The IS-K is led by a disgruntled former Taliban leader Abdul Rauf, who switched sides along with some other Pakistani and Afghan leaders. In effect, the IS-K has little to do with the IS ideology but more to do with the internal rifts of the Taliban.
The fact that the IS-K quickly developed a knack of conducting large attacks in Kabul, a stronghold of the Taliban's operations, showed its growing operational capacity.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, 90 percent of the 9000 Afghan refugees in India are Sikh's. India's newly amended Citizenship act has allowed for the naturalisation of all Sikh’s and Hindu’s living in neighbouring countries including Afghanistan, escaping from persecution. The remaining Sikhs can benefit from it if they so desire.
India reacted strongly to the killings at the highest levels of its administration.
India enjoys an excellent relationship with the Ghani administration in Kabul. It would not like to put too much pressure on President Ghani at this juncture on account of the safety of Indian origin minorities. The Kabul government has its military limitations, and there is little it can do to prevent such suicide attacks. Nevertheless, the fear of more such attacks would necessitate that India take up with the U.S. to ensure the safety of minorities in Afghanistan is provided for, even post their withdrawal.
However, for a government under pressure domestically for the Citizen Amendment Act, this incident highlighted the need for such an act to provide sanctuary to minorities of Indian origin living in neighbouring countries. The Act is a clear enunciation of India's intent to welcome all such persecuted minorities if the need so arises.
Afghanistan already experiences political strife, and the resurgence of the IS-K will only complicate matters further.