A few days ago, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India announced its ‘recent decision’ “to facilitate the return of Afghan Hindu and Sikh community members facing security threats in Afghanistan to India.”[i] It was also 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”. The statement was issued by MEA 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. New Delhi also expressed appreciation to the Afghan leadership, security forces and the tribal elders whose efforts secured his return.[ii] There were reports about the kidnapping and abduction of another minor Afghan Sikh girl from Kabul recently who was later be reunited with the family due to the efforts of the Afghan government.[iii] Incidents of repeated targeting of the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs in addition to the gruesome March 25 attack by the Islamic State, on a Gurudwara in the Shor Bazaar locality in Kabul this year that left over 25 dead, seems to have played a trigger behind the decision.[iv] Earlier in 2018, a suicide attack in Jalalabad marked one of the deadliest assaults on Afghan minorities, and nearly wiped out the entire Afghan Sikh and Hindu leadership, shook the members of these communities and forced many to seek refuge in foreign countries.[v]
According to reports, following the March 2020 attack, about 600 members of the Afghan Hindu and Sikhs communities presently in Afghanistan made multiple appeals to the Indian Embassy and wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs in India, seeking immediate evacuation and rescue.[vi] The government decided that Afghan Hindus and Sikhs who had applied for long-term visas to India would be given priority visas and the opportunity to apply for long-term residency once they arrived in India.[vii] The process, however got stalled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent grounding of flights.
The first group to be granted visas by the Indian Embassy comprised of 11 members of the Sikh community in Afghanistan which reached New Delhi on 26th July. Pritpal Singh, a journalist and documentary film maker from the Afghan Sikh community currently based in United Kingdom said that “the entire Afghan Sikh and Hindu diaspora 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. Our community has suffered greatly in the hands of extremist organisations…the news comes as a great relief and hopefully the end of their suffering.”[viii] Six-month visas were issued for 11 persons, including Nidan Singh, the abducted girl and the families of two brothers, who were killed in the March attack.[ix] The community is hopeful that eventually all the remaining Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan will be given asylum in India.
The members of the Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities in India are extremely thankful to the Indian Government and welcomed the option of emergency exit. Their main concern has been the “safety and security” of the remaining Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan who have been shaken by the repeated attacks on the country’s tiny religious minorities. In an interview Lala Sher Singh, 63, who lives near a Sikh temple in Kabul that was attacked in March, said the community had shrunk so much that his thoughts were occupied “day and night” by a fear that the next assault might not leave enough people who can perform the final rituals for the dead.[x] An Afghan Sikh gentleman in New Delhi who was granted Indian citizenship last year, on the condition of anonymity stated that, “My family were among the initial groups of Afghan Sikhs who fled Kabul after the Mujahideen takeover. Since then most of the people who could leave Afghanistan, have left. Those who still remain there, in most cases are stuck because they do not have the required resources (and support) to undertake the journey. India’s decision has positively impacted those helpless people.”[xi]
Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management (DSGM) has taken the responsibility to provide temporary accommodation to the members of the communities upon their arrival in India. According to a leader of the Afghan Sikh community in India who was personally present to receive those arriving from Afghanistan: “All of them have been taken to Rakab Ganj Gurudwara where they will be quarantined for next couple of weeks, after that all the required paper work will be initiated.”[xii] He further mentioned that until DSGM arranged suitable accommodation for the families who were brought to India, they would be staying at the residential section of the Gurudwara. On further probing about the mechanism for supporting the arriving Afghans in India and whether they expected any assistance from the government, the interviewed members of DSGM stated that “from the Indian Government’s side the important task was to bring them to India, which it did. Now they have to follow the law of the land and do the necessary paperwork and we will assist them in the process.”[xiii]However, supporting the new arrivals would entail significant logistics, finance, bureaucratic navigation and co-ordination among various stakeholders in India, as a result, they think, if certain NGOs also come forward and provide assistance, it would be greatly beneficial for the asylum seekers.[xiv]
A section of international media[xv] has highlighted the ‘agonizing dilemma’ the option of emergency exit brings with it. In Afghanistan, they had livelihoods but spent their days dreading the next attack, while in India a new beginning would most likely mean struggle against extreme poverty, especially due to the economic slump exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Based on their own experiences, the interviewed members of Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities accepted that transition phase in any country is bound to be difficult, more so, given the worldwide crisis because of the pandemic, “Is anything more important than life itself? They deserve to be alive and live in peace. We all struggled to reach to a stable position in India, but it is important to survive first!”[xvi] One member said, if they manage to escape the violence in Afghanistan and reach India, they can also avail option of repatriation to a third country through UNHCR New Delhi: “In 2015, about 65 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus from Helmand province of Afghanistan came to India, today many of them have been repatriated to countries like Canada and United Kingdom.”[xvii] Moreover, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 (CAA), 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 Sikhs and Hindus seeking naturalisation, who moved to India before the cut-off date of December 31, 2014. There are options, which the members of Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities can avail (both in India and from India ), but the foremost step is to take them out of Afghanistan safely, which the recent decision of the Indian government promises to offer.
Overall, given the security situation in Afghanistan and the prospect of the Taliban playing a larger role in Afghan politics following the completion of the intra-Afghan negotiations, members of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities are pessimistic about their future in Afghanistan and fear that they will experience the same fate like that of the Jews of Afghanistan.[xviii]Saad Mohseni, chairman of the largest media company in Afghanistan after the 2018 Jalalabad attacks wrote. “I am not certain if the community can tolerate more pain, but we don’t want them to forget that they represent a legacy that stretches back a thousand years in Afghan history.”[xix] Pritpal Singh who has made two documentaries on the Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan, sharing Mohseni’s scepticism about the future of these communities, expressed that the government in Afghanistan should at least try to preserve the religious sites left behind by these communities in Afghanistan as a tribute to their legacy.[xx]
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]“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 23.7.2020)
[ii]Anurag Srivastava, Spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Twitter, July 18, 2020. Available at:https://twitter.com/MEAIndia/status/1284524814330470406 (Accessed on 23.7.2020)
[iii] “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 23.7.2020)
[v]“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 24.7.2020)
[vi] “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
[vii] Mujib Mashal and Fahim Abed, “India offers escape to Afghan Hindus and Sikhs Facing Attacks”. TheNewYorkTimes, July 19, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/19/world/asia/india-afghanistan-sikh-hindu.html(Accessed on 26.7.2020)
[viii]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.
[x] “India offers escape to Afghan Hindus and Sikhs Facing Attacks”. The NewYorkTimes,op.cit.
[xi] 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.
[xii] A senior leader of the Afghan Sikh and Hindus Committee in New Delhi, unwilling to disclose his identity in a telephonic interview with the author on July 27, 2020.
[xiv]Pritpal Singh in an interview with the author, July 27, 2020.
[xv] “India offers escape to Afghan Hindus and Sikhs Facing Attacks”. The NewYorkTimes,op.cit.
[xvi] Member of the Afghan Sikh community in New Delhi, unwilling to disclose his identity in a telephonic interview with the author on July 27, 2020.
[xvii] A senior leader of the Afghan Sikh and Hindus Committee in New Delhi, unwilling to disclose his identity in a telephonic interview with the author on July 27, 2020.
[xix] Saad Mohseni “Stay, Afghanistan needs you”. The Tribune, June 6, 2018.Available at: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/comment/stay-afghanistan-needs-you--615681
(Accessed on 1.8.2020)
[xx]Pritpal Singh in an interview with the author, July 27, 2020.