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Friday, April 16, 2021

Afghanistan: Not a safe abode for Religious Minorities

The ill-fated attack

March 25, 2020, is a day to be remembered with grief for the Sikh community in Afghanistan but all over the world. Four terrorists rushed inside the Har Rai Sahib Gurudwara in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan. Around 150 people reported having been worshipping inside. But the gunmen relentlessly resorted to firing and killed 25 worshippers and injured eight others. In this one hour long ambush, the Afghan Security Forces killed all the four terrorists. Kabul Police rescued 11 children from the Gurudwara.

Responsibility

The Ashraf Ghani government blamed the Haqqani Network, backed by Pakistan, for this terror attack. The Taliban, however, denied having played any role in the attack. Finally, the ISIS-Khorasan claimed responsibility for this shameful attack.

The statistics

Along with the dwindling Afghan Sikh Population, there has been a decline in the number of functional Gurudwaras too. A survey done in 2018, by the Australian Ministry of International affairs, there are only two Gurudwaras; one at Kabul and the other in Jalalabad, which are functioning. But the British Embassy, in 2019, dismissed this by stating that there are 65 Gurudwaras all over Afghanistan. Though, most of them are in a dangerous condition due to destructive attacks.

The reality check

The Afghan Sikh population has faced a lot of hatred, social exclusion, and discrimination by the Islamic militants. The Sikh community has drastically fallen from the 1970s. From 7, 00,000 Sikhs then, to less than 7,000 now. Sikh leaders in Afghanistan claim that as of now, even this number has reduced to 3,000.

In the year 2018, a convoy of Sikhs and Hindus, who were on their way to meet the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Jalalabad, were attacked by IS militants. Nineteen people ruthlessly killed along with Avtar Singh Khalsa, a leader of the Sikh community, who was supposed to run in the parliamentary elections to be held in October that year. The ISIS-Khorasan also threatened the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to pay ‘Jizya’ (a tax which is levied by an Islamic State on non-muslims) or else face the consequences.

Historically, the Sikhs and the Hindus residing in Afghanistan had entwined with the local culture. Before the 1990s, the minorities, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, had a good spell. They were empowered to be a part of the military and civil services and also delegated high positions in banks and other sectors. But in the year 1992, the Soviet-backed government collapsed, and the repressive theocracy of Taliban rule began in 1996.

The Taliban Tyranny

The oppressive regime of the Taliban changed the social scenario of Afghanistan. The Afghan society became more intolerant of the Sikhs. Not only the Taliban rulers but even the ordinary people regularly harassed the Sikhs. The men and women had to adhere to a strict dress code; children were not allowed to go to school; violence and fear etched in their minds and soul. They were isolated from the rest of the Afghan people. Social exclusion brought along unemployment, poverty, and no means of sustenance for the Sikhs. All of these led them to a very miserable life – a life that they had not anticipated. Before the Taliban rule, there were around 5,00,000 Sikhs, which have now reduced to a mere 3,000.

The Sikhs quit

The migration of Sikhs had already begun from 1979 when the Soviet-backed government came to the rule. This emigration, increased during 1992, due to the fall of the government. Furthermore, in 1996, as the rule of the Taliban began. However, the Sikhs who continued to live in Afghanistan faced extreme persecution. They were made to live in faraway areas and were isolated from the rest of the Muslim population. Until after September 2018, Sikhs migrated from these isolated areas to other cities or left Afghanistan for good.

Interestingly, during the Taliban regime, around 60 Sikh families lived in Lashkar Gah. They faced the extreme Islamist rule, where they had to wear yellow armbands to identify themselves as non-muslims. These Sikh families slowly began to leave the country only after the Taliban rule got overthrown by US-led intervention.

Condition of Minorities- then and now

Other than Sikhs, the Buddhists or the Bahais were also the victims of the tyrannical ruling of the Taliban. More than 1,500-years-old statues destroyed in the Bamiyan province.

After the fall of the Taliban, the newly drafted Afghan law has guaranteed freedom of religion for minorities within the limits of the law. Also, there is a provision to punish anyone who prevents a person from conducting any religious rites or rituals, damages places of worship, or attacks followers of any religion. However, the recent attack on the Sikhs proves that the Hindus and Sikhs still face the age-old discrimination, harassment, violence, intimidation, and pressure of religious conversion.

The present Afghan government has been unsuccessful in protecting minorities from such aggravation. The Sikhs, even today, are restricted from following their cremation of the dead rituals, forced to cut off their hair, illegal or forceful possession of their houses and properties, and a growing threat of violence, extortion, and torture. Unfortunately, the government does nothing to stop this oppression. Today, the Sikh community is found in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Ghazni, being the main cities of Afghanistan, as reported by Aljazeera.

Present situation

According to the USSD IRF Report of 2017, published in 2018, stated that out of 34.1 million of the Afghan population, the minorities, including non-muslim religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians, constituted less than 0.3%. One recent estimate shows that around 245 Sikh and Hindu families with a total of 1,300 people are still residing in Afghanistan.

The Global Peace Index 2019, has ranked Afghanistan 163rd position, proclaiming it to be a hazardous country for the minorities to live.

The Afghan government has allocated 650,000 USD to renovate the Hindu and the Sikh places of worship. At the ground level, it still needs to labor hard enough to provide the necessary facilities like schooling, shelter, health, job opportunities, and, most importantly, the right to protect the right to exist peacefully in their country.

Prioritizing this burning issue of minority protection can help Afghanistan in rendering an image of a contemporary and progressive nation on the global platform.

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