IN SEARCH OF SAFETY: SAGA OF AFGHAN SIKHS

Nirmal Singh

THE GOOD TIDINGS

Our readers would be glad to know the development shared by S Tarlochan Singh, ex MP and Chairman, Minorities Commission, India on 5 September, 2020 that more than 400 Sikhs from Kabul have arrived in New Delhi. About a hundred more are expected to come in the next batch. More than 100 Sikhs that remain in Afghanistan, do not want to leave the country. With this development well on the way to completion, Sikhs can breathe easy regarding the Afghan Sikh community.

We are also informed that the entire expenditure on their air travel has been borne by Vikramjit Singh Sawhney, Chairman Sun Group, Delhi. United Sikhs provided help with procurement of passports. Happy to get away, they did not forget to bring the Guru Granth sawrups with them.  Initially they have been put up in Gurudwara Sarais and the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara  Management Committee [DSGMC]will be coordinating their local care.

Sardar Dileep Singh Sethi of USA and his associates will pay for board, lodging and education of the group for two years as told by Sardar Khajinder Singh, President of Afghan Hindu-Sikh Organization. He has been coordinating all the welfare activities for Afghanis for many years. All in all it has been a sewa mission where several organizations and persons have contributed, which is now close to coming to a successful conclusion.

SOME BACKGROUND[1]

Afghanistan connection of Sikhs goes back to the time of Gurus. Half a millennium back, Guru Nanak had visited Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Sultanpur in Afghanistan during his fourth udasi – [1519-21]. Later Guru Har Rai is said to have sent Sikh missionaries to Kabul who set up a dharamsal there. Some Hukamnamas [messages] addressed to the sangat at Kabul by the Gurus are a testimony to the significance of Afghan Sikhs in Sikh history.

In 1947, during the India’s partition riots, some Sikh and Hindu families found it easier to flee to Afghan territory for safety. The community continued to thrive under the Shah’s regime and later into the 80’s in Najibullah era and the population of Afghani Sikhs and Hindus rose to about two lakhs – 60% or so of them being Sikhs. As Soviets troops supporting the Afghan regime were to start withdrawing from the country, a Gurdwara in Jalalabad was stormed and 13 Sikhs gunned down in 1988. In 1989, Gurdwara Guru Teg Bahadur in Jalalabad was hit by rockets killing 17 Sikhs.

As situation was getting worse, Afghan and Indian government are credited to have helped the Hindus and Sikhs to leave country on a pilgrimage passport for India and Indian Embassy set up a visa desk at Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul to issue entry visas. This enabled around 50K Hindus and Sikhs to travel to India from where many made their way to countries in Europe and the US. After capturing Kabul in 1992, President Najibullah was deposed. The development set off tremendous anxiety among Sikhs and Hindus and their population depleted very rapidly. The attack by an IS gunman at Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib in Kabul on March 25, 2020, killing 25 worshippers caused the efforts for evacuation of the residual population to be redoubled, and it is the culmination of that push, resulting in the arrival of 400 evacuees in Delhi, that we had started with.

SOME THOUGHTS GOING FORWARD

This story of the tribulations and finally evacuation of the beleaguered Sikh-Hindu community from a country where they had lived for generations is not the first, nor can the saga of Afghan Sikh- Hindu community  be reduced to the story of travails and evacuation of the rear group of a few hundred. Almost 200,000 have preceded them. The use of a hyphenated Sikh- Hindu term also bears some explanation.

To understand the hyphenation of Hindu-Sikh, we have to go back to the mass migration of most of Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab and NWFP during the partition of 1947. Both Hindus and Sikhs were targeted and when it became unsafe to live in their houses, both the communities had to move into any spacious places with some living facilities. The large Gurdwaras in some places served that need. Hindus and Sikhs lived in those sanctuaries in 1947 till they could find a way to make exit from the country as they did in Kabul and other places in Afghanistan. For a time, the differences were sunk – the hyphenation had taken place! 

Coming back to Sikh evacuees, the hope is that they may be finally helped to migrate to Canada or US who are said to be empathetic to their plight and may accept to take them in. At the same time there is talk that some international Sikh organizations have raised funds from Sikh diaspora for the rehabilitation of Afghani Sikhs. That would be a welcome gift starting out.

We should remember that reduced to its basics, safety of life and property is largely a local issue but the decision for dispersal of any group from their home and hearth is triggered by changes in the orientation of majority community to turn unwelcoming to the extent of being threateningly hostile at the places where the group may have lived peacefully and thrived for past generations. It is a decision taken under duress and it is not surprising that some people choose to stay on due to assurance of local safety or for the fear that things may be worse elsewhere. Based on what I have seen to be the growth [and safety, security] experience of those who stayed back in Pakistan as compared to similarly placed people who moved to India, I can almost conclusively say that a value has to be placed on an environment of freedom from fear and prejudice vis-à-vis a sense of transient safety or comfort. I commend moving out of comfort zone for the generations to follow to have a less fettered access to opportunity.

Talking of dispersal in the context of PIOs, two patterns are evident. One is where the threatened PIO community headed back to their roots in India when they felt opportunities getting restricted in their adopted land and the other where the PIOs migrated farther afield to other societies by a repeat of getting the needed papers and taking chances to resettle there.

Obviously the story of Afghan Sikhs has had both the above patterns. We hardly heard about the travails of those who migrated to other societies but we know that we have had a pretty well set community of Afghan Sikhs living in vicinity Long Island, some of whom I had come to know of through a friend in CT two decades back. The profile of Sikh community in Kabul was mixed as I gathered during my stay in 1987 as UN Adviser. The security environment was rigorous and movement restrictions did not encourage socialization with locals but Sikhs were known to have good presence in trading and currency markets.  

 The case that we are talking of would fall in second genre viz people who have no recourse but to seek to return to original homeland and then figure out if they have options other than staying on. This type of situation actually inheres a major challenge because the Sikh community has to mobilize resources for their rescue, evacuation and rehabilitation. The saving grace may be that they have basic travel papers.

The changing attitude of majority can manifest in various ways but it does affect the economic condition of minorities. Take the case of Meghalya Dalit Sikhs or the farmers who turned Terai or Marshy lands in UP/Gujarat into money spinners – in all cases the mainstream would like the land back in their possession. It can happen in Ukraine, Georgia and Ecuador. These cases do not pose risk of personal safety but potential of causing economic distress is obvious.  

It so happens that calls for help by migrant Sikhs may be muffled but we know of their existence in all the affluent societies. In fact quite a few of locally owned or our own small businesses and farming sector use such labor at relatively lower wages. With increase in regulatory measures, other social and political changes as well as awakening in this class of work force, problems of undocumented workers are waiting to explode. When that happens, Sikhs may find that the gaps in their political and social network are constraining and needed to be expanded.

In this mixed scenario, the Gurdwara infrastructure and its traditional structure have helped and the serai, langar and sewa bonded together by Guru Presence have proved to be a great boon for Sikhs in adversity. With Sikhs living as small minority in almost all the jurisdictions, they may be well advised to recognize that Gurdwara as a potential sanctuary is not only good for spiritual quest but also as a strategic backup in adverse circumstances. The other point we should think about is the care of the heritage left behind when Sikhs decide to leave a country. Care of heritage is a continuing need and we should not ignore it. We know it to be a very difficult task from our 1947 partition experience. Small numbers of Sikhs left behind may be in no position to be much help. The responsibility then falls on the global Sikhs and we should be conscious of this eventuality when facilitating total withdrawal of Sikhs from a place of historical significance to Sikhs.


[1] https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/sikhs-and-hindus-of-afghanistan-how-many-remain-why-they-want-to-leave-6524825/

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