India’s foreign policy has its task cut out – to ensure the safety of the Hindu-Sikh community within Afghanistan or its safe repatriation to India (or migration elsewhere) with full citizenship and rehabilitation. In a positive move, New Delhi has issued long-term visas to members of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities and offered them the right to live in India without any limitation. India’s envoy to Afghanistan, Vinay Kumar, has said these Afghan citizens must take the final call.
The Jalalabad bombing (July 1, 2018) has complicated matters for New Delhi and Kabul. India has given sustained support to successive governments in Afghanistan (barring the Taliban that behaved shabbily during the Kandahar episode); Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested personal capital in support of “Afghanistan’s multicultural fabric”. India has invested in many large development projects, but growing insecurity has forced a slowdown. Seven Indian engineers kidnapped in May, in Baghlan province, remain captive.
Some things are notable about the Jalalabad incident. First, Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, though security agencies are yet to confirm this. Islamic State fighters are fleeing Syria in droves under pressure from the Syrian Arab Army and needs safe havens; Pakistan which has long desired to be leader of the Islamic world seems a natural destination. How ISIS coexists with other terrorist groups there remains to be seen, but Nangarhar, where the attack occurred, borders Pakistan and is a terrorist stronghold despite sustained operations by Afghan commandos and American airstrikes.
Second, Avtar Singh Khalsa, an important Sikh community leader and among the 19 victims in a convoy of Hindus and Sikhs that was going to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, may have been an intended target. He was planning to contest Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in October, and would have been elected unopposed to the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) as the seat he was planning to contest was reserved for minorities by Presidential decree in 2016. The ISIS statement disparaged Hindus and Sikhs as “polytheists” and may have aimed at preventing even token political diversity in the nation.
Afghanistan’s Hindu-Sikh minority has lived under various strains for decades. The rich fled to India after the assassination of President Daud in 1978. The assassination of President Najibullah in 1996 made life more difficult and a silent exodus began towards the West and India. In 2016, TOLOnews reported that 99 percent of Hindus and Sikhs had left Afghanistan in the past three decades. From 2,20,000 in the 1980’s, their number shrank to 15,000 during the mujahideen era followed by Taliban rule, and currently stands at barely 1,350. The television channel said the main reasons for their flight were religious discrimination and official neglect. Under the mujahideen-Taliban their lands and assets were seized by warlords, reducing them to penury. These were never restored after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Under the Taliban, Hindus and Sikhs wore yellow armbands and were not allowed to hold government jobs. Even post-Taliban, bigoted neighbours harassed them while cremating their dead, children were bullied and could not attend schools, and the community as a whole was made to feel like outsiders. Awtar Singh of Paktia, head of the Hindu Council in Afghanistan, told TOLOnews that he had lost ten members of his family in the Afghan conflict; two brothers in the army had died fighting the mujahideen. He said discrimination against the community began in 1992 “when people started counting who were Hindu or Muslim and Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara”. TOLOnews observed that Hindus and Sikhs once had thriving businesses in the country, but now faced increasing poverty. There are no Sikhs or Hindus in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Only two gurdwaras function, one each in Jalalabad and Kabul; most temples are deserted.
The timing was political. It came the day after the government ordered Afghan security forces to resume offensive operations against the Taliban on expiry of the government’s 18-day ceasefire that overlapped with the Taliban’s three-day ceasefire for Eid, which Islamic State did not join. It coincided with the visit of US envoy Alice Wells, who came to pressure the Taliban to engage with Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban is demanding direct talks with the United States, which Washington has refused. Wells said, “Right now it’s the Taliban leaders … who aren’t residing in Afghanistan, who are the obstacle to a negotiated political settlement”, and added that Islamabad had to do more to bring Taliban to the negotiating table.
The attack is a setback to the Afghan government as it has forced the minorities to weigh the prospects of continued survival in that country. Tejvir Singh, secretary of a national panel of Hindus and Sikhs, told Reuters, “I am clear that we cannot live here anymore… We are Afghans. The government recognizes us, but terrorists target us because we are not Muslims”. Sikhs who took shelter in the Indian consulate in Jalalabad added, “We are left with two choices: to leave for India or to convert to Islam”. Some Sikhs, however, said their ties with Afghanistan were too deep to contemplate leaving.
The situation is grim. Hours before the Jalalabad bombing, terrorists set fire to a boys’ school in Khogyani district and beheaded three workers, a standard tactic of Islamic State, which had threatened to attack schools in the area as revenge for the US-Afghan military operations. It had specifically stated that it would also attack schools with girl students. The Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs a program for displaced students, noted that, “Afghan schools are increasingly at risk on military, ideological and political fault lines, with attacks increasing in eastern Afghanistan”.
In a heart-warming gesture on July 3, 2018, as members of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee protested against the attack outside the Afghanistan Embassy in Delhi, Afghan diplomats and officials joined the protests. Stating that Afghans were also victims of cross-border terrorism, they said ambassador Shaida Abdali viewed the incident as “a shared pain” and the embassy “was obliged to protest together with the Afghan Sikhs residing in India who also found support from Sikh brothers of India”.
The attack underlines the fragility of the regime in Kabul. The rogue elements in Pakistan cannot be controlled without joint and concerted action by the United States, Russia, India, and China.
The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library; the views expressed are personal
The Pioneer, 10 July 2018