Another mindless terrorist attack on a Kabul Gurdwara has accentuated the plight of the tiny Sikh community in Afghanistan
The half a million adherents of the Sikh faith who lived Afghanistan in the 1970s constituted a vibrant section of the country’s population. They were known and recognized in the country as an industrious businesspeople who had integrated smoothly into the Afghan social architecture while still retaining and meticulously observing the religious tenets and practices that have over the centuries been deeply woven and absorbed into the overall way of life of Sikh communities that are today spread far and wide across the globe. The Gurdwara, for Sikhs, has been central not just to their faith, but equally as much to the broader Sikh society. Prayers and worship at Gurdwaras are neatly interlaced with social activities, community services and charity, making them a second home for the entire Sikh community. This is especially the case in places like Afghanistan, where over the years the Sikhs have become a tiny minority facing repeated deadly attacks from extremists and fundamentalists. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan has seen the number of Sikhs dwindle drastically from half a million to a tiny handful. Even as only about 150 Sikhs remain in Afghanistan today, last Saturday’s cowardly terrorist attack on the last remaining functional Gurdwara in Kabul, the Karte Parwan Gurdwara in the Bagh-e-Bala area, may have dealt the death blow to the miniscule, yet hardy, community’s remarkable resilience against all odds.
In the early morning of 18 June, when about 30 Sikh worshippers had assembled at the Karte Parwan Gurdwara for prayers, the peace was shattered when heavily armed gunmen launched a multi-pronged attack on them. Survivors said that the terrorists first fired at the main gate of the Gurdwara complex, killing a guard, before storming inside while shooting and throwing grenades. When the attack began, some of the assembled Sikhs escaped through a back door and took refuge in nearby buildings. A few minutes later a car bomb exploded outside the complex, shattering the walls and windows of nearby buildings. Taliban officials later said the vehicle had been prevented from reaching the Gurdwara.
Interior ministry spokesman Abdul Nafay Takor said that Taliban forces had engaged the terrorists in an hours-long gun battle. “At least one member of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) forces and an Afghan Sikh national were killed”. Another 7 people were injured in the attack. Without specifying a number, Takor added that all the attackers had been eliminated. The Pajhwok news agency later said that there were three attackers, who were all killed. Kabul residents said they heard several blasts and gunfire. TV footage showed plumes of smoke rising from the area.
Gurnam Singh, the head of the Karte Parwan Gurdwara said, “Initially, we were not allowed to enter the Gurdwara premises. But once the Taliban forces took control of the situation, we went there. We first shifted the holy Saroop (scripture) to our home nearby. Injured people were taken to hospital. Unfortunately, we lost Swinder Singh in this attack and a security guard”. Other Afghan Sikhs informed that the Gurdwara had been severely hit. Several rooms and the main prayer hall of the complex were heavily damaged by bullets, grenades and a fire that engulfed a section during the attack.
Like other religious minorities, Sikhs have been a continual target of violence in Afghanistan. This is the third major attack on Sikhs in Afghanistan since 2018. An attack on another Gurdwara in Kabul, Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara, in 2020 had killed 25 people. In the 2018 attack, Sikhs in the eastern city of Jalalabad were the target. 19 members of the community, including Sikh leader Awtar Singh Khalsa, were killed in that attack. An Afghan Sikh was quoted by the media as saying after the 18 June attack that “All our historical Gurdwaras have been destroyed already, and now the only one that was left has been, too”. Another Sikh, Sukhbir Singh Khalsa, narrated to the BBC that “At the time of the attack in Jalalabad, there were around 1,500 Sikhs in the country. After that people thought, ‘We can’t live here’”, and many fled. More left after the attack in 2020, he added, and by the time the Taliban took power last year, there were less than 300 Sikhs left in Afghanistan. Now there are just around 150. Most of those who remained were traders involved in selling herbal medicines and electronic goods brought from India and Pakistan.
Both the Jalalabad and the Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara attacks had been claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group that is active in South and Central Asia. In addition to Afghanistan, the ISKP’s area of operations includes Pakistan and Tajikistan, where they have claimed attacks, as well as Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh, where individuals have pledged allegiance to it. It came as no surprise, therefore, that the ISKP, through posts on an affiliated Telegram channel, claimed the attack and added that it was a “response to the Indian politicians who insulted the Prophet”, and “an act of support” for the Prophet. The ISKP informed that its fighter Abu Mohammad Al-Tajiki had led the attack, and that the ISKP team fought for more than three hours with Taliban fighters who tried to intervene to protect the Gurdwara. It added that al-Tajiki had succeeded in gaining entry to the Gurdwara by throwing a hand grenade at the security guard at the entrance, killing him. Upon entering, “Armed with a rifle, pistol and hand grenades, he proceeded to shoot” the worshippers, the ISKP said.
The dastardly attack drew sharp reactions, including from the Taliban and Pakistan. Islamabad condemned the attack and said that its government was “seriously concerned at the recent spate of terrorist attacks on places of worship in Afghanistan”. Some skeptical experts, however, have pointed to Pakistan’s earlier condemnation of such attacks even when evidence had suggested Pakistani involvement in ordering the attack. Pakistan’s ties with the ISKP and its role in the Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara attack have been brought out in earlier EFSAS commentaries of 27-03-2020 and 10-04-2020. At a juncture when Islamabad’s relations with the Taliban are mired in the border and other issues, and with the Taliban, appreciative of the humanitarian assistance sent recently by India, as also the massive development projects undertaken by it that have hugely benefitted the Afghan people, sending warm feelers and reconciliatory messages to New Delhi, these experts believe that last week’s attack has all the hallmarks of a Pakistani intelligence venture meant to warn both Kabul and New Delhi. The fact that the attack was undertaken just a few days after a visit by an Indian delegation to Kabul to discuss the distribution of humanitarian aid from India to Afghanistan as well as the possibility of reopening the Indian Embassy in Kabul lends some credence to this assessment.
As for the Taliban, CNN quoted its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid as tweeting that “The IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) strongly condemns the targeting of the Hindu shrine in Kabul by the enemies of the Afghan people. The IEA expresses its condolences to the families of the victims and assures that serious measures will be taken to identify and punish the perpetrators of this crime”. A day after the attack, officials of the Taliban’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) met Afghan Sikhs and offered “support for reconstruction of the damaged Gurdwara”. In a tweet, the MOI said that “The leadership of the Ministry of Interior had a sympathy meeting with Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. The Mujahideen are committed to protecting the lives and property of every citizen of this land. This cowardly attack by the enemies of peace and security of the Afghan people shows that they fear the unity of our people and we will spare no effort to support you”.
Gurnam Singh confirmed the overtures and assurances by the Taliban regime, saying that the MOI had assured that it would make serious efforts to ensure the safety of Sikhs and Hindus living in Afghanistan. He said that Maulavi Zain Ullah Aber, chief of security of the MOI, had met him and offered limited financial assistance to the families of those killed and injured. Gurnam Singh added, “We clearly told the Taliban government officials that they can see for themselves that our Gurdwara Sahib has been mostly damaged. We told them to first construct the Gurdwara Sahib for us. Whatever happened is very bad for the Afghanistan government and it has hurt everyone's heart. They promised to reconstruct the Gurdwara and it will be clear in coming days whether they are serious in their approach or not”.
International reactions to the attack included a tweet by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) saying that it “strongly condemns today’s attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul”. Calling for the protection of all minorities in Afghanistan, UNAMA stressed that “Attacks on civilians must cease immediately”. The European Union’s Ambassador to Afghanistan also condemned the attack and said that “religious (and ethnic) pluralism needs to be protected with full force”.
Quite expectedly, the strongest reactions came from India, the land in which Sikhism took birth in the 15th century and in which the vast majority of the world’s Sikhs reside. Immediately after news of the attack broke, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet, “Shocked by the cowardly terrorist attack against the Karte Parwan Gurudwara in Kabul. I condemn this barbaric attack, and pray for the safety and well-being of the devotees”. Modi later wrote a letter to the Afghan Sikh community in which he saluted its “spirit of courage and resilience against the barbaric attack”. He described the “terrorist assault on a place of worship and targeting of innocent civilian population” as a “ghastly act against humanity”. Modi expressed “India’s solidarity with the Afghan Hindu Sikh community at this difficult moment of suffering and pain”. He also wrote to Ajmeet Singh, the son of Swinder Singh, to convey his condolences.
India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, in an interaction with the media, termed the attack as unfortunate, and said that India was committed to extending all help to minorities in Afghanistan. He was quoted by The Indian Express as saying that “We have given visas to a large number of Sikhs and as flights become available, some of them will be coming back. We will look at the cases of Sikhs very very sympathetically. It was a very unfortunate incident. We have assured Sikhs and Hindus there that India will stand by its commitment”.
New Delhi also raised the Kabul attack at the UN. India’s Ambassador to the UN told the General Assembly that the ISKP attack was “yet another tragic example” of hate “against the Sikh religion” as the holy place was “attacked, desecrated and damaged”. In his strongly-worded statement, the Ambassador added that the world must “condemn hatred against non-Abrahamic religions as well” and “stop from being selective in combating religiophobias”.
The agony of the attack was best expressed by the brave members of the Afghan Sikh community who had chosen to remain back in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover on the basis of explicit assurances from Taliban officials. Al Jazeera quoted Charan Singh Khalsa, an Afghan Sikh community leader, as saying, “We have been repeatedly targeted by different groups, killed for our faith and loyalty to Afghanistan. Why then, after so many attacks, the world remains silent to our plight? We plead to nations, especially those who have Sikhs and Hindus in their governments, like Canada, the UK and India, please don’t ignore the misery of our brothers and sisters. There are special programs for Afghans at risk, but none of them highlights the threats to our community. Why does the world ignore our pain?” Another Sikh resident of Kabul, Anita, most of whose family had migrated to India after repeated attacks on the Sikh community, told Al Jazeera that she too had considered leaving after the Taliban takeover last year but had “stayed back to look after our house”. Now things were getting even worse, and that was leading Anita to strengthen her resolve to leave her beloved homeland – Afghanistan. Ragbir Singh, one of those wounded in the attack, echoed the sentiment pervading the Afghan Sikh community when he said, “There is no future for us here. I have lost all hope. Afghanistan is my homeland and I never wanted to leave... but now I am leaving”.
The cowardly and callous attack on the tiny, defenseless Afghan Sikh community has all but ensured that the once thriving community in Afghanistan may soon become a thing of the past, and that will be a loss not just for the Sikhs who have called Afghanistan home for centuries and contributed their bit to its progress, but also for an Afghanistan that is struggling to stitch together a society in the post-Western invasion milieu.