25 Sikhs have been killed and dozens injured after a Gurdwara in Kabul was attacked early on Wednesday morning. Some 200 Sikhs including women and children had been congregating for an hour before the first reported shots were fired at approximately 7am. Initial reports suggested that a group dressed as Policemen and including suicide bombers entered the building firing indiscriminately before holding some of the Sikhs hostage for over six hours, as Kabul Police forces tried to get a handle on the situation. Later reports officially recorded that the initial information had been inaccurate and that the atrocity was the work of one lone gunman – although this version of events is still being contested. ‘Islamic State Khorasan’ which is an ISIL off-shoot has claimed responsibility.
The response of the Sikh community worldwide has been one of shock, particularly in North America where up until 2015, Canadian politician Manmeet Singh Bhullar had instigated moves to bring Sikh families from Afghanistan permanently into his country. Tragically Bhullar died in a roadside vehicle accident and although in the time since, his legacy has been enshrined in the founding of the Manmeet Singh Bhullar Foundation earlier this year, unmotivated bureaucrats have kept these families in limbo – something that the WSO has now called upon Government ministers to remedy.
The plight of Afghan Sikhs is complex, like so much in the troubled region. The repeated rise and fall of the Taleban over the last thirty years has led to the Sikh population diminishing from numbers in the hundreds of thousands to now just a few thousand. Many were able to migrate to the UK, continental Europe, North America, as well as heading east into the Punjab; sadly others were not so fortunate. As with the case of Sikh and Hindu leaders killed in a targeted car bomb in Kabul in 2018, much of the focus following this atrocity rests rightly with the victims – profiling who they were to give respect to their identity as Sikhs, and that they maintained their way of life in the face of such oppression. That is of little comfort going forward though – not only for the community that continues to reside there, but also to the idea of Sikh settlement in a land that was two centuries ago part of the Sikh nation.
It is difficult to consider resolutions specific to the Afghan Sikh community at such a sensitive time, but it is something that must take place at the most significant levels of Sikhdom and with some urgency. US forces that have occupied the country for almost two decades are slated to pull out all remaining troops by the summer of 2021 and with the political hierarchy continuing to prove unstable – there are two competing Presidents being negotiated with in parallel, although the victor of Presidential elections last year Ashraf Ghani is almost universally recognised over his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah – it does not bode well for Sikhs and other minorities; thirty members of the Shia Hazara community were murdered in a bomb blast earlier this month which again was claimed as the work of Islamic State Khorasan. The capabilities to engage in this geo-political arena exist within the Panth, but they have yet to be harnessed in any meaningful way.
At the root of recent violence in Afghanistan, ‘Islamic State Khorasan’ is a group nurtured and built by ISIL, comprising members of the organisation who left Iraq and Syria to return home. Many of these battle-hardened and experienced Jihadists have been successful in gaining support from disaffected Islamists across the region, including in neighbouring countries Pakistan and India. The seemingly-eternal struggle between the two nuclear powers of the sub-continent only adds to the complexity of Afghan politics, and intensifies the role that could be played by Sikh leaders from Punjab or elsewhere. To this backdrop,, everyday members of the Sikh community in both Punjab and overseas propose solutions and highlight options that don’t take this into account; in some cases the suggestions, whilst well intentioned and principled, are more indicative of how much we have failed to keep up with the powerful and competing interests that dominate 21st century Earth.
By way of example, two notions that are commonly mooted are: ensuring that the Sangat in Kabul is suitably armed to defend itself; and, tackling Islamist extremism. Both tap into philosophical and historically relevant aspects of who Sikhs are, but what is glaringly omitted are the details, dangerously so in fact because they open the community up to questions that most of us are ill-equipped to respond to. If we want to speak of arming the Afghan Sikh community, naturally we could extend that to Sikhs wherever we are in the World, whether a minority community or not, and ask questions of what those arms look like, how we will be trained to use them, what protocol will be followed in organising ourselves to self-preserve and so on. It is not impossible to achieve something like this, but looking at the present skill-set and cohesive structure of the community (or lack thereof) one can conclude that perhaps we are trying to walk before we fly. Similarly, to continually talk of countering Islamists (or sometimes expressed solely as Islam by some) without appreciating the divisions and backgrounds of the global Muslim community is to go into battle with a foe that one does not know – an endeavour doomed to failure before it begins. ‘Islamic State Khorasan’ is a case in point: it’s origins lie in Salafism, a revivalist form within the Sunnis, and one that not only transcends borders in activity, but thinks ideologically outside of the present State formation. ISIL and its counterparts like ‘Islamic State Khorasan’ have managed to evade destruction at the hands of the US-allied forces for many reasons, many of which are based on their foundation and place within the wider body of Islam; whether we Sikhs will fare any better, with limited resources and non-existent systems when compared to the superpowers of the World is obvious.
One would hope that this tragedy is not repeated. But it most probably will, for once the immediate response subsides, and the Sikh orgs of the world cannot recall the strongly-worded press releases that they issued, we will all move on and drop our guard once more. It may be somewhere else next time, but the setting will be the same and the circumstances just as despicable. Wouldn’t it be justice to some degree for those slain Afghan Sikhs if we were to choose now to collaborate, cooperate and organise, to help those left behind in Kabul by bringing about the change needed? Perhaps that would be a fitting tribute to the lives they led – unflinching in their faith, identifying as Sikh at the cost of being labelled ‘Kaffir’ and taking their last breath at the feet of the Guru.