AFGHANISTAN CRISIS AND ITS IMPACT ON THE NATIVE SIKHS
Afghanistan is a landlocked country in South-Central Asia which has been variably described as located within South Asia, Central Asia, and sometimes even in West Asia (or the Middle East). Afghanistan is geostrategically located connecting South, West and Central Asia. It once was the focal point of the Silk Road and it had been a target of various invaders and empire builders such as Alexander the Great, the Mauryans, the Mongols etc. In the 20th century, the famous poet Mohammad Iqbal, described Afghanistan as “the heart of Asia”, while viceroy of India Lord Curzon called it the “cockpit of Asia”.1 The British fought three wars to capture and control the area but miserably failed. Fiercely protective of their identity and liberty, the Afghan tribes could never be subjugated by an outside power for a long time. An internecine conflict among the Afghan tribes has kept the area boiling since millennium. Its geostrategic location, rugged terrain, presence of greedy neighbors mounted by internal violence, the history of Afghanistan is full of crises.
Since the beginning of 20th century the area has attracted worldwide attention, and the country has undergone from crisis to crises. Scholars have looked at this quagmire from different angles and a lot has been written in the world media about Afghanistan in recent times. The present paper is a modest attempt to look into the Afghanistan crisis and its possible impact on ethnic minority, the Sikhs.2
Genesis of Afghanistan crisis
Over the last five decades, Afghanistan has been in turmoil. It has witnessed three systematic changes in that period; monarchy to Marxist to Islamic fundamentalists to the present one, the constitutional democracy. The plight of ethnic minorities and enhancement of Afghanistan crisis were two identical developments that happened in the country over the last 30 years or so. As the Afghanistan crisis intensified it was followed by the plight of ethnic minorities living in the country. During the period of King Zahir Shah from 1933-1973 till 1991 Afghanistan remained a safe place for people from all walks. Even during the Soviet intervention from 1979-1989, ethnic minorities enjoyed greater liberty. Afghanistan suffered from chronic instability and conflict during the civil war from 1990-1996. The civil war ended with Taliban3 capturing Kabul. The emergence of the Taliban brought stability after nearly two decades of conflict. But their extreme version of Islam attracted widespread criticism. The Taliban are supported by Pakistan and its ISI (Inter Services Intelligence). On the other hand, Buharrudin Rabbani led Northern Alliance (supported by India and United Nations) from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Taliban were recognized as the legitimate government by only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. It was during the Taliban regime from 1996-2001, the ethnic minority suffered greater casualities.
As the struggle for power intensified Taliban suicide attackers posing as journalists, killed Ahmad Shah Masood, the prominent leader of Northern Alliance, better known as “Lion of Panjshir”. Northern Alliance termed it as the handiwork of the Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). This incident further intensified the violent struggle between the two armed militias in the later days. Two days after Masood’s assassination, World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were bombed in the United States on September 11, 2001. The United States decided to go to war against the Taliban regime when the Taliban, immediately after September 11 attacks, refused US demand to extradite Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, whom the Administration accused of prime authorship of the September 11 attacks. The US-NATO forces along with the help of Afghan dissident groups oustead Taliban control of the north first, followed by southern Afghanistan. Within ten days of the war Taliban were largely defeated. The Bush Administration decided that a friendly regime in Kabul was needed to create the conditions under which US forces could battle and search for Al Qaeda activists in Afghanistan. US reviewed its policy towards India and Indian government also showed full support to war against terrorism.
Since 1979, no nationally-agreed-upon government had existed in Afghanistan and it was felt necessary to have a transition period before a permanent government was established. A nationally-agreed-upon government would require at least one Loya Jirga (grand council of Afghan chieftains) to be convened; however, in the absence of law and order and in the wake of the American-Northern Alliance victory, immediate steps were felt to provide a worthwhile government in Afghanistan. In early December 2001, a pan-Afghan conference was held in Bonn (Germany) agreed to create an Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) for the duration of six-months and appoint Hamid Karzai (an India educated Pashtun) as the nation’s interim leader. The Emergency Loya Jirga was held from June 10-21, 2002 in Kabul. It was the first time in 23 years of war and instability those representatives from across the country came together to elect the head of state. The Loya Jirga was mandated to select the head of state as well as the structure of the Transitional Authority and to approve its key officials. Despite some procedural irregularities in electing the head of state, the Jirga came up with a clear winner in the form of Hamid Karzai, a Durrani Pashtun, through secret balloting.4
By the end of 2002, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were largely defeated, although most of their leaders and unknown numbers of their forces remained at large. Sporadic fighting between the rival forces however continued. Rather than consolidation of a centralized writ in the country, Afghanistan reverted to the effective control of the regional warlords who had held power before Taliban. Forces, such as that led by Afghan Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (founder and leader of the Hezb-e-Islami political party) who opposed the new regime. On the other hand Britain, Canada, and other NATO nations provided forces for various military, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations to the infant regime. Many other nations also agreed to contribute humanitarian aid as the United Nations estimated that $15 billion would be needed over the next 10 years to rebuild Afghanistan.
The Sikhs in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is a heterogeneous society of various ethnic groups.5 The overwhelming majority of Afghans are Muslims6 by faith. The Hindu and Sikh ethnic minorities are the only non- Muslim minorities in Afghanistan. The ethnic minorities Hindu and Sikh religion are routinely identified with the Indian subcontinent. It is easy to conclude that the Hindus and Sikhs found in Afghanistan must by definition be of Indian origin, and were found in the highlands of Afghanistan and beyond that into the steppes of Central Asia in more or less distant past.7
It is evident Guru Nanak Dev Ji – First Guru of the Sikhs, visited Afghanistan on his return from Baghdad and Mecca to India in the 16th century. Though, the first presence of Sikhs in the country is said to be roughly 200 years ago.8 The Sikhs were first brought to Afghanistan by the Britishers in the 19th century. Since then they had been working as traders in various provinces of Afghanistan. Their fortunes faded, especially during the civil war in the 1990s which was followed by the rule of the Taliban. The demolition of Babri Masjid (Mosque) also led to demolition of Hindu and Sikh religious structures. The factional fighting further destroyed whatever was left of them. Taliban destroyed nearly 70 historical Sikh Gurdwaras in Afghanistan after the demolition of Babri Mosque.9
Of the 37,464 Sikh families living in the eastern region before the civil war began, only 400 are left in five provinces. According to one estimate, only 170 Sikh families now remain in Afghanistan.10 There were 64 Sikh worship places across the country three decades ago, but only nine of them exist today.11 Of the estimated 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs living in Afghanistan 10 years ago, most have left. Only about 1,000 Sikhs remain in the country today, half of them concentrated in Jalalabad, the provincial and commercial capital of the eastern Nangarhar Province.12 These remaining Sikhs are still living and working in Afghanistan. There are 5 groups of Hindus and Sikhs left in Afghanistan. They are:
1. Kandharis - Language: Kandhari (a dialect of Siraiki mainly lived in Kandahar, later some moved to Kabul.
2. Kabulis - Language: Kabuli (a dialect of Punjabi), mainly lived in Kabul.
3. Sindhis - Language: Sindhi mainly lived in Kandahar.
4. Sikhs - Language: Punjabi mainly lived in Kabul.
5. Pashtun - Hindus living in other rural areas who spoke Pashtu.
The end of 2001 also determined the end of Taliban regime. After the selection of Hamid Karzai as the head of AIA, a Loya Jirga met in 2002 to elect a transitional government for Afghanistan. In the first Loya Jirga convened after 23 years, the minority groups were represented by four delegates at the tribal gathering which selected new leadership for Afghanistan.13 The first Parliament Election was held in 2004 and Avtar Singh, a native Sikh was elected as the member of Loya Jirga. For many years, Sikhs were a prominent part of Kabul’s commercial scene, occupying prominent positions as traders, entrepreneurs, and, later, currency exchange specialists. But in today’s Afghanistan, many Sikhs find themselves marginalized and struggling to maintain their distinct cultural profile in Kabul. Since 2002, Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited India several times and extended his support to safeguard the interests of ethnic minorities particularly emanated from India.
India viewed the origin and rise of Taliban against the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity because the Taliban imposed the fundamentalist Islamic rules, curbed the liberty of masses by putting the women behind the veils and enhaced the ethnic division among Afghans. Even during the Taliban regime India supported Northern Alliance. US-NATO realized the uncertainty of winning the war in Afghanistan and fixed the deadline till June, 2014 to leave the country.14 Taliban insurgency and its emergence, as potent force also posed a great threat to US-NATO presence in Afghanistan.15 The idea of talks to Taliban and including them into the government was put forward. The idea emanates from the assumption that Taliban comprises of elements with good and bad tendencies, so good Taliban should be given adequate representation in the national government. India opposed the idea of good or bad Taliban. India hold the view that Taliban is Taliban and there is no need to talk to them or include them in government. As the uncertainty of viable future of Afghanistan is looming large, the freedom and security of non-Muslim ethnic minorities viz., the Sikhs remains in danger.
Afghanistan is a crisis driven state. Indo-Afghan relations in 21st century reached a new era of co-operation and mutual understanding. In the wake of US-NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan till 2014 and increasing insurgency, India needs to be active not passive to leave the country on its own. A failure to resist the insurgency will result in the likely collapse of the national government and Taliban domination of Afghanistan. A failure to stabilize Afghanistan will in turn further cultivate Pakistan’s jihadi assets to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan-perceived or actual.16 The first and foremost concern of India is to establish, a peaceful and viable Afghanistan to its extended neighborhood. India needs to take every possible step to assure the ethnic minorities in Afghanistan of greater liberty and religious freedom.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2012, All