On July 19, 2020, The New York Times reported that India had offered to take in Afghan Hindus and Sikhs in an attempt to address the recent violence against those communities whose numbers have been steadily shrinking in Afghanistan. Despite what may seem like a generous offer by the Indian government, Afghan religious minorities are concerned that, as they’ve spent their entire lives in Afghanistan, they “will die from poverty” in India. Meanwhile, for Sikhs in the diaspora, the concern lies in India’s long history of persecution and violence towards minority groups.
The push to remove the Sikh and Hindu community from Afghanistan comes following a recent attack on a gurdwara in Kabul. On March 25, 2020, an ISIS gunman stormed Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib and killed 25 Sikhs. The following day, during the funeral services, there was yet another attempt to take more lives as an explosive device went off near the gate of a crematorium. These attacks elicited a number of responses from Sikhs in the diaspora, including the Sikh community in the United States which urged members of Congress to take action and provide refuge to members of the deteriorating Afghan Sikh community.
On April 1, over two dozen civil rights, human rights and interfaith organizations sent a letter to members of Congress to intervene on behalf of Sikhs and Hindus “who face extinction in Afghanistan.” The plea by these organizations and Sikh Americans was heard as 26 representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on May 4, and 20 senators sent him a letter on June 25, advocating on behalf of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan. In the letter, the senators note that:
“The Sikh and Hindu communities once numbered around 250,000 people but now have fewer than 1,000 individuals due to decades of persecution. The communities continue to face discrimination in access to housing and employment, and the Taliban has previously mandated that Sikhs and Hindus wear yellow armbands or patches as a marker of their religious status.”
Pompeo condemned the March attack at the time but there has yet to be any action taken since members of Congress sent their May and June letters to him. The lack of action from the United States to protect members of religious minorities is highly hypocritical Pompeo established the International Religious Freedom Alliance to “[advocate] for people who are imprisoned or otherwise persecuted due to their religion or beliefs” earlier this year.
With other countries failing Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, the Indian government’s offer is crucial to help the at-risk communities. However, there were concerns raised by a senior Afghan official, who wished to remain anonymous, that this may very well be a political move by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP):
“[T]he move appeared aimed at a domestic audience in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to move the country away from its secular, multicultural foundations and give it a more overtly Hindu identity, while projecting itself as a champion of persecuted Hindu minorities elsewhere.”
These concerns are legitimate as the Hindu nationalist BJP and the Indian government generally has a long history of persecution and genocide of minority groups. Within the last four decades, India has either committed or failed to take legitimate action in several cases, including but not limited to: a genocide against Sikhs that they refuse to acknowledge beginning in 1984, anti-Muslim riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the murder of a Christian missionary and his sons in 1999, riots in Gujarat under the leadership of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi in 2002, anti-Christian riots in Orissa in 2008, and the riots following the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill in 2019.
In regard to the entire situation, attorney and Executive Board Member of the California Democratic Party, Amar Singh Shergill, remains optimistic despite the history of persecution in India:
“Although India has a troubling history in protecting the rights of minority communities, I see this as a positive development since it gives a much-needed option to the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus at risk, particularly given the failure of Trump and the Republicans to take any action.”
Afghan Hindus may have little to fear, but Afghan Sikhs may find themselves going from the frying pan of ISIS violence into the fire of Hindu nationalism.