The Karta-e-Parwan Gurudwara in Kabul was attacked by terrorists on the morning of 18 June. A Sikh granthi and a Taliban guard were killed and, according to media reports, seven persons were injured. The Gurudwara building was greatly damaged. The Taliban security forces fought the attackers for a few hours till they eliminated them.
Sikhs of Afghanistan Left with Only Memories of Happier Past
The Karta-e-Parwan Gurudwara is the principal Sikh religious place of worship in the Afghan capital. The attack brought back a memory of a happy day at the Gurudwara two decades ago. The then President Hamid Karzai visited the Gurudwara in the summer of 2002 to greet Afghan Sikhs. He did so to emphasise that Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime which had completely discriminated against Hindus and Sikhs was over. This writer was India’s ambassador to Afghanistan in 2002 and was present in the Gurudwara when Karzai came.
Karzai also sought to signal that he wanted Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to return to the country where in times past they had been a part of the social landscape. In her excellent study of Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees in India Anwesha Ghosh mentions an account of a traveller to Afghanistan in the 1940s which suggests that the Hindu and Sikh population of the country was then around a quarter of a million. The total population of Afghanistan then was around 8 million.
The Karta-e-Parwan Gurudwara is the principal Sikh religious place of worship in the Afghan capital.
The real Hindu and Sikh exodus, began with the country descending into complete chaos in the beginning of the 1990s.
Indian government should have acted with alacrity especially after Islamist terrorist groups had threatened retaliation for the remarks of the former BJP spokespersons.
Modi government should not abandon or greatly defer the establishment of a permanent presence in Afghanistan.
ISKP's Long List of Enemies
The Hindu and Sikh communities were engaged in trade, business and banking. They were prosperous. As large numbers of Afghans began to go into exile beginning with the communist rule established in 1978 the country’s Sikh and Hindu communities did the same.
However, the real Hindu and Sikh exodus, began with the country descending into complete chaos in the beginning of the 1990s. Their numbers dwindled to into the hundreds. The Hindu and Sikh population did not increase in any appreciable manner despite the assurances given during the twenty years of the Afghan republic. Now, the last of them want to leave too.
A day after the Gurudwara attack the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for it on the social media. It indicated that it was undertaken against Hindus and Sikhs and the apostates “who supported them”. The last reference was to the Taliban; ISKP and the Taliban are enemies. ISKP claimed that the attack was in retaliation for the insult of Prophet Mohammad.
ISKP has earlier also targeted the Shia Hazaras for it considers Shias as deviating from Islam and therefore ‘wajib-e-qatl’ or ‘fit for being killed’. The Hazaras have been traditionally discriminated in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in recent years have been subjected to horrific violence. The Taliban, too, doubtless is prejudiced against the Hazaras but its current preoccupation is to present to the world that it can secure Afghanistan. That makes it essential that it battles ISKP which is a principal security challenge to it.
Did India Lose Time in Granting Visas to Sikhs?
The Karta-e-Parwan Gurudwara attack has been rightly condemned by the Modi government. Prime Minister Modi tweeted “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 echoed the sentiment of this country in his tweet. In Afghanistan, both Karzai and the former Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah condemned the attack, too. The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan also strongly condemned the attack.
According to news reports, India has cleared more than a hundred visas for Afghan Sikhs in the wake of the Gurudwara attack. They were apparently pending since September 2021. It is being claimed that the Sikh who died in the attack was also waiting for his visa clearance.
Naturally, security considerations have to be taken into account while clearing visas but it is sad that these visas were given only after this attack. The government machinery should have acted with alacrity especially after Islamist terrorist groups had threatened retaliation for the remarks of the former BJP spokespersons.
Modi Government Should Go Ahead with Kabul Plans Undeterred
The Gurudwara attack has obviously put on hold the Modi government’s positive thinking, if not decisions which were being implemented, to establish a presence in Kabul. Should this attack deter the government from moving in the direction of strongly going back into the Afghan arena to safeguard and promote India’s interests, including in the security sphere?
It is possible the Modi government took optics into account last week. A strong move to set up a presence in Kabul as the Gurudwara attack was taking place or in its immediate aftermath may have attracted adverse attention. Besides, the government may have considered prudent to once again evaluate the dangers to any personnel based in Kabul and the necessary security arrangements required for them. Also, the question that Pakistan may have been sending a warning signal through the attack also needs attention.
While all these may be valid points to analyse and evaluate, they should not lead the Modi government to abandon or greatly defer the establishment of a permanent presence in Afghanistan. To do so would be falling into a trap set by those forces and countries that want India to play no role in its Western neighbourhood.
The pursuit of interests in the external sphere should never be based on adventurism. It should always be prudent but never pusillanimous.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)