A 400 year old Gurdwara in Shor Bazaar, Karte Parwan, Kabul, Afghanistan, is one among only three remaining Gurdwara’s of the Sikhs in Kabul. On 25, March, several Sikhs families had gathered in the Gurdwara for morning prayers. The total strength of the worshippers in the Gurdwara is said to be about 200. One reason for the large gathering was to offer prayers for the whole of humanity in view of the current pandemic conditions created by the spread of the COVID 19 virus. Such prayers are offered by Sikhs in consonance with their concept of Sarbat Da Bhala (Well being of all Mankind).
As the prayers culminated and Prasad (holy food) was being distributed, two or three terrorists entered the Gurdwara complex and attacked with Grenades followed by indiscriminate firing with automatic Rifles. The attack was pressed relentlessly till security forces came in and neutralised the terrorists. The siege by the security forces lasted more than six hours; forces cleared one floor of the complex and then moved slowly in order to avoid civilian casualties.
The barbaric terrorist attack left in its wake more than 25 Sikhs, including women and small children, dead. Many families were wiped out altogether while others suffered great losses. One among the dead was an Indian national, Tian Singh, who had gone to Afghanistan for a visit. It is claimed by official channels that 80 people were rescued during the counter-operation.
This is one among the deadliest attacks on the minority Sikh community. Recalling the attack, one man, who lost seven members of his family, said that the terrorists “showed no mercy to anyone.”
The responsibility for the attack was taken by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the Afghanistan chapter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is also known as Daesh, an acronym of its Arabic name. A message claiming responsibility has emanated from this Organisation. Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated to the IS-K, released a photo of one of the gunmen.
The Taliban denied any hand in the attack even thought the fundamentalist organisation has a previous history of targeting both Sikh and Hindu communities. There may be merit in the denial since the Taliban is presently in a sensitive phase of talks with US to end the 18 years war and facilitate move out of US troops; It would not indulge in a misadventure of this nature at this point in time.
However, reports and statements by the Government of Afghanistan suggest the hand of the Pakistan based Haqqani Network and also Pakistan based terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in the attack. There is a motive here since the Afghan Peace process in not in Pakistan’s interest and the country has a reason to derail the same. The terrorist attack could be one of the means applied for derailment.
The leader of the IS-K in Afghanistan is 43-year-old Mawlawi Aslam Farooqi, a Pakistani Pashtun who was initially recruited into the LeT in 2004. He was sent to Afghanistan in 2007 and ultimately transferred permanently to the ISIS. Hundreds of others from Pakistan terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan were also been similarly delegated to the ISIS. Farooqi became head of the IS-K due to his roots in the LeT and the influence of Pakistan’s ISI on the ISIS.
It becomes quite apparent that Pakistan maintains links with all terrorist organisations operating in the Muslim world and provides to them trained manpower, training facility, shelter and strategic advice. When seen in this context the choice of a terror attack on a Sikh Gurdwara or a Hindu Temple in Afghanistan to further personal interests becomes understandable.
The Government of Afghanistan is attempting to provide required relief and succour to the victims and the community. The National Security Advisor of Afghanistan, Hamdullah Mohib, has already visited the survivors and their families to offer his condolences and has promised a thorough investigation into the attack. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack, saying: “The attack on the religious sites shows the extreme weakness of the enemy, religious sites should not be vulnerable to attacks and violence.”There is, however, no indication of a relief package by the Government or by the US.
What is more significant is the solidarity that the people of Afghanistan are showing to the community and the manner in which their grief is being shared across the country. “They are more Afghan than a lot of other Afghans,” said Sahira Sharif, a member of parliament from Khost Province, which was once home to hundreds of Sikh families. “Yesterday’s attack on our Sikh brothers and sisters is inhumane and cowardice. It is painful to hear the father whose three-year-old daughter was shot in front of him,” she added, visibly disturbed at the tragedy of Harinder Singh Khalsa, who lost seven members of his family, including his wife, mother and daughter.
The UN Security Council condemned the incident and termed it as a “heinous and cowardly terrorist attack,” and expressed sympathy with the families of the victims and the Government of Afghanistan. It also underlined the need to hold the perpetrators, organisers, financers and sponsors of these “reprehensible” acts to justice.
India has expressed grief and strongly condemned the attack. “I am saddened by today’s terror attack at Gurdwara in Kabul. I express my condolences to the families of all the deceased,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a tweet. India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vinay Kumar, has visited the Gurdwara and offered condolences to families of the victims. “Such cowardly attacks on places of religious worship of the minority community, especially at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, is reflective of the diabolical mindset of the perpetrators and their backers,” said a statement by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs with an obvious reference to Pakistan.
Sikhs and Hindus citizens of Afghanistan have accused the government of being complacent and said that the attack is the result of government failure to provide security to the minority community. There is a palpable sense of insecurity within members of both communities who have already been reduced to an irrelevant minority in the country.
In the 1970’s, Afghan Sikhs and the Hindu population stood at 700,000. Although there is no census data available to estimate exact numbers of Sikhs in Afghanistan presently, the community members themselves speculate that there are perhaps no more than a few thousand Hindus and Sikhs left in the country now. There is a concerted effort to drive away even the few Sikh and Hindu families that remain. The effort is not by the Government or the people of the nation but by certain extra-judicial militant powers who hold such ethnic cleansing as a part of their declared ideology.
The world needs to take note of this huge tragedy wherein people are being forced to leave their centuries old home and hearth. Either they should be protected or moved out so that they can start a new life, however painful that may be. India and especially Punjab needs to take a leadership role in this regard.