By Bawa Singh*
Historically, Afghanistan and Sikhs have been enjoying religious and geo-cultural relations since the inception of Sikhism (1469). But lately, due to the ongoing civil war and terrorism in Afghanistan, an existential threat has been haunting the Afghan Sikhs.
Recently, the Sixth Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) conference took place in Amritsar (Punjab-India) on December 3-4, 2016 where the Amritsar Declaration was issued. Regrettably, the issue of Afghan Sikh victims could not find place in the Amritsar Declaration despite it being issued from the place of their origin.
Afghanistan has been highly ravaged due to the ongoing civil war and terrorism. The root cause of civil war and terrorism in Afghanistan are poverty, inequality, underdevelopment, ethnic discontent, the ethnic composition and, partly, the regional geopolitcs.
Terrorist organisations such as the Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Lashkar-i-Janghvi and the Haqqani Network have been operating with impunity in Afghanistan. And not only the Afghan people but the Indian Afghan communities have also been suffering on account of these terrorists.
Several efforts have been made to bring the terrorists into the mainstream. Through the Geneva Accord (1988) and the National Consultative Peace Jirga (NCPJ), efforts have been made to convince the Taliban to become part of the mainstream for peace and prosperity in the country.
In due course of time, other steps like the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (2011) and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) have been taking place for rebuilding, reconstruction and peace-making in Afghanistan. Despite these mechanisms, however, peace and prosperity have remained a distant dream for Afghanistan.
The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) was launched in 2011 to seek regional cooperation to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan. The five HoAs which had already taken place focussed on the issues of peace, prosperity, unity, integrity and sovereignty, curbing of terrorism and reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan.
The Sixth HoA was jointly inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on December 3, 2016. About 40 countries in various capacities participated in the Sixth HoA at Amritsar. The central theme of the meeting was ‘Addressing Challenges, Achieving Prosperity’. The two major outputs of the conference were the Amritsar Declaration and the Regional Counter-Terrorism Framework.
After two days of deliberations and debate on Afghanistan, social, economic, political and security challenges have been given important place in the Amritsar Declaration. The underpinnings of the declaration are the promotion of stability, peace and prosperity and resolute action against terrorism, violent extremism, radicalisation, separatism, and sectarianism in Afghanistan.
However, while all major challenges facing Afghanistan have been discussed and deliberated, the problems of Indian Afghan minorities such as the Sikhs and Hindus — on whose land the Sixth HoA took place — have not been made part of the diplomatic discussion.
It is said that during the late 1950s, about 50,000 Sikh and Hindu families were living in Afghanistan. But following atrocities by the erstwhile Taliban regime (1996-2001), their total population has come down to 8,000 only.
The recent incident of Afghan Sikhs who had left Afghanistan due to threats from the Taliban and were rescued from a shipping container at a UK port highlighted once again the plight of the Sikhs in Afghanistan.
These people have not been enjoying religious freedom. They have always remained under the apprehension of proselytisation. Several historic Gurdwaras have already been destroyed by the Taliban. Long hair is a symbol of Sikh’s religious identity but often they have been forced to cut their hair.
Sikh children have been deprived of education as they are not being allowed to go to schools. In case anybody dares to challenge the Taliban diktats, they are being bullied, beaten up or given severe punishment.
The Sikh women have been the most vulnerable. In case they want to go out of their homes, they have to think twice as they are insulted and made fun of.
The rich Sikh community has been turned into labourers due to the prohibition of doing business and buying lands. These people have even not been allowed to perform the last rites of their dead as per their religious beliefs.
Against this backdrop, the HoA 2016 (Amritsar) provided a very significant opportunity for India to familiarise the Afghanistan government in this regard. At the same time, it was also a golden opportunity for the Punjab government — being part of the diplomatic process — wherein they could have made the Afghan-Indian minorities’ status and sorrows as the key issue of the deliberation and diplomatic process.
It seems that both India and Punjab missed a diplomatic opportunity in this regard.
The heart cry of the Afghan-Indian minorities has not been heard. If the Amritsar Declaration could cover the many challenges being faced by the Heart of Asia region, including Afghanistan, then why could not the issues of Indian Afghan minorities, such as Sikhs and Hindus, become part of the same diplomatic process?
These minorities have been living lives bereft of socio-economic and religious freedoms. They have been dying daily under lot of psychological stress. It is hard to divorce the diaspora and diplomacy in the context of host and affected country.
Diplomacy is the only channel by which various problems being faced by the diaspora could be sorted out. The Sixth Heart of Asia 2016 provided an important diplomatic opportunity to take up the case of Indian minorities in Afghanistan.
Sadly, not a single word was mentioned in the Amritsar Declaration in this regard. The heart and voice of the affected Afghan Indian ethnics has remained unheard and unrepresented.
It is recommended that the Indian and Punjab governments should take cognizance of the existential threat to the Indian-Afghan diaspora. The Punjab government, especially, should urge the Indian government to use its diplomacy to protect the Afghan Sikhs and Hindu diaspora in Afghanistan, so that they could become a part of Afghanistan mainstream and enjoy a dignified life.
*Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]