The South Asia Collective Online Bulletin #2: Other Major Stories

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Marginalised | Other Major Stories

Afghanistan's Sikh Community Under Attack | Targeted Violence against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, India | The Situation in Indian-Administered Kashmir


Afghanistan's Sikh Community Under Attack

Afghan history has always been harsh to its Hindu-Sikhs ethno-religious minority. The Sikh minority, who are mostly settled in the cities including Ghazi, Jalalabad, and Kabul, constitute a small percentage of Afghanistan’s 35 million estimated population. Although the country was once home to as many as 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before the blood-soaked civil war of the 1990s, the number does not exceed 300 families today. During the Mujahedeen rule in the first and the Taliban regime in the second half of the 1990s, the Afghan Hindu-Sikh community faced unthinkable repression, extortion, and harassment. However, since 2001, with support from the international community, life for the Sikhs minority in Afghanistan became relatively better. In the 2004 constitution, the Sikhs community in Afghanistan was recognized (as de jure) as free to perform their religious and cultural rites. Given this development, there are still formal and informal structural and legal restrictions on the Sikh community who, according to the law, cannot run for the presidency, which is perspicuous legal discrimination against them.

Given that Sikhs in Afghanistan have always been involved in small and medium-sized businesses, they have played a significant role in the country’s fragmented economy and development. They are predominantly merchants, traders and own medicinal herb shops in their residential areas in Afghanistan. The government has constantly failed to protect them and their properties. In addition to legal and socio-cultural discrimination against them, different terrorist associates, religious extremists, and radical Islamists mainly the Taliban and ISIS have always targeted the Sikhs community in the country. Over the last two decades, there have been dozens of targeted attacks on them. The community is now caught between hope and fear. On the one hand, they are hoping that the situation will improve, and on the other hand, they are thinking of fleeing the country. Many already have.

According to Jagtar Singh, a Sikh shopkeeper in a bustling center of Kabul, “This is how we begin our day – with fear and isolation. If you are not a Muslim, you are not a human in their eyes. I don’t know what to do or where to go.” In a similar grievance, the chairman of the National Council of Hindus and Sikhs, Avtar Singh, said, “The good old days have long gone when we were treated as Afghans, not as outsiders.”

After 2014, due to growing insecurity, the government’s inability or unwillingness to protect ethnic minorities, the situation became more precarious for the Sikh community as several deadly attacks were carried out on their religious and political turnouts in Kabul and beyond. Despite all these heinous crackdowns, the Afghan government has failed to prosecute and bring the killers to justice.

In addition to targeted terrorist attacks against Sikhs, they also suffer from social exclusion and political disenchantment both at the central and local levels. Lack of religious sites – crematorium – educational and cultural centers add to their woes. Growing hate speech and social exclusion have isolated them from the community, as a result of which their children cannot go to public schools. Therefore, the civic environment has and continues to shrink for the Hindu-Sikh minority, and the Afghan government has not yet developed a protection mechanism for their safety. Long-rooted repression, extortion, and discrimination have caused them to plead to the UN office in Kabul to facilitate their mass emigration from Afghanistan.

The first three months of 2020 have been even more deadly for the Sikh community in Afghanistan. Political tensions, their exclusion from intra-Afghan peace talks, security deterioration and COVID-19 outbreak in the country have all further poisoned the environment for the community. On March 25, 2020, the community’s religious ceremony in Kabul was targeted by the ISIS associates, when gunmen stormed a Gurdwara and fired on worshippers and lobbed grenades, killing 25 persons, including women and children, and wounded many others. The next day, at the funeral ceremony of the deceased, further bomb blasts injured several community members.

Despite the government’s promise to bring the killer to justice, growing political tensions between Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani over the result of presidential elections, and the COVID-19 outbreak, have hamstrung investigations. Amidst these confusions, lack of an advocacy mechanism and exclusion of Sikhs from the ongoing intra- Afghan peace dialogue to ensure at least a minimal guarantee for their protection and safety in case of a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, has blurred the prospects for their survival in the country.

Targeted Violence Against Muslims in India

India has been convulsed, since December 2019, by protests and counter protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 – legislated by the avowedly Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to provide a route to Indian citizenship to all except Muslims (and Jews and atheists) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. 31 persons were killed in police action - including the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters - across several states, in December 2019, 23 of these in northern Uttar Pradesh alone. A further 53 persons were killed in the capital Delhi, in targeted clashes in February 2020. 28 of the those killed in police action in December 2019 (including all 23 in Uttar Pradesh), and 34 of those later in February in Delhi, were Muslims. In Delhi, the violence included destruction and burning of mosques (at least 16 are reported), largescale looting and arson of Muslim property, and the forced displacement of families from areas where Muslims were in minority, all pointing to the targeted nature of the attacks. Survivors in both locations have faced a slow and prejudiced state machinery – hinting at dismal chances of justice, rather, in its place, continued targeting, implicating innocent Muslim youth, including survivors of the violence, many witnesses, in criminal proceedings. Several arrests, especially in Delhi, have been reported. Onset of COVID and the lockdown, have come as a rude shock, completely halting any efforts at obtaining justice for families, rather an added burden of the precarious livelihoods of families, many displaced in the violence, being completely shut out.

The controversial CAA 2019 was signed into law on 12th December 2019, creating a patently discriminatory legislation which, on the face of the law, disadvantages Muslims and which also falls foul of India’s secular Constitution. Country-wide protests erupted immediately, first in Assam, then in university campuses in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, followed by Karnataka, before spreading across the country. Protesters faced restrictions to their freedom of assembly, as well as heavy-handed police response resulting in numerous injuries and deaths. In UP, ruled by the BJP with the Hindu cleric with a penchant for vitriol and Islamophobia, Yogi Adityanath, at the head of government, the response was most excessive. Widespread Internet shutdowns, impositions of curfews and other movement restrictions, aggressive police deployment, all put to use against peaceful assembly and speech; and excessive use of force, including lethal, to subdue protesters. As if that was not enough, authorities resorted to collective punishment, and recovery proceedings against protesters, meaning Muslims, to exact revenge, on the directions of the Chief Minister. This has had the upshot of effectively silencing dissent. COVID – 19 has meant the suspension of the little movement forward for access to justice and accountability of officials in the targeting of civilians.

In Delhi, with its large civil society and student bodies, anti-CAA protests continued well after the crackdown in Uttar Pradesh, despite authorities’ efforts to snuff it out. Shaheen Bagh, an unlikely Muslim ghetto, became the proverbial bastion of resistance against CAA 2019, with women leading the effort, continuing to brave the cold, day in and day out, “raising slogans, chanting songs, seeking justice, shattering every stereotype”, inspiring similar sit-ins across the length and breadth of the country. Elections to Delhi state assembly in February 2020, provided BJP an opportunity to target the protests by resorting to its tried-and-tested tactic of communal polarisation for electoral gains. Throughout the campaign period, from mid January 2020, BJP leaders, including senior ministers and MPs, resorted to crude dog whistle, seeking votes for the party by reviling Muslims and those protesting against CAA 2019, calling them anti-nationals, traitors and terrorists. Soon, slogans such as ‘Desh ke ghaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko.’ (Shoot dead the bastard traitors), and ‘Hamare desh me aur kisi ki nahi chalegi, sirf Hindu ki chalegi’ (Only Hindus shall have a say in our country, no one else), became part of campaign marches and rallies organised by BJP and its affiliates. Though the party lost state elections badly, the Islamophobic tenor of the campaign created a fertile ground for targeting Muslims. Media and social networks were used extensively.

The trigger for the violence in North East district of Delhi - with higher that normal presence of Muslims in Delhi, but also where BJP had won the few seats it won in state assembly elections – was a threat by BJP leader Kapil Mishra, to Delhi Police to physically vacate an anti-CAA protest site in the district, or face consequences. In the circumstance, Mishra’s workers, with tacit support of the police - attacked anti-CAA protest sit-in (large number women) sparking violence on 23rd February 2020. Violence would last until 26th February, leaving in its wake 53 dead, over 400 injured, scores of houses and establishment looted and burnt, and hundreds displaced.

The violence in Delhi has been described as pogrom, for the planned and systematic way in which it was executed. Muslim individuals, shops, houses, and mosques were selectively targeted, by organised gangs of youth, including some brought from outside. These groups used a variety of weapons – firearms, swords, machetes, daggers – and methods, including burning property, setting off explosives, cutting up bodies, and sexually mutilating them, to target Muslims for maximum damage, and high visibility of those. Police inaction in responding to Muslim victims’ calls for help, and their siding with Hindu mobs to target Muslims has been widely reported. Fire tenders reached the site after three days of arson and destruction. Police bias has been in play particularly in their post-violence targeting of Muslim victims, witnesses and family, as well as anti-CAA activists. Police have been resorting to arbitrary arrests of victims and activists, implicating them in the violence, while they have been shielding the perpetrators, especially in Hindu dominated areas. Amid all this, COVID-19 has come as a double burden for survivor families and the displaced – denied the little relief that they were slowly getting access to, as well as the complete halt to wage employment, their sole means of livelihood.

The Situation in Indian-Administered Kashmir

The year 2020 began in Kashmir with continuation of the lockdown imposed on 5th August 2019 – alongside the abrogation of the state’s semi-autonomous status and special rights for its indigenous residents - with little relief. While phone services were restored after a few weeks, Internet and broadband services remained suspended. India’s Supreme Court failed to come to the rescue of citizens when it declared that access to Internet amounted to a fundamental right if it were necessary to access other fundamental rights - such as freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation. But it qualified this interpretation by ruling that even in these cases, access to Internet was not an absolute right and could be restricted by the state. Authorities – under no obligation then to restore Internet - allowed internet services for a narrowly defined “essential services” list, and only 2G for mobile users and very restricted for broadband. Lack of adequate Internet access has had serious consequences: students are unable to fill admission forms for entrance exams or access online material; businesses are unable to work: medical facilities have been hampered, and banking applications and payment of bills online have been obstructed.

Internet and other information restrictions have also impacted management of COVID-19 response in the state. Doctors are unable to access guidelines updated regularly by Indian Council for Medical Research or videos posted by WHO. They are unable to communicate effectively with their colleagues to prepare guidelines or launch awareness campaigns online. Telemedicine initiatives (video conferencing and uploading of reports) as alternative to the shutting down of outpatient departments in hospitals, as well as working of mental health services – all critical in a conflict zone in times of Corona crisis – being used increasingly in the rest of India, have all been non-starters in Kashmir.

At the same time thousands of youth, political leaders and activists imprisoned in August 2019 under preventive detention laws, continue to languish in jails or under house arrests – number being close to 8000, according to human rights groups. A large number of detainees are lodged in jails outside Kashmir – in Delhi and Agra mostly - far from Kashmir. Despite COVID-19 outbreak, no relief has been given to these political prisoners. Mian Abdul Qayoom, aged 76, President of J&K Bar Association and suffering medical complications, is one such lodged in Tihar jail. His petition for review of his ‘preventive’ detention was not even entertained by the J&K High Court. Parallelly arrests and detentions have continued – including two minors in March 2020, over misuse of social media. One of the minors was booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

And while the country was busy responding to COVID-19, the Centre introduced in Kashmir, a new law that opened up public employment in the state, hitherto limited to residents, to non-residents too, with some qualifications. While the law was later rescinded due to pressure by political parties, including BJP’s own Kashmir unit, the move has reinforced fears in the state of the Indian government’s plans to change the demography of the Muslim-majority province.

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Marginalised | Other Major Stories

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