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Afghan Sikhs Hit By Suicide Attack

Bomber defies tight security to launch deadly strike on communal leadership
By IWPR Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s tiny community of Hindus and Sikhs have been questioning their future in the country after a suicide attacker targeted a group of dignitaries travelling to meet President Ashraf Ghani in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the July 1 attack in which 17 people were killed and seven more injured.

Among the dead was Awtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

One survivor, Gorbit Singh, said that he had been among some 25 Hindu and Sikh representatives due to meet the president at the governor’s office that morning to discuss community concerns. That meeting had been cancelled, and they were asked to return at 3.30 pm.

“When we got together once again later, we were attacked,” he said. “The soldiers just watched while our friends were burning. They didn’t help us with medical evacuation.”

Another delegate, Guljit Singh, from the Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, also criticised the security services for their response.

“Our friends were in flames, but no one came to help,” he said. “The police did not even not allow other civilians to lend a helping hand.”

Awtar Singh’s son Narinder Singh called for a rigorous government investigation into how a suicide bomber had managed to reach the site of the attack despite numerous checkpoints and the tight security measures in place that day.

“We lost all our elders in this incident, and we don’t have any leaders in Afghanistan now,” he said, adding that if the perpetrators were not arrested, the community would launch a series of public demonstrations.

Other community figures said that the Sikh and Hindu leaders had been planning to discuss issues including land appropriation. They had brought a number of title deeds with them, which had been destroyed in the bombing.

Hindus make up the smallest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Having lived in the country for centuries in relative peace, problems began with the establishment of the Mujahiddin government in 1992. Their lands were seized, children were excluded from education and they faced religious persecution.

Many left for India, while life got even worse under the Taleban regime for those who remained when their freedom to practice their religion was hugely restricted.

(See also Afghan Hindus and Sikhs Still Struggling).

Now, the community numbers around 1,000. Discrimination remains rife, even though the Afghan constitution guarantees their religious rights as full citizens and under Islamic law, the state must safeguard those non-Muslims that it has pledged to protect.

Naweed Ahmad Hamim, a religious scholar, told IWPR, “According to Islamic teachings, it is obligatory on Muslims to treat such non-Muslims well.”

He continued, “The prophet Mohammad has said that whoever kills an infidel who has been granted protection shall not smell the fragrance of paradise.”

Iqbal Singh, who was injured in the July 1 attack, said that although it was IS who claimed the responsibility for the suicide bombing, his community was targeted in multiple other ways on a daily basis.

He said that their homes, shops and other properties had been appropriated, and they faced routine prejudice and abuse.

“If the situation continues this way, all Sikhs and Hindus may leave Afghanistan,” Iqbal Singh continued, calling for the Afghan government to intervene.

The attack was widely condemned both inside and outside Afghanistan, but the local government’s reaction angered some in the community.

Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar province, said that no meeting had been scheduled between the president and the delegation, adding, “The president and the governor of Nangarhar were saddened by the incident and have asked the security bodies to investigate the issue.”

Some social media users debated whether the local government was trying to evade responsibility for their security failure.

Given the tight security in place that day, many observers were surprised that the attackers had managed to penetrate the cordon.

Nangarhar’s police chief Ghulam Sanayee Stanikzai said that invesitgations had begun and  “ later we will share more information with the media on how the suicide attacker reached the place”.

But local activist Asadullah Zamir said that police checkpoints had been set up everywhere in the city in the three days prior to the president’s arrival. The day before, all offices and shopping malls had been closed. But despite these precautions, the suicide attackers had managed to strike so close to the governor’s office.

“They must get to the bottom of this case because on that day, only police were there and all roads were blocked,” he said.

Following the attack, dignitaries visited a local Sikh gurdwara, where Nangarhar provincial council secretary Zabihullah Zmari told IWPR, “We are following this case to make sure that the investigators do their job honestly.”

At the same event Nangarhar governor Hayatullah Hayat said, “We will respect all the rights of our Hindu and Sikh countrymen, and not allow anyone to harm them. By killing our Hindu fellow citizens, the enemy of our country, IS showed that they neither follow any religion nor respect any kind of values.”

Since the sole candidate from the Sikh and Hindu community was killed in the attack, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC), announced that it would allow them time to find a replacement.

IEC commissioner Sayed Hafizullah Hashimi, told reporters, “Taking into consideration the rights of Sikhs and Hindus, the IEC plans to give another chance for people to nominate themselves for the upcoming elections.”

But reeling from the attack, some Hindus and Sikhs feel that the government has little interest in protecting them or assuring their future in Afghanistan.

A Sikh resident of Jalalabad city, who asked to remain anonymous, wept as he told IWPR, “Now we have to go to the presidential palace, and tell them that since you are neither paying attention to us nor providing us with security, we are leaving this country.”