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Political advocacy, fundraising & a lack of coverage: Afghan Sikh situation update

Documentary maker Pritpal Singh added: “We understand all news are occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic story but just a ...

Last month, the Sikh community was devastated by news that a group of gunmen had stormed a Gurdwara in Afghanistan and opened fire, killing 25 people and wounding 40 others.

Here we share an update on the situation in Afghanistan, including subsequent attacks and arrests, actions taken by Sikh politicians and organisations worldwide, and the lack of coverage by the UK mainstream press. Strangely, members of the press that also claim specialise in Sikh community affairs also gave the issue very little coverage, even on their own social media pages, despite this being one of the most deadly attacks on Sikhs in recent history.

After the massacre at Gurdwara Sri Guru Har Rai Sahib Ji in Kabul on 25th March 2020, eyewitnesses spoke of multiple assailants dressed like police and even suicide bombers among the attackers. When the police arrived, they engaged in a stand-off with the attackers that lasted six hours.

Islamic State (IS) took responsibility for the attack. According to international news agency Reuters, IS said that the attack was “revenge for India’s treatment of Muslims in its portion of Kashmir” and the group warned that if the Sikh and Hindu community does not leave Afghanistan that further attacks could take place. One of the attackers has been named as Abu Khalid al-Hindi, an Indian national.

The following day, an antam sanskar (funeral service) was held for the victims, which was interrupted by another bomb scare. There was a small bomb blast, before Sikhs found mine-bombs planted around the Gurdwara and neighbouring complex where the community lives. Nobody was injured in this attack and the army were called in to detonate the bombs.

On the third day, mines were discovered outside Gurdwara Sri Guru Har Rai Sahib Ji yet again, and the army was called back to diffuse the explosives once again.

A week later, on 4th April 2020, Afghan forces announced they had arrested Afghanistan’s IS leader, Abdullah Orokzai, also known as Aslam Farooqi, along with two high-ranking IS commanders and 17 other fighters.

However, Sikhs and Hindus still do not feel safe in Afghanistan and are seeking asylum in countries which can offer safety and human rights. Sikh politicians and lobby groups called upon international governments to provide asylum for the Afghan Sikh and Hindu community.

comprehensive report produced by American Sikh body Jakara Movement describes the struggles that the Sikh community has faced in Afghanistan and calls on the US Government to resettle them under the United States Refugee Admission Program (USRAP).

The report offers a timeline of events outlining the persecution of Sikhs in Afghanistan, beginning with the beheadings of two Sikhs by the Taliban in 2010. It explains how locals spit in the faces of Sikh women and force them to wear burqas, threaten Sikhs at knifepoint to convert to Islam and kidnap, torture and cut the hair of Sikh men, and demand ransom payments.

Given the serious challenges and threats Afghan Sikhs face with respect to mobility and travel to countries of temporary asylum, similar expedited or waived procedures should be established for Afghan Sikhs and Hindu refugees,” the report reads.

The United States cannot turn its back on Afghan Sikhs and Hindus who are facing a horrific choice between exodus and extinction. They simply want to live in peace with security and dignity.

Sikh lobby group World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) has issued a call to action for all Sikhs to support the community in Afghanistan by writing to their local government ministers.

The group has provided an email template that Sikhs can use to lobby their government representative, and has met twice with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The WSO said that approximately 15 privately sponsored Afghan Sikh and Hindu families have already arrived in Canada with approximately 40 families awaiting the processing of their files in India.

“The WSO requests that these files be processed on an expedited basis and these families be allowed to quickly start their lives here in Canada,” the group said in a statement.

SaveAfghanSikhs.org is an independent initiative that has been set up to provide information on the ongoing Afghan Sikh crisis.

The group has called upon the United States government to grant refugee status to the Sikhs and Hindus living in Afghanistan immediately and help them to evacuate to safety, and facilitate their resettlement to the United States.
They have also been monitoring donations made by governments, individuals and lobby groups to the families of the victims of the terror attack.

SaveAfghanSikhs.org has been highlighting fundraising and donations to the cause, including from UNITED SIKHS, a UN-affiliated humanitarian aid group. They are currently running two active fundraising campaigns on Gofundme (https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/save-the-afghan-sikhs/) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/donate/1116192415398458/). These funds shall be utilised for the relocation and resettlement of Afghan Sikhs, including but not limited to advocacy and delivering assistance to those affected. 

United Sikhs has explained that the funds will be used to assist the affected families in Kabul, but have not yet disclosed a plan of use or timeframe. United Sikhs do have a recent history of working on the issue directly with the United Nations and with the UK Home Office. They have also been advocated by the Afghan Sikh affiliated Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar of Southall.

“The funds raised through this GoFundMe campaign will go directly towards providing critical humanitarian aid and advocacy for those who are wounded in this attack, to the family of those that were killed, and for the immediate relocation of Sikh families to safer shores,” the group said in a statement to SaveAfghanSikhs.org.

United Sikhs is also encouraging the Sikh community to sign a petition to urge the UN to act to provide safe passage and settlement for Sikhs in Afghanistan“by granting Afghan Sikhs with Special Protected Status, and special entry into other countries via protected asylum.” 

This week, the Sikh Press Association spoke to United Sikhs legal director in an interview via Instagram Live, which can be viewed here.

In the UK, MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi raised the plight of the Afghan Sikhs in Parliament and called on the Home Office for support for their asylum. However, the Home Office spokesperson was unaware of the terror attack in Kabul.

When The Sikh Press Association followed up on the issue, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi told us that Canadian immigration laws are more progressive than here in the UK, where the Conservative party government has a “hostile environment policy”.

He added that the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Southall, which has a large Afghan Sikh Sangat (Sikh congregation), is working on the asylum appeals for the Sikhs and Hindus seeking safety in the UK.

Documentary maker and author Pritpal Singh, a well-respected figure in the Afghan Sikh community, explained that the community tried to convince the UK government to help get people out of Afghanistan after 2018 Jalalabad bombing, “but soon realised it won’t happen”.

He explained that UK Sikh organisations can, however, lobby the Home Office to change its guidance for Afghan Sikh and Hindu asylum seekers who are coming here on their own in light of recent incidents”.

“This should also help asylum seekers that are currently in the UK  — and some have  been for a long time — awaiting an answer on their refugee status,” he added.

Even Sikhs in the UK armed forces have inquired about the possibility of getting stepping up involvement in Afghanistan to help the persecuted Sikhs and Hindus. However, Britain is now looking to scale back its involvement in Afghanistan.

The British media, however, has been particular unhelpful in raising the profile of the persecuted Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities, despite the presence of thousands of Afghan Sikhs in the country.

International media, such as Al Jazeera in the Middle East, and ABC News and Washington Times in the USA, provided ongoing updates of the situation facing the communities, and international newswires Reuters and AFP provided on-the-ground coverage of the situation. The British media were not so forthcoming.

The Sikh Press Association contacted the various media outlets that we have engaged with in our five-year history, including The Times, Metro, Guardian, Independent, Sky, Channel 4, ITN, and BBC News and many others to articulate updates on the situation, and it soon became evident why the Home Office spokesperson in parliament had not heard about massacre, which is believed by many to be the largest mass killing of Sikhs in one incident since 1984.

We noted that none of the British media had provided any coverage of the bomb blast at the funeral, or the second bomb scare at the Gurdwara on the following day. They largely ignored the calls in parliament to help secure the safe passage for Sikhs and Hindus to evacuate Afghanistan, and had simply reported the events of the initial attack on 25th March 2020 based on what had already been reported on that day by the newswires on the ground, Reuters and AFP. In fact, even news of the Islamic State arrests in Afghanistan was glaringly absent from the British news agenda.

We were told that, quite understandably, the Coronavirus pandemic is dominating the news. However, when compared to similar attacks around the world, that reasoning did not stand to scrutiny.

For example, a tragedy involving a gunman in Nova Scotia, Canada who killed 22 people quite rightfully gained a lot of coverage in the press, despite the busy news agenda. BBC News had written four articles and counting, as we publish this article.

Yet despite the sizeable Sikh population in the UK and the long and storied history between the British and Sikhs, an attack involving Sikhs in Afghanistan which lasted for the duration of three days received only one article on BBC News online, and events from the second and third days were completely ignored.

Around the same time last year, in March 2019, there was a devastating attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which two mosques were set upon by a lone gunman. 51 people were killed in this tragedy.

This horrific incident was rightly plastered all over the news media and received international condemnation from world leaders.

US president Donald Trump, whom the Australian-born shooter praised in his manifesto, condemned the attack, as did former president Barack Obama. German chancellor Angela Merkel, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan all joined the chorus of condemnation.

The Queen of England said she was “deeply saddened” by the shootings, and British prime minister Theresa May called it “sickening”.

The Guardian produced 17 online articles on the day of the Christchurch Mosque attack, and 47 articles over the first three days, yet it mustered just one on the Afghanistan Gurdwara attack. In fact, on the days of the Gurdwara terror incident and the subsequent funeral bombing, 25th and 26th March 2020, The Guardian wrote two articles on the attack in New Zealand that took place a year earlier.

The Daily Mail ignored the Gurdwara attack entirely.

From the perspective of the Sikh community in the UK, perhaps the saddest aspect of the lack of British news coverage is how Sikh journalists who claim to specialise on reporting on Sikh community issues ignored the whole ordeal.

Only Hardeep Singh, a freelance journalist who works with the Network of Sikh Organisations, wrote an article on the attack — for current affairs magazine Spiked Online; entitled The Ethnic Cleansing of Afghan Sikhs.

Others did not even mention the tragedy on their blogs, or on their social media timelines more than once, instead focusing on issues such as Brits stranded abroad or Sikh wedding cancellations, despite three days of ISIS attacks.

Sikh PA press officer Dawinderpal Singh said on the lack of coverage, “The Sikh community must learn from this tragedy that took the life of 25 worshippers at a Gurdwara – the single largest Sikh mass shooting of our generation. Britain has failed to support us in our hour of need, and even our own representatives in the media have failed to share the story of this tragic devastation.

“We commend all of the panthic (Sikh path/community oriented) organisations that have worked to keep this story in the public narrative and support the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. It is a shame they have had little support from outside the panthic community.”

Documentary maker Pritpal Singh added: “We understand all news are occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic story but just a little attention could easily be given to the Kabul Gurdwara Massacre.”

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