On 1 July, the usually crowded Jalalabad city was quiet. The reason? President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani was in town.
The roads going to Governor House were blocked to public transport. With the disappearance of noisy rickshaws, Jalalabadis for the first time could hear the birds singing. It did not last long, as a huge boom broke the silence.
People soon found out that a suicide car bomb had struck the Afghan Sikh community.
Carrying their national black-red-green flag, Sikhs were on their way to attend a meeting with the president at Governor House. Seventeen Sikhs and 2 Muslims were killed. This was the bloodiest attack on non-Muslim Afghans in the history of Afghanistan.
Tarlok Singh was among those 20 wounded. He is one of my cricket buddies.
An Attack Where Minorities Have Always Been Safe
It was 2002 and Afghans were enjoying the freedom the US-led NATO forces had provided by overthrowing the Taliban oppressive regime. We used to play cricket in the dusty ground that was yet to be named. Tarlok’s team consisted of skinny young Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Physically underweight-looking, they were good at cricket. However, they were too peaceful for street cricket. We would start arguments when we knew we were losing. Anyone who has played tennis ball cricket knows the ploy!
Tarlok’s team, on the other hand, always wanted to have a complete game, thus avoided fights. Tarlok had a textile shop with his brothers in the busiest street of Jalalabad city.
We had not been in touch for almost seven years now but thanks to my journalist friends, it was not difficult to find Tarlok among a few hundred Sikhs in my native city. I heaved a sigh of relief when I learnt that he was leaving hospital after minor injury.
After the capital Kabul, eastern Jalalabad is considered the most secure city for minorities. They are famously called the ‘Flowers of Nangarhar’. Most of the Hindus and Sikhs either have textile businesses or practice homeopathic medicine. Local Muslims are very cordial with them. It is always a treat to attend an Afghan wedding in the city of Jalalabad as it has non-stop Attann (Afghan National Dance) and traditional Bhangra with loud Pashto music. They also attend each other’s funerals as of their own. Although local Muslims have lived in harmony with minorities, the same is not true for political elites.
Religious Freedom Now, But Political Apathy
Hindus and Sikhs have faced discrimination from various governments. The Taliban forced them to wear orange clothes and armbands so they are easily identified as non-Muslims. Warlords in the 1990s have encroached and seized properties of the Afghan religious minorities. During this time, hundreds of Hindus and Sikhs had no option but to migrate to India and Europe.
When the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001, Afghans Muslims and non-Muslims alike were relieved. Using his constitutional power, President Hamid Karzai allotted two seats in the Senate to Sikhs and appointed a Hindu ambassador in Canada.
In last 17 years, minorities have seen a hike in their income as the economy has improved. They have enjoyed religious freedom but continue to suffer on the political stage. For example, in 2013, the Afghanistan National Assembly rejected a presidential decree that asked for a reserved seat for religious minorities. This year, the minorities were more enthusiastic about political participation.
Sikh community leader Awtar Singh Khalsa announced his plan to run for Parliament in the upcoming October elections. Many Muslim Afghans were pleased to know about his plans as they took to Facebook to show support. Some even volunteered to campaign for Khalsa. However, their joy did not last long! Many were heartbroken to know that Khalsa was one of the victims of the Jalalabad strike.
The attack was claimed by ISIS – a hardline terrorist group that was established in Iraq and have recently founded its feet in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. Given the recent history of ISIS attacks on Afghan civilians, this strike did not come as a surprise.
ISIS is trying to gain as much attention as possible while spreading terror. This way, they are announcing their arrival on the Afghan war scene.
Minorities in Afghanistan have countless problems, but they have never been subject to this much terror and violence in the country’s long history of war.
This shows the ISIS have no war ethics and will go after every community they think will generate more chatter. Just recently, they targeted journalists in Kabul that killed three of our colleagues among others.
The Afghan government has tried to deny the ISIS havens. With the help of US drone strikes, Afghan security forces have been able to eliminate ISIS’s top leadership in Helmand and Kunar provinces. However, the terror group seems to have regrouped, causing mayhem in particularly Nangarhar province.
There are several questions about how the suicide bomber was able to get into the Sikhs’ gathering in Jalalabad to cause such havoc. Governor Hayatullah Hayat has promised to ensure a probe and punish those who did not fulfil their security duties. He was talking to Sikh community members in Jalalabad while attending a funeral gathering. In a typical Afghan way of being nice to your brother, the Sikh community leaders thanked him for his commitment but deep down they and we all know that many such attacks have never been probed, and neither do the lazy officials get punished.
A resilient Sikh leader told the governor that Afghan blood is running in their veins and while serving their beloved country, they will never bow down to extremism. He was adamant that the Flowers of Nangarhar will blossom again!
(Bashir Ahmad Gwakh is a journalist working with Radio Free Europe’s Radio Mashaal in Prague, Czech Republic. Views expressed here are personal and do not represent his organisation. He can be reached @bashirgwakh.)
. Read more on Blogs by The Quint.Then and Now: The Stars of ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’After Jalalabad Attack, Will ‘Flowers of Nangarhar’ Blossom Again? . Read more on Blogs by The Quint.