‘Evacuation Of The Stranded Is ‘Sewa’, My Religious Duty’

Padma Shri Vikramjit Singh Sahney, president of World Punjabi Organisation, was instrumental in evacuating hundreds of Sikhs and Hindus from trouble-torn Afghanistan over last one year. He reveals his inspiration to LokMarg

It is the religious duty of every Sikh to help those in distress. Saving a life is considered Sewa, or selfless service, which is a way of life for the Sikh as commended by the Divine. I consider it my fortune to be given a chance to perform Sewa for my brethren in Afghanistan.

Our mission first began on March 25, 2020, when a bomb blast at Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib in Kabul killed over 30 of our Hindu and Sikh brothers. The incident created a frightening environment. A few of our community members discussed the situation and decided that we must evacuate our people from the war-ravaged zone.

The challenges were many. Foremost, there were no flights operational due to the raging Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdown. Second, coordinating with people stranded in Kabul or other parts of Afghanistan was another major hurdle as the administrative network there was stretched due to violent environment.

The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee and World Punjabi Organisation coordinated with the Indian embassy in Kabul and Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi to establish communication with the stranded and our evacuation plan. We then arranged and sent three Spice Jet chartered flights to bring Afghan Sikh and Hindu families to New Delhi.

The evacuees from Afghanistan reach New Delhi with Vikramjit S Sahney (inset)

We managed to evacuate around 500 families from Afghanistan who were granted long-term visa. Since all the Gurdwaras were closing down in Afghanistan, we also got 12 Pavan Saroops, physical copies of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib, to India.

This experience came handy when on August 15, Kabul was taken over by Taliban forces and largescale exodus from the country began. We again got together for a redux of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs.

We are keeping a close watch on the situation in Afghanistan and have prepared a list of families stranded there in Gurdwaras. Meanwhile, 180 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus returned to their respective homes in Jalalabad, Gahzni and Kabul and a few of them are in Karte Parwan Gurdwara in Kabul. They had a narrow escape from the bomb blast that happened last fortnight at Kabul airport and we subsequently advised them to return to Gurdwara.

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When the Kabul airport reopens, we will try and ensure we get them to India as soon as possible. We are in touch with MEA and remaining Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan and evacuation plan is being chalked out in next 10 days. MEA officials in Delhi and Doha have got assurance from Taliban leader for safe evacuation of these families.

I must add here that our work does not stop at evacuation alone. Rehabilitation of these families begins soon after the evacuation under our “My Family, My Responsibility” programme in West Delhi. The evacuees were provided houses, household expenses, health insurance and enrolled in a skill centre.

Free skilling services have been extended to all Afghan Muslim refugees as well in the wake of recent protest by Afghan refugees seeking jobs and means to livelihoods. The World Punjabi Organisation and Sun Foundation remain committed to save lives for all Afghan refugees irrespective of their caste, creed or religion. I pray to Waheguru that we are successful in evacuating more of such families and subsequently rehabilitating them to earn a dignified life.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

Afghanistan: US Won, West Lost; Pak Profited, India Adrift

The United States attacked Afghanistan to achieve some specific objectives including: 1) Kill Osama bin Laden; 2) topple Taliban regime and install a cooperative Afghan government; and 3) establish influence in the region.

The withdrawal of the US after a 20-year war under NATO banner has led to many interpretations. All different positions appear to be supported by good arguments. Many see it as a failure and defeat. Others fear that the region will become a nest-bed for ‘terrorists’ again. However, it seems that the US entered Afghanistan with a broader plan and it achieved all its objectives despite these contradictory statements even by some eminent people. Pakistan and Iran appear to have benefitted while it seems India may have been left adrift without friends in the region.

The conflicting narratives whether the United States won or lost emerge under three types of human activity and nature:

  1. Sensitive individuals adopt independent approach towards specific situations or outcomes either because of the facts that they know or because they don’t compromise on their integrity. There are many examples of people who repent after wars and have written stories of the miseries of people under attack.
  2. The western world enjoys freedom of expression and therefore opinion writers get full benefit of independence to express their own stance irrespective of the government’s reservations.
  3. According to conspiracy theory, sometimes a few individuals are planted by the secret agencies themselves to create a debate going against the national narrative to create confusion.

When the US toppled the Taliban government without any reasonable resistance, the circumstances further encouraged and facilitated the US to influence the regional geo-strategic overture in its favour. It influenced the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, and other regional issues

The USA planned to counter China’s increasing influence in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Therefore US designs were manifold and a very prudent policy was required to achieve all these objectives.

While the USA was pursuing its policy, India had become somewhat optimist and was obstructing Pakistan by establishing its bases within Afghanistan and promoting militancy in the western and central areas of Pakistan. Pakistan seemed to be squeezed down to a nonentity. However, India’s policy would appear to have been somewhat irrational as it failed to consider deeper natural relationships based on racial, religious, territorial and political bonds. These seemed to have been overlooked by both Indian and US policymakers.

Pakistan took counter initiatives to survive through this period. It cooperated with the international community and took measure against terrorism and extremism in the region. Pakistan opened the Kartarpur Corridor and even sought significant changes in the education syllabus as desired by the minorities living in Pakistan. Laws regarding religious matters of the minorities were introduced to boost up their sense of integration and respect in the society.

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Pakistan remained with the international community despite an aggressive Indian policy against Pakistan and huge investment in Afghanistan. The Indian government opened its educational institutions for Afghan students. India set up training camps in different cities of Afghanistan and infused anti-Pakistan sentiments which damaged peace in KPK, Baluchistan and Punjab.

In all this, the United States however had a parallel policy while India seems to have put all its eggs in one basket or approach.

Consequently, the fall of Ashraf Ghani’s government and the recapture of Kabul by the Taliban has been devastating for the BJP government. BJP underestimated the sanctity and strategic importance of ‘neighbourhood’ despite facing its practical implications when interfering within the internal affairs of their small neighbouring countries.

Despite all odds and lapses, the stark reality is that Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot be separated, being neighbours and racially and religiously connected. This dimension also explains why BJP government failed in its Middle East policy. It has had to bear loss of close neighbourhood ties with Iran, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. The Taliban’s declaration to support the Kashmiri Muslims has further stamped the failure of the BJP policy in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, as far as the US is concerned, it has won the war because it achieved its objectives and moved ahead with a well worked out policy. The USA killed Osama Bin Laden, toppled a hostile Taliban government, damaged CPEC and influenced Iran, Afghan groups, Pakistan, China and other countries. It deftly and  simultaneously carried on its aggressive activities as well as backdoor diplomacy with Taliban. This strategy not only maintained US terror on the Afghans but also encouraged them to reach an agreement with the US.

US policymakers seemed clear about the impotency of the Afghans but on the other hand they were also aware of the religious potency and might of Taliban. Therefore through backdoor diplomacy Americans settled all issues with Taliban and left as promised in August 2021. What these promises are will become clearer in the next few years. The new Taliban is a much different Taliban in that it seems amenable to American ‘friendship’.

During the last 20 years, Taliban forces did not face any kind of scarcity of modern weapons, food, technology and backdoor channel diplomacy. The West can best reveal from where Taliban were being facilitated.

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The US appears to have won because it got its objectives and evacuated its armies. It also got promises from Taliban to respect international pressure and UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Taliban also assured that Afghanistan would not let terrorists act against US and its allies. It is most likely that the US has also got assurances from Taliban to curtail if not stop the drug trade.

The US will now be able to balance its finances that were being drained in Afghanistan and instead concentrate on other interests and threats. Many wrote critical opinions and gave speeches criticizing the abrupt and unannounced departure of the US army from Afghanistan. They have deemed it an utter and humiliating defeat of the US. Yet the US showed its military might by reappearing in Afghanistan at will to evacuate its ambassadorial staff and other personnel. How many defeated armies are able to go back unhindered and recover their people, even with the cooperation of so called winners! Commentators seem to miss this point. This is clearly not a black and white win or loser scenario.

If Taliban fulfil all the promises, it will be a victory for the US, Pakistan, Iran and the region. Therefore the reemergence of Taliban with the help of the US and with consent of Pakistan and Iran affirms the success and very smart policy of the United States who managed it all behind the curtain. The US has killed thousands of Afghans. Despite that, the Taliban have desired to have cordial relations with them because common sense guides that all international forums, institutions and aggressive as well as peace diplomacy revolve around the US.

China cannot counter the US because both have different domains in world politics. China penetrates through commercial designs and modes while US asserts through aggressive diplomacy. Therefore, there is possibility or competition of a US-China conflict in contrast to the previous US-Soviet Union cold and proxy wars. The Soviet was ideologically competing with the US for dominance.

China is not interested in ideological competition. This confirms the US as an unchallengeable might in the battlefield while China has no match in the economic sphere. China as world power has UN veto and enjoys high and influential stature as an effective world player

The US ties with India are important but the recent developments in Afghanistan, especially engineered by the US, appear to show no favours or gains for India. It is highly unlikely that India knew of America’s deeper and secretive policies. It seems it may have been caught unaware and on a backfoot.

The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and agreement with Taliban is a wise decision as it has achieved all of American strategic goals. Its influence remains and it still marshals events in the region. Unfortunately, India may be the only looser in the Afghan game while Iran and Pakistan will gain special role in the coming years in the region.

‘Taliban Says Nice Things On TV, Do The Opposite On Ground’

Nasima Ahmadi, 32, a Hazara Afghan from Mazar-i-Sharif came to Delhi when her city was surrounded by Taliban gunmen last month. Ahmadi says she cannot think of a dignified life under Taliban rule

I belong to Shia Hazara community in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Last month, the city was surrounded by Taliban gunmen and they were close to capture it. Desperate to leave Mazar-i-Sharif before the violence reached us, we applied for Indian medical visa. While I manage to bring my two children and in-laws here to Delhi, my own parents are still there and I fear for them.

In the one month that I am here in Bhogal (South Delhi) the situation is completely changed in Afghanistan. Of whatever little I have spoken to my family back in Afghanistan, the situation is not what the TV channels are showing. The Taliban militia forcibly enter into people’s houses at night, and conduct ruthless searches… I wonder what they are looking for. They also take away young girls with them at gunpoint and these women are never heard of again. One of my own uncles has been killed by the Taliban.

On TV, the Taliban leaders say girls can go to schools and study, they can take up a job, there are no restrictions… this and that. But they are telling blatant lies. Girls are not allowed to go to school, nor work. And our community (Shia Hazaras) faces the harshest persecution.

Our only crime is that we belong to the Hazara community. Can you imagine belonging to a community being a crime in any other part of the world? We cannot go to Afghanistan now; Hazaras cannot think of a life under Taliban rule.

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When the Taliban was in power last time in the late 1990s and we were in Afghanistan, the situation was horrible. The Taliban barred schooling for women. That is why I couldn’t get a proper education. That is why I always wanted to provide good education to my children. After the Taliban was rooted out of power, the situation started to improve and life got better for the common man. Now when the barbarians are back in power, the horror has returned to Afghanistan.

There is nothing worse than having forced to leave one’s homeland. We had constructed a new house recently but had to leave everything behind. We could only bring our savings and some clothes. We don’t know now if the house is abandoned. What keeps us going is our resolve to find a better life for our children.

There are only two more months before our visa expires, and we have been going to various embassies in New Delhi for help and asylum. We haven’t been able to get any help so far though. Everyone gives us an email id and asks us to send our details, problem and why we want a visa. I recently went to the American Embassy for help too. We are trying to get a visa so we can go to the US.

My husband is employed in Dubai. So I have to do the running around here to find a safe shelter for my children and family. If nothing happens in the next two months that our visa for India holds, I do not know what shall be our status. I request everyone reading this to help the displaced Afghans.

(The picture is representational as Ahmadi declined to share her photograph for safety reasons)

As Told To Mamta Sharma

‘Taliban Are Savage, I Fear For My Family In Afghanistan’

Sayed Idris, 26, an Afghan student who also works at a Delhi eatery, says he can only pray for the safety of his family left behind in Afghanistan

I don’t know what the future has in store for me and my family; I spend sleepless nights worrying about the members of my family left behind in Afghanistan. Only my elder sister and I could make our way to India, my parents and another brother and a sister are still in Kabul, the city I grew up in. With news of Taliban capturing Kabul, I wonder if I would ever be able to see my family again.

My sister and I came to India in 2019 and ever since then things have only worsened in Afghanistan. Each day people live in fear. These Taliban fighters are brutal and barbaric; they have no humanity in them and they don’t heed to any logic.

I don’t want to go through the story of the journey we made from Kabul to Delhi, but no one wants to leave his or her motherland unless forced by circumstances. It broke my heart to leave my family and country and start a new life elsewhere without them. Thankfully technology is still intact in Afghanistan and we can at least talk to our family members each day over the phone.

Even though we both didn’t know a word of Hindi before we landed here, India and Indians welcomed us with open arms. The neighbours are very nice and never treat us differently. My sister and I can now speak Hindi a little.

Idris says he feels helpless and can only pray for his family

We live in Delhi along with many other Afghan refugees. Life here has been much better here than it was there, especially for my sister. She feels respected here as a human. There is no education, no scope for employment, basically no future back there. Women are really treated badly by the Taliban and my sisters were ‘discouraged’ from studying or working, as if they have no dreams or ideas of their own.

We have a distantly related uncle living nearby and we look up to him. I work at an eatery making Afghani bread and also take online classes for learning English and Computers. My sister has also enrolled for the same courses and it makes me happy to see her making progress, free and away from the eyes of the Taliban.

I wish we can both stand on our own feet soon and get our family here. Thankfully I was working at an eatery which didn’t suffer so much from lockdown. If I were working in any other kind of business, I don’t know how we would survive.

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Afghanistan has had a taste of Taliban rule before and most people knew how it could turn out again and so decided to come to India. My only wish and hope is that the rest of my family can join us too and that my country finds peace.

I hope the international powers that are will find a solution to the problem soon and I feel India’s voice matters a lot in times like these. The international community has to come together and stand up for Afghanistan otherwise it will have ramifications for the whole world. Bahut mushkil waqt hai, dua ke alawa ab kuch aur nahi kar sakte. (These are tough times. It is all in God’s hands now. We can only pray for the safety of everyone).

– As Told To Yog Maya Singh