‘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

1947 And 2021 – Two Exits In Perspective

While Biden is being attacked all around for failing to organise the exit from Afghanistan more strategically to avoid sudden fall of the government and the dangerous fate that is potentially faced by the Afghans who worked for the Western administration, it is worth looking at the worst exit in recent history if not all of world history. The British withdrawal from India was so shambolic, insensitive and reeking of criminal negligence, that it left one million people dead in its trail.

As the British media and Parliamentarians finger-point at the United States, they conveniently forget the circumstances around 1947. Viceroy Lord Mountbatten was in charge. There was enough intelligence that weapons had been stored by various groups preparing for violence to ethnically cleanse on each side of the newly created India-Pakistan border. Party strategists on both sides wanted to make sure that their country had dominance of the community that it was meant for.

On Pakistan side, the Punjabi Muslims wanted Sikhs and Hindus out to avoid the country becoming a multiethnic-multireligious land. After all the idea of Pakistan was to create an independent country for South Asian Muslims, the Islamic nation. On the other hand, quite a few Hindus wanted to rid India off as many Muslim population as could so that India would be a Hindu dominant country. Most of the violence was in the Punjab. The Sikhs were caught in between but sided with Hindu India and bore the brunt of violence in Pakistan side of Punjab. On the Indian side of Punjab, Muslims suffered immense violence.

It wasn’t the first time communal violence had taken place in India. But the British not only didn’t plan for it, the British Indian Army stayed in its barracks while massacres were going on around them in hundreds of thousands. Timely planning for massacres and strategic intervention and control by the army could have prevented most of the violence, admittedly not all. A highly disciplined army that respected its British officers would largely have ensured that violence was contained rather than become a pandemic.

Mountbatten managed to save almost every British life and the British walked out of India without loss of life.

Interestingly, the blame for the violence has been put on Indians, religion, lack of civilisation, inexperience of leaders such as Nehru and Jinnah etc. No blame has been appropriated on the negligence of the British administration. So successful has been this narrative that even Indian and Pakistani academics continue to concentrate their writings on the senseless violence and have internalised the blame upon their own communities. They blame the British for communalising politics but not for mindless inaction at the time.

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The British Press and politicians seem to have developed a convenient amnesia about British handling of the Indian exit as they queue to gloat at Biden and his sudden decision to leave Afghanistan without apparent preparations for a sudden collapse of the Afghan Government.

Compared to what happened in 1947, the USA has handled the Afghan exit with extraordinary dexterity. It immediately sent in about 5,000 troops and has now vacated over 100,000 Afghans and American citizens. It has enabled other countries to vacate their people too.

The Americans have handed control to the Taliban but also remain in talks with them to avoid the situation getting worse. Compare this to 1947. A million people died in the massacres.

It is inevitable anywhere in the world, be it India, Britain or USA, that if the agencies responsible for ensuring order are withdrawn, then chaos and violence ensues. Chinese whispers exaggerate the smallest incident and then develop a life and trajectory of their own. That is what happened in 1947. The organisation that was supposed to ensure order, the British Indian Army, failed in its duty and stayed in its barracks under direct orders to do so.

In Afghanistan 2021, the Taliban quickly stepped in to ensure law and order. It took over when the Afghan National Army absconded and left the streets potentially to mob rule, criminals and waiting Islamic State jihadis among others. The Taliban immediately filled the vacuum as the western backed President, Ashraf Ghani, ran away. The Taliban have also cooperated in letting Americans and other western countries to take their citizens and those who worked for them in flights from the main Airport in Kabul, called Hamid Karzai Airport.

A lot of arm chair generals have a lot of advice on how Biden could have handled the exit better. A great deal of this advice is coming from the British press, British politicians and commentators, not least British Generals. The USA has not yet explained why it left in a hurry. The attack at the airport on 26th is perhaps one of the possible factors in the calculations. Perhaps the United States knew that the Afghan Army would not be able to handle the growing menace of ISIS and decided that it is best dealt by the Taliban.

A gradual exit would have meant the USA would have had to broker a deal between Taliban and the Afghan Government. The Taliban was in no mood to negotiate with them. It was best to leave and let matters unfold. Whether there will be violence in the near future or not is too early to say. The Taliban has its own problems with foreign Jihadis wanting to use the country as a base and get their hands on the vast armoury left behind by the Americans. While the liberal press is rummaging about Biden’s failure to ensure women rights, education and human rights based law, the region is facing a descent into something similar to the crises that led to the establishment of Islamic State in Iraq.

Whatever happens, one fact should be obvious. A bit of humility on part of British press, politicians and pontiffs would be appropriate. The American exit from Afghanistan in 2021 so far is no way as disastrous as the British exit from South Asia of 1947. The reality is that it was derogation of responsibility on part of the British administration that led to a fermenting communalism to reach such heights of insane violence. It is a wonder that no victim of that period ever thought of bringing charges of criminal negligence against the British Government. That may have put the two exits in perspective.