‘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

‘We Were Told To Embrace Islam, Even Spat Upon’

Avtar Singh, 32, an Afghan Sikh, narrates his persecution in Afghanistan and why he left Ghazni, where his family lived for five generations. Singh sees the Citizenship Law as a blessing for people like him

My forefathers settled in Afghanistan five generations ago. We lived in Ghazni, about 170 kilometres from Kabul, the Afghan Capital. We owned multiple garment shops and nearly 40 acres of land. Why we had to leave everything behind and took refuge in Delhi is a tragic story, one of religious persecution and plight of minorities in Afghanistan.

Ever since I was born, I remember being discriminated against in Afghanistan. It started with being made fun of for our attires, our pagris. They would call us kafir, be-iman and by other derogatory terms. Every time we went out we would be taunted with: “Aaj pagri me aloo rakha hai ya pyaz?” (What have you hidden in your turban today – potatoes or onions?).They would tell us to get rid of our hair and look like them. We were constantly asked to convert to Islam.

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Things took a more sinister turn with people spitting at us in public for following Sikhism, at times throwing stones at us randomly. I couldn’t send my children out, or my younger brother to school. Afghanistan was the only home we had known and we were heartbroken by the way things were happening. My mother who had seen better times before 1979 (before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) lamented at what we had come to.

My father, Shaheed Harbans Singh Khalsa, a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan, was killed in an accident in 2003. We later got to know it was all pre-planned. Mysterious papers would be thrown at our house with threats to life and ransom money. Over the years, I paid nearly ₹80-90 lakh to keep my family safe.

After a decade of living in uncertainty, constant suffering and blackmailing, we reached the breaking point and decided to flee to India. We were helped by a few people to buy tickets amounting to ₹90, 000 for seven people for the Kabul-Delhi flight.

Singh now works as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in New Delhi

That was in 2014. I lived a lifetime on that flight. I had only ₹20,000 to start a new life in India and a family of seven to feed. However, we were happy that at least we came out of Afghanistan alive.

We live on meagre resources in India. I work as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in Delhi. My brother who is in his teens also has to work to support the family. I am greatly surprised how well-behaved Indian Muslims are. They always address us as Bhaijaan and Sardar Ji and make us feel welcome in every aspect of life.

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We have to extend our visas every two to three years. I have heard of the new Citizenship Law that would give refugees like us permanent citizenship of India, and we are glad about the same. Even though I understand the sentiments of several people who have been protesting against CAA, I feel they should know why citizenship in India is so important, no less than a blessing for people like us. We can finally call India our home.

After being on the receiving end of persecution, I have become a better person, not bitter and feel no one should be persecuted on the basis of religion. Our Guru Granth Sahib teaches us: Koi Bole Ram Ram, Koi Khudaye, Koi Sewe Gosaiya, Koi Alahe (God is one, people know it by different names).

‘In The 1990s’ Afghanistan, They Called Us Hindustani Kafir’

Sardar Heera Singh, who fled Kabul in 1993, narrates the pain of a displaced person who has lived in Delhi for 26 years on stay visa. Singh hails the new Citizenship law by Modi government that will give him an identity

We call ourselves ‘Hindu Sikhs’. I was 26 when we fled from Kabul in Afghanistan to save our lives in 1993. India gave us shelter but not citizenship – not till date. It has been almost 26 years that we have been living in India on stay visa which is extended every few years. We are people without a country of our own.

Therefore, we are happy that the Modi government has thought about people like us whose condition till now was like the proverbial ‘dhobi ka kutta’, who belonged neither here nor there. In Afghanistan, we were called Hindu, Kafir, Hindustani, and in India we are called Afghanis, refugees. Finally, with the new citizenship law coming into force, we will have an identity.

I understand that many people are against the implementation of CAA and protesting. But they have not gone through what we have gone through. We were openly disrespected and threatened to change our religion in Afghanistan. Nobody likes to leave their home and hearth and move to an unknown place if they are safe and free where they belong. Those opposing the CAA know not the pain of the displaced. As they say Ja tan laagi, wa tan jane (Only wearer knows where the shoe pinches).

The whole world is going through a refugee crisis today. Muslims are mostly at the receiving end of it. But there are 52 countries that follow Islam and a displaced Muslim may find shelter there. But Hindus and Sikhs have no other place than India to turn to. In India, they can be sure that they won’t be asked to give up their religion.

In our case, seven generations prior to my family had lived in Afghanistan. Yet, when infighting in Kabul began to raise an ugly head, we were identified by our religion. We had always considered Afghanistan our own country, but the circumstances in 1993 forced us to change that opinion.

Those were difficult times. We made perilous journeys on trucks, first from Kabul to Jalalabad, and then to Peshawar, Lahore and finally to Amritsar. I was a rich businessman in Kabul but when we came to India as refugees, I had to start from selling tomatoes to earn a living.

We were around 9,000 people who fled together somehow on a dreadful night. However, through all this we never lost faith in God and it is our faith. With time, the tide has turned and my family now has a shop in Ganesh Nagar in West Delhi. And soon citizenship will be granted to us in India. Now our children can finally have decent jobs and access to many more facilities that we had.

Even before CAA, the BJP government had made our lives easier. Where earlier we had to get our visas renewed every two years, the current government extended the duration to 4-5 years.

As the current general secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society (a 100-year old organization that was started in Afghanistan), we make sure that we give back to India as gratitude. We have undertaken the responsibility of education of around 600-700 underprivileged kids.

Many Afghanistan Muslims also have come to India as refugees to save their lives. Lajpat Nagar in Delhi is home to many Afghanistan Muslims and whenever we meet, we talk fondly of the country we left behind. We hope and pray that everyone around the world is safe and there are no refugees anymore.