Sikhs and Hindus: The lost victims of religious persecution

Written By Guest User, Posted on April 8, 2020

The persecution of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan has been widely documented and felt over the past several decades.

Once thriving, there were an estimated 700,000 Sikhs and Hindus in 1970s Afghanistan. Today that has been cut to one per cent of that tally. Only a few thousand remain in light of the terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 27 Sikhs at a centuries-old gurudwara. 

Before 1992, their population numbered 200,000 but has since declined further.

From the Mujahideen in the 90s to Islamic State affiliates in 2020, geopolitics, civil war and terrorism have left Sikhs especially vulnerable.

The threat of abduction, verbal and physical abuse, especially for women, is genuine, having persisted amidst ineffective policies to protect Afghanistan’s minority populations.

Concerns have emerged as courts questioned whether Sikhs, Hindus and other minorities constitute an Afghani, emulating from Islamic religious law.

Notably, Article 62 of the Afghanistan constitution prevents non-Muslim Afghans from becoming president, contradicting Article 22, which guarantees equal rights to all Afghan citizens.

Non-muslims are also required to pay a religious tax or jizya.

According to the 2019 Threat Map by Minority Groups Right International, Pakistan was amongst the grossest human rights abusers listed at the fourth worst.

Neighbouring countries and international bodies have expressed “outrage” and “dismay” over the tragedy, giving condolences through a series of heartfelt tweets that urged togetherness.

In July 2018, another 20 Sikhs and Hindus were killed at a private gathering by Islamist militants in Jalalabad, leaving many questioning their residence in the war-torn country.

TNT Exclusive with Garnett Genuis

In 2015, a first-term Conservative MP, Garnett Genuis, took a stand against the persecution of religious minorities abroad, with his petition on the Plight of Afghanistan’s Religious Minorities.

Several Canadian politicians, including the late Manmeet Bhullar, Jasraj Singh Hallan, and Jagmeet Singh, to name a few, have advocated in conjunction with the World Sikh Organization and Manmeet Bhullar Foundation for the relocation of Sikh Afghans and Hindus.

Recently, the National Telegraph interviewed the incumbent on his advocacy of religious minorities, discussing his inspiration for the petition and the state of Canada’s Sikh population today. 

Upon hearing of the tragedy in Kabul, what were your initial thoughts?

Well, it’s devastating, obviously. It’s particularly devastating when you see an event like this, and you’re not entirely surprised. Many people have known for a long time what a dangerous and vulnerable situation Afghan Sikhs are in. My heart breaks for the families affected. If action had been taken sooner to allow the sponsorship of vulnerable people to Canada, many of these deaths could have been avoided.

You have taken unprecedented advocacy on the persecution of Sikh minorities, particularly in Afghanistan. You tabled a petition in the House of Commons on the Plight of Afghanistan’s Religious Minorities. What inspired you to advocate on this issue and push this petition?

One of the first meetings that I had after getting elected in 2015 and assigned the role of “Deputy Shadow Minister for Human Rights, and Religious Freedom” was with a prominent leader in the Sikh community. We had a long conversation in which he walked me through a bunch of different human rights and religious freedom issues that were important to the community. One of them was the plight of Afghan Sikhs, and he suggested I connect with Manmeet Bhullar, a conservative MLA and former cabinet minister in Alberta who had really put the Afghan issue on the map. Manmeet’s mission was to help those persecuted Sikhs in Afghanistan to come to Canada.

After that meeting, I sent a note to my staff asking them to set up a call between Manmeet and I, but that call never happened. Before we could connect, Manmeet was killed in a car accident on the highway between Edmonton and Calgary. The tragedy of Manmeet’s untimely death right before we were supposed to meet kind of seared this issue into my mind, and I’ve been working on it ever since.

This issue really should have been easy to resolve. We have thousands of refugees coming to Canada every year, many of them receiving government sponsorship. This is a case where private support is available. The government could have taken a few simple steps to allow these persecuted people to come in, and it would not have cost anything. And yet, in spite of that, there has been so much foot-dragging by the government. I have spoken to people who tried to sponsor families in 2015 and did not see any results until 2019. There seems to be no appetite for a special program allowing people to come directly from Afghanistan. There has been no explanation for the failure of the government to act on this. Lives could have been saved through faster action.

You were critical of the language used in the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada. You mentioned that using “Sikh Terrorism” without context dilutes discussions on the matter. Should the label have been replaced with “Khalistani Terrorism” or removed, as it was, altogether?

There were a few issues with the terrorism report, and for the most part, those issues remain unresolved. The language was obviously inappropriate in that it cast aspersions on the entire community. I do not think “Khalistani terrorism” was a good alternative, since the word “Khalistan” can also have many different interpretations and meanings. I believe that when we are using language to describe acts of terrorism, we should be as clear, specific, and narrow as possible even if the resulting formulation is long and clunky.

Importantly though, the language question never really was the core issue. The core issue was that this report makes a substantial claim which it did not back up. It declared that there was a problem with terrorism or terrorist financing in Canada emanating from those seeking the political independence of Punjab, but it provided no evidence and only referenced events long past. The Sikh community responded by saying that they were surprised by this and that if there was a problem with terrorism in their community, then it was important to show the evidence so that the community can be a partner in the solution. I always made the same point – that the government needed to answer critical questions about what was happening and what the community could do about it. While the government changed the language, they unfortunately never answered those fundamental questions.

Having taken an objective stance on Sikh self-determination regarding Khalistan is a first amongst Conservatives. Does this help bridge the divide between “mainstream Canadians” and Sikh Canadians?

Well, first of all, I think my position on the issue of self-determination is very consistent with the position that our party has always taken. In 2012 while in India, Stephen Harper made very clear that his government drew a sharp distinction between those who advocate violence, those who were peacefully advocating for political independence. He said, “we can’t interfere with the right of political freedom of expression.” That clear statement of our approach basically put the issue to bed and allowed us to move forward with important discussions about economic integration. Andrew Scheer took the same position as Stephen Harper, and my position is exactly the same. Free societies do not police people’s political views as long as they are not advocating violence, and Conservatives are the party of freedom of speech.

Do you believe the 2020 Sikh Referendum should be allowed in Canada? And if yes, does that complicate relation with India and Pakistan, who are amongst those denouncing it?

I think we should be very clear that there is no constitutional way that any Canadian government could stop people from expressing opinions for or against separatism or organizing an informal plebiscite on an issue like this. It’s not even a question of political will. It’s a question of constitutional law. Our party supports a united India (as do I), and I personally think that energies are better spent working on advancing human rights within the context of a united India than on talking about separation. And it’s important to reinforce as well that we would not view the referendum as providing any kind of mandate for separation. But at the same time, we are never going to advocate restricting people’s constitutionally-guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, and I think our international partners will understand that.

In Canada, we have our own separatism movements – in Quebec and now growing in Alberta. I expect that in the next election, there will be an Alberta separatist candidate running against me. I will obviously try to defeat him or her in the election, but I would never say that such a candidate does not have a right to hold or express their views. I understand that other countries take a different approach when it comes to separatist views, but this is the Canadian way, and it is inextricably tied to our constitutional framework. Our international partners need to understand that, and maybe, therefore, do more to speak and make a case for their views. Public debate is, after all, a two-way street.

When asked about the Air India Bombing and Khalistan, in his first interview with Terry Milewski, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh boggled the question and refused to denounce the incident. He later condemned violence (at a later date) in the name of Sikh self-determination. Did that complicate your attempts to educate voters on the matter?

There is an interesting parallel between the experiences of Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer as leaders of their parties. Both are men who take their faith and identity seriously. This has led, in both cases, to specific questions being asked by members of the media about their identity and community – Jagmeet Singh was asked about the Air India Bombing and Andrew Scheer was asked about Catholic teachings on sexuality.

I am generally inclined to think that we do not want to see politicians asked questions, which presume that they have to account publically for the theology of the faith they practise or for the actions of all of those who profess their faith. Sikhs, Catholics, Muslims, and people of other faiths still experience this type of question from time to time, and I think that’s unfortunate. On the other hand, though, recognizing that these questions are asked, Jagmeet Singh needed to be better prepared to give a clear answer. He probably should have considered the possibility that those questions were coming.

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