Inside a gurdwara in Kabul, anxiety ran high on Monday as over 200 people waited to hear back from the Indian embassy, with gunshots ringing on the streets outside. Most of them were Sikhs, some were Hindus. Although Afghan nationals, they were all keen to leave the country, fearful of what Taliban rule would mean for religious minorities.
“I was three when the Taliban ruled, I don’t have memories from back then,” said a young Sikh man, who requested anonymity in a conversation on the phone. “But my father narrated stories of how they lived in fear.”
The Taliban had ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, imposing a hardline version of Sharia law on all citizens, before they were ousted by American forces in 2001. With the US withdrawing its troops after two decades this summer, Taliban forces recaptured territory at lightning speed, sweeping into Kabul on Sunday, stunning both Afghan citizens and the rest of the world.
By Monday, the Taliban had taken over full control of the capital. “Today morning representatives from the Taliban came and took away a pistol from one of the MPs [members of Parliament] staying with us,” said one of the men currently staying at the gurdwara. “They said we are safe to go back home. But we have decided to stay put at the gurdwara.”
Many of those who had sought refuge in the gurdwara were residents of Kabul, who said they no longer felt safe in their homes. “We have been hearing reports of looting,” said a Sikh man, who had moved to the gurdwara on Sunday night with four other members of his family. He said he had been planning to send his family to India, but did not anticipate the Taliban would take charge so swiftly. “I thought we had time to leave the country,” he said.
Others staying in the gurdwara had come from towns and villages afar, in the hope that they could fly out of the country.
“Earlier today one person went to the airport,” said a Sikh businessman. “We came to know there were flights to the USA and Canada. But there was chaos and firing at the airport. It was extremely difficult to gain entry.”
Although he had secured a visa for India, he said he had not been able to access the airport, even though it was just half an hour’s drive from the gurdwara. With transport coming to a stop, the only way to reach the airport was by foot.
Looking for help from India
Ravi Singh, from Khalsa Aid, an international NGO that provides humanitarian aid, said members of Sikh and Hindu communities had travelled from across Afghanistan to reach Kabul. “They are extremely frightened. Even if there is a flight to fly them out of the country, they will need security to reach the airport,” he said.
The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said embassy officials were in touch with the people currently staying at the gurdwara in Kabul. “We will facilitate repatriation to India of those who wish to leave Afghanistan,” he told PTI. On Monday, an Air India flight from Delhi to Kabul had to be cancelled due to security concerns.
Earlier this week, the external affairs ministry had said it was monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. Although India’s amended citizenship law, which expedites citizenship for religious minorities from three neighbouring countries including Afghanistan, is yet to come into operation, the ministry spokesperson pointed out that India had facilitated the return of 383 members of Sikh and Hindu communities from the country in 2020.
So far, in the last few weeks as the Taliban forces have captured one district after another, there have been no major reports of attacks on minority communities. Last week, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told ANI that minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs will be allowed to practice their religion.
The Sikh man, who was too young in the 1990s to have any memories of Taliban rule, said his family had lived in Afghanistan for generations without facing any trouble, until a civil war had engulfed the country recently. In 2020, his father was killed in an attack on a gurdwara in Kabul. Since then, the situation has worsened for the Sikh community, he said, and a few hundred members have fled to India.
“At this point, there is complete uncertainty,”