Sikhs provide sanctuary to Kashmiris caught in 'revenge' attacks

Kashmiris targeted by right-wing mobs in India following the Pulwama attack say the Sikh community came to their rescue.

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    Sikhs make up under two percent of India's population of 1.3 billion people [File: Channi Anand/AP]
    Sikhs make up under two percent of India's population of 1.3 billion people [File: Channi Anand/AP]

    Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir - When 18-year-old Kashmiri student Shadab Ahmad and his friends were attacked by a mob in the north Indian state of Haryana last week, they prepared for the worst.

    The group of four - all Kashmiris - were set upon by a gang and only survived after reaching their flat and barricading themselves inside.

    The mob outside moved on, but the group in the apartment decided it was wiser for them to leave for a safer place once the opportunity arose. 

    Shadab and his friends were among dozens of Kashmiris targeted by mobs across India in the aftermath of the February 14 suicide bombing that killed 42 paramilitary troopers in India-administered Kashmir.

    It was the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in the disputed region and immediately triggered revenge attacks against Kashmiris in mainland India

    "There were around seven of us Kashmiris. Another Kashmiri friend called us and asked us to come to Mohali in Punjab. He said it was relatively safe there. We boarded a cab and got there," Shadab, a second-year engineering student, told Al Jazeera, using an alias because of concerns he may be identified.

    At Mohali, Shadab and his friends were greeted with a pleasant surprise.

    They were welcomed by volunteers from the Sikh community, who fed them, gave them shelter in a Sikh temple (called "gurudwara") and arranged transport for them to go back to their homes.

    "The Sikh volunteers gave us food and accommodation and arranged 13 vehicles for more than 100 of us to go home together," Shadab said. 

    'Our religion teaches humanity'

    Thousands of Kashmiris, many of them students studying in universities and colleges across India, have found themselves the the target of hateful rhetoric.

    Like Shadab, hundreds of students fled their colleges in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other Indian states and have returned to their homes in Kashmir.

    Videos of mob attacks were shared widely on social media, prompting condemnation by the Indian National Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International, who asked India to ensure the safety of common Kashmiris.

    The Indian government said it was putting into place safeguards to ensure the safety of Kashmiris living outside of their home state.

    But alongside accounts of mob violence, which are often associated with Hindu right-wing groups, are stories of ordinary Indians coming to the aid of Kashmiris caught up in the violence.

    At the forefront were Sikh groups, such as the UK-based non-profit organisation, Khalsa Aid, which helped fleeing Kashmiri students by putting them up in temples and providing them food and accommodation.

    "Our religion teaches us humanity," Amarpreet Singh, the director of Khalsa Aid in India, told Al Jazeera.

    "Due to some bad elements who harassed these students, they should not feel alienated and they should believe that humanity is still alive. These young people are our future," he added.

    Khalsa Aid says its volunteers ensured the safe return of at least 300 Kashmiri Muslim students to their homes after the mob attacks.

    "We continue to get distressed calls from the students and after verifying we try to help them," Singh said.

    As a token of gratitude for their help, many Kashmiri Muslims in India-administered Kashmir have offered discounts, free medical and legal consultations, and other freebies to the local Sikh community, who are a minority in the region.

    In our religion, there is a strong message of humanity irrespective of religion. We promote humanity

    Jagmohan Singh Raina, Kashmiri Sikh leader

    Kamran Nisar, a Kashmiri in his early 20s who runs the Winterfell cafe at a tourist spot in the main city of Srinagar, has announced free meals for the Sikh community for a week.

    "This is not providing meals for free but instead a small token of love, and a gesture of gratitude to the community that came to help us," Kamran told Al Jazeera.

    Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Sikh leader in Kashmir, told Al Jazeera that his community had a long history of helping those in need, no matter their background.

    "In our religion, there is a strong message of humanity irrespective of religion. We promote humanity," he said, adding: "It's not for the first time, Sikh volunteers have also helped in Syria, Bangladesh, in Nepal." 

    Concerns for safety

    At his home in south Kashmir, Shadab now debates whether he should go back to his college, and many like him are asking the same question.

    They say they left the Kashmir valley to escape violence but no do not feel safe being Kashmiri in Indian cities.

    Salman Shaida who worked at a university in northern India said he was forced to resign after a student screenshotted a WhatsApp conversation with him about the situation in Kashmir.

    "There was nothing anti-national in it," he told Al Jazeera. "But I was attacked by a mob and I hid until the police arrived outside my apartment.

    "I approached the head of the institution but instead of providing me protection, he forced me to sign my resignation.

    "This happened because I am a Kashmiri. I do not know why I was punished when I could have been lynched."

    The pressures come not only from incidences of prejudice against Kashmiris.

    One Kashmiri, named Numan, told Al Jazeera his family were pressuring him to quit his job in the city of Bangalore over fears of violence.

    "My family does not want me to work there any more. The situation has horrified everyone," he said. 

    Sikh aid workers and Kashmiri students in Mohali, Punjab [Khalsa Aid] 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News