By: Sanjeev Sanyal
The world has watched with impotent horror as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), since renamed the Islamic State (IS), took over large parts of Syria and Iraq and went about systematically erasing the region’s social, cultural and demographic past. Already, the IS has virtually eliminated the entire Shia Muslim and Christian populations from the lands they control. The city of Mosul, home to one of the oldest Christian communities, no longer has any Christians left. The IS has not even spared Sunni Muslims who do not adhere to their extreme interpretation of Islam.
Terrible as these may be, the worst persecution has been aimed at a tiny community that now faces extinction — the Yazidis. They are an ancient religious group that lives among the Kurds of northern Iraq. The Yazidi number less than half a million and two-thirds live around Mosul. The rest are scattered across Armenia, Turkey and Syria (there are also recent immigrant communities in Germany and the US).
The Yazidi heartlands around Mosul are now mostly under IS control. The Christians of Mosul were given the choice to convert, pay the jiziya tax or leave. The Yazidis were given no such choice and are often killed on sight as “devil-worshippers”. The small town of Sinjar, the only place in the world with a Yazidi majority, fell to the IS in August and there are several reports of massacres. News reports suggest that 500 Yazidis, including children, were massacred in the town in a single instance, many buried alive. Hundreds of young women have been enslaved, and dozens are said to have killed themselves rather than be captured. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees have fled into the neighbouring mountains where they are trapped in encircled enclaves. When US-backed rescue operations finally broke through to one such enclave on Mt Sinjar, they found thousands who had died of thirst.
Who are the Yazidi and why does the IS want to exterminate them? Although influenced by Christianity and Islam, the Yazidi religion has ancient roots that go back at least to the late Bronze Age. Interestingly, their beliefs have many similarities with Hinduism — for instance, they believe in reincarnation, say their prayers facing the sun at sunrise and sunset, etc. They also worship Tawuse-Melek, the peacock angel — a bird not found in Yazidi lands, but only in the Indian subcontinent.
Once, these cultural links would have been explained away in terms of an “Aryan invasion” from Central Asia. However, we now know that the great Harappan cities were abandoned due to climate change and the drying of the Saraswati river around 2000 BC. Most people moved on to the Ganga or went south, thereby seeding Indic civilisation. But, did some groups migrate west? There is a lot of evidence of Indian links with the Middle East during the Bronze Age. Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran and of their Parsi descendants, is clearly related to Vedic religion and the oldest Zoroastrian texts — the Gathas — are composed in a language very close to Rig Vedic Sanskrit.
Intriguingly, there is evidence of an Indian tribe that may have migrated even further west. We have details of a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni around 1380 BC. The Mitanni were a tribe that once ruled over the same area now inhabited by the Yazidi and the treaty invokes the names of Vedic gods Indra, Varuna, Nasatya and Mitra. We also know that the Mitanni were not locals but had come from the east. The names of their leaders and several of their military and equestrian terms also appear to be derived from Sanskrit. Most intriguingly, Mitanni art shows peacocks and peacock-like griffins.
Are the Yazidis descendants of the Mitanni? We do not know for sure, but it is certainly an intriguing possibility, especially since recent genetic studies show that certain lineages commonly found in northern India are also found in eastern Iran and among the Kurds (no specific data is available on the Yazidi).
Over time, the Yazidis were dubbed as “devil-worshippers” and subjected to constant persecution. It was especially extreme under the Ottoman Turks in the 18th and 19th centuries. A series of massacres killed thousands and almost led to their extinction. Under Saddam Hussain, they were not subjected to overt religious persecution, but remained under pressure to Arabise their culture. Matters have become much worse since the dictator was deposed. In April 2007, gunmen dragged 23 Yazidi men from a bus and shot them dead. In August that year, a series of coordinated car-bombs killed at least 300 more, including women and children.
The Yazidis now face their greatest crisis. Hopefully, US-backed air-drops and air-strikes, together with a renewed push by Kurdish forces, will help rescue the survivors. However, it remains unclear if and when they will return home. So, who will give refuge to the Yazidis?
For centuries, many persecuted minorities have found refuge in India: Jews exiled after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Zoroastrians who fled Iran in the 8th century, and Tibetan Buddhists in the 20th. Perhaps, 21st century Indians should consider providing refuge to their distant cousins.
Sanyal is the author of ‘Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography’, 2012