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Afghanistan's Sikhs face an uncertain future

The religious minority faces discrimination, lack of political power, and obstacles to cremating their dead.

Last updated: 23 Feb 2014 17:58
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About 300 Sikh families live in Kabul today [AFP/Getty Images]

Kabul, Afghanistan - Awtar Singh Khalsa still remembers the sounds of stones and insults being hurled at the funeral procession. 

It was meant to be a sombre remembrance of a deceased woman in Kabul's Sikh community. Instead, with police flanking them on both sides, the funeral procession became another stark reminder of the discrimination and harassment that have become a part of everyday life for many Afghan Sikhs.

That was more than a year and a half ago. Sikhs speaking to Al Jazeera said that, since then, things have only become worse for the 306-family community in the Afghan capital. "We can't even hold our funerals in peace," Khalsa said. 

The most recent blow to the religious minority came in December, when the Afghan parliament rejected a decree issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the nation's Hindu and Sikh communities be reserved a seat in the lower house of the legislature. 

Khalsa said Sikh history in Afghanistan, which dates back 200 years, has been marred by two "dark periods". He added that the strict Islamic rule of the Taliban - during which Sikhs were made to wear identifying yellow arm bands, hang yellow flags over their homes and businesses and barred from government posts - was not one of them. 

Disrespect and marginalisation

Like many Afghans, the Sikh community considers the civil war of the early 1990s as a particularly difficult time. Jihadi leaders fresh from the fight against Soviet occupation turned against one another in a battle for control of the capital, leading to the deaths of 40,000 people and widespread destruction. During that time, seven Sikh temples and a primary school were destroyed by rocket fire.

Uncertain future for Afghanistan's Sikhs

Under the Karzai administration, which has governed Afghanistan since late 2001, Sikhs say they feel more ostracised than ever. The numbers, they say, prove this. Before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Hindu and Sikh leaders estimated their combined population at more than 100,000 nationwide. In 1992, more than 15,000 Hindu families fled to neighbouring India, leaving only about 3,000 Hindu and Sikh families in Kabul. Today, just more than 300 Sikh families remain in the capital. 

"There is no respect. People will say 'they are kafirs [unbelievers], we won't buy from them'," said 25-year-old Avinder Singh. To make matters worse, a series of land grabs in Kabul's Taimani and Kartei Parwan neighbourhoods, where Sikhs have historically lived, have limited their economic prospects. "We have nowhere to go, especially if we aren't making money," Singh told Al Jazeera.

Singh, who hails from Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar, was one of many youth at a gurdwara - a Sikh temple - in Kabul who complained of physical and verbal harassment when out on the streets.

Kabul was once home to eight gurdwaras, but only one remains today. The youth told of a Sikh man in his twenties who was recently taken to the hospital after being taunted and beaten by a group in Kartei Parwan. Another had his iPhone stolen. "We had few problems during the Taliban. At least then we knew where to go," Khalsa said.

Cremations

Sikhs say the difficulty they face in holding funerals exemplifies their deteriorating position in Afghan society. Now, Awtar said, "We have to let police know every time we hold a funeral." For decades, most Sikh cremations - a practice forbidden by Islam - were held in Qalacha in eastern Kabul. But residents began to complain of the smell.

In 2003, delegations went directly to President Karzai, Second Vice President Karim Khalili and Kabul Mayor Mohammad Nawandish to plead their case.

Speaking in the Indian capital last summer, Karzai promised to do more to make Afghanistan safe for the Hindus and Sikhs taking refuge in India to return. But the government has done little to deter the abuse. In the past decade, the government has provided 10 different locations for Sikhs to hold cremations, but each time Sikhs said they faced abuse. This led the community to erect high walls around the gurdwara - constructed 45 years ago under the rule of King Zahir Shah - so they could perform cremations in peace.

Along with a proper location to hold their cremation ceremonies, Hindus and Sikhs have been asking for exclusive schools. Though primary schools for Sikhs have now been established in Kabul and Jalalabad, many youth reported being excluded or taunted while attending government-run schools in the capital.

The community had hoped that Karzai's Septmeber decree calling for a parliamentary seat reserved for Hindus and Sikhs would provide them with much-needed political representation. But even that fell flat when the parliament rejected the measure last December by a vote of 73 to 51. Those opposing the measure cited Article 22 of Afghanistan's constitution, which prohibits discrimination or special privileges for any single group. 

'Send us anywhere'

Still, some in the community wonder why Afghanistan's two-million-strong nomad community, the kochi, are entitled to 10 seats in parliament.

In a statement issued 10 days after the parliament rejected the allocation of a seat for Hindus and Sikhs, a consortium of representatives from both communities demanded that the government take "serious actions in connection with the elimination of all forms of discrimination against Hindus and Sikh people". Among other things, the statement called for the "restitution of their confiscated property, access to education, freedom to hold religious rites".

Send us to France, send us to Germany, send us anywhere - but we can't stay where we are not respected anymore.

- Ranjit Singh, Afghan Sikh

Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network said that without political power, Hindus and Sikhs have found themselves "in a competition for space and jobs at a time when new arrivals [from the provinces] to Kabul bring with them religious intolerance".

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the government said Karzai "instructed the relevant authorities including the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Religious affairs and Kabul mayor present in the meeting to carry out an assessment of the problems the Hindu and Sikh community are currently facing". But many religious minorities in Afghanistan are already disenchanted with their homeland, and say they will leave the country if their conditions don't improve.

Though neighbouring India and Pakistan - which both have considerably larger Sikh and Hindu populations - may seem like a natural choice for relocation, Ranjit Singh, who left Jalalabad for Kabul three years ago, said they would still face economic hardship there, too. "Send us to France, send us to Germany, send us anywhere - but we can't stay where we are not respected anymore," he said.

Mansour, a Muslim man who works at the Kabul gurdwara, said he would be sad to see Afghan Hindus and Sikhs leave the country. Unable to understand the hate lodged against his fellow Afghans, Mansour described them as "good, nice people. If we can work with the Americans, why can't we work with and accept the Sikhs and Hindus?"

Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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