Area: 647,500 sq km
Population: 31,056,997 (July 2006 est.)
Languages: Afghan Persian or Dari (official) 50%, Pashtu (official) 35%, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 11%, 30 minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai) 4%, much bilingualism
Location: Southern Asia, north and west of Pakistan, east of Iran[i]
Humans have inhabited Afghanistan since at least 50,000 BCE, as archaeologists have found stone-age remnants at Aq Kupruk, and Hazar Sum. It is believed that the first urban centers in the region were Mundigak and Deh Morasi Ghundai, dating back to between 3000 and 2000 BCE. There is some speculation that the original Hindu or Vedic habitations were in areas of present day Afghanistan. Afghanistan was at the cross-roads of routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and Central Asia, and has seen the growth and establishment of various religions including early Hinduism, Zoroastrian, Buddhism and Islam, though at this juncture the country is predominantly Muslim.
Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan (329–327 BCE) during his journey to India. After Alexander’s death, the region became part of the Seleucid Empire. In the north, Bactria became independent, and southern Afghanistan was acquired by the Mauryan dynasty, based in present day India. Bactria expanded southward but fell to the Parthians and rebellious tribes like the Sakhas. Buddhism was introduced by the Kushan dynasty (early second century BCE). The Kushans declined in the third century CE and were supplanted by the Sassanids, the Ephthalites, and the Turkish Tu-Kuie.
The Muslim conquest of Afghanistan began in the seventh century CE. Mahmud of Ghazni, who conquered the lands from Khorasan in Iran to the Punjab in India early in the eleventh century, was the most powerful of Afghanistan’s rulers. Jenghiz Khan (1220) and Timur (late fourteenth century) were subsequent conquerors. Babar, a descendant of Timur, used Kabul as the base for his conquest of India and the establishment of the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, the Persian leader Nadir Shah extended his rule to north of the Hindu Kush mountains (Hindu Kush, some contend, literally means the “slayer of Hindus.” The earliest known use of this name was by the famous Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta, who wrote in his famous 14th Century Travels: “Another reason for our halt was fear of the snow, for on the road there is a mountain called Hindu Kush, which means ‘Slayer of Hindus,’ because the slave boys and girls who are brought from Hind [India] die there in large numbers as a result of the extreme cold and the quantity of snow.”) After the death of Nadir Shah in 1747, his lieutenant, Ahmad Shah established a united state covering most of present-day Afghanistan. His dynasty, the Durrani, gave the Afghans the name Durrani.[ii]
While there were conquests, and attempts at conquest, of the Afghan region by the British and Russians, and there is an extensive history of internecine fighting among tribal leaders, this report will focus on more recent events that have rendered Afghanistan the center of the world’s attention.[iii]
The events in the late 1970s that finally culminated in the rise of the Taliban and their occupation and rule of Afghanistan, and the United States led invasion have been described in numerous books[iv]. In 1997, the Taliban renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and its leader, Mullah Omar assumed the title amir-ul momineen (Commander of the Faithful). The Taliban authorities enforced their version of Islamic law, very similar to the strict Wahabi Islamic edicts in Saudi Arabia. Hindus were asked to wear yellow arm-bands and fly yellow flags atop their houses reminiscent of the Nazi targeting of Jews.[v] This report focuses on the history of Hindus in Afghanistan, and the present conditions of the handful of Hindus who still manage to live in their ancient home that has now become hostile territory.
History of Hinduism in Afghanistan
Hindus have an ancient history in Afghanistan. The ties go back to the Vedic age with some of the earliest settlements of people now identified as Hindus. Afghanistan was a center of Buddhism between the second and seventh centuries CE, and thus attracted many pilgrims from the subcontinent. From the end of the sixth century CE to the end of tenth century CE, Kabul and most of South-eastern Afghanistan was ruled by the “Hindu Shahs,” a series of small dynasties of Hindu faith.
The country was home to the headquarters of the Pashupati sect. Among its famous temples was the Sun Temple at Sakawana. Remains of the temples including icons of Ganesha, Lakshmi, Surya, Siva Linga and other Hindu deities, have been excavated at Amb, Mallot, Ketas and Baghaniwaiah.
The major Hindu groups that lived in Afghanistan included the Katri, Chawa, Bapla, Kandi, Katal and Daka. The Katri group was the largest, and was also known as the Sardar Khel.
Hindus have traditionally specialized in trade, traditional medicine, the crafts, and music. The Afghan King Shah Shuja, when he returned from exile in India in 1839, brought with him Indian musicians – the trappings of a royal court. He installed these musicians first in the Bala Hissar, his royal residence, and later in Kharabad, the area at the foot of the palace. Over time Kharabad was to become known as the musicians’ quarter. The Hindus were mostly prosperous merchants, dealing in clothes, dry fruits, pharmaceuticals, currency exchange and Indian tea and spices[vi].
According to Afghanistan’s 1964 Constitution, Hindus and other minorities enjoyed equal rights with the rest of the Afghan population. They practiced their religion in private. However, during the reign of Zahir Shah, they could not obtain a permit to build a temple. Still, Hindus, and later the Sikhs, co-existed peacefully with the rest of the Afghan population before 1992. At times there were some tensions, but these never turned into pogroms or religious strife. Hindus and Sikhs saw the period of occupation by the U.S.S.R. that supported Najibullah regime as the time they most fully enjoyed their minority rights. This was only interrupted by the tensions that erupted between the Hindu and Muslim communities in 1992. At that time several Hindu temples were burnt in Afghanistan. By 1994, during Taliban rule, 50,000 Hindus had left Afghanistan—according to some estimates that is nearly the entire Hindu population at the time. A sizeable number of refugees joined family members in Germany. The U.S. has a small community of Hindu and Sikh Afghan refugees, totaling about 500-600 people, or about 150 families. In 1992 they formed an Afghan Hindu Association,[vii] which has its main office in New York and a branch in Maryland.[viii]
Several Afghan place-names reflect the Hindu influence: Bagram (Bagi Ram), Laghman (Lam/Ram Gan), Parwan (Pagwan), Shakar Dara (Shankar Dara), and so on. The now infamous Kandahar was Gandhara. The earlier name of the city was “Quandhar”, derived from the name of the region of Gandhara. Home to the Al-Qaeda in the recent past, it was always a strategic site, being on main Persian routes to Central Asia and India.
Even as of this year, the few Hindus remaining in Afghanistan undertook efforts to celebrate the Hindu festival of “Navratri” in Kabul. Newspaper reports said that for the festival, “The focal attraction is Asamai temple at the foothills of Koh-i-Asamai…. Hundreds of Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs as well as Indians employed in reconstruction projects pay their obeisance there every day…. The hill is named Asamai after Asha, the goddess of hope said to be residing on the hilltop since time immemorial. Legend goes that the Akhand Jyoti or continuous fire there has been burning uninterrupted for over 4,000 years.”[ix]
Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, before the civil war broke out in the 1980s, constituted about 1% of Afghanistan’s population.[x] Some estimate their population then at about 200,000.[xi] According to other sources, between 15,000 and 20,000 families lived in Kabul, and the rest of the population lived in other Afghan cities like Jalalabad, Khost, Ghazni, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, and a few in the countryside. Now the estimated population of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan is about 1,200 families, of which 350 live in Kabul. In 2002, only about 50 families returned from exile. The rest emigrated to India or elsewhere including Europe and the United States.
Status of Human Rights of Hindus and other minorities in Afghanistan, 2005
According to the Afghan Professionals Alliance for Minority Rights, due to fear of persecution or ridicule, Hindus do not send their children to public schools. They receive neither government nor international assistance for their schools. Currently, only one Sikh school in Karte Parwan is functioning. There are no professional teachers, and those that do teach receive only 1,000 Afghanis (approximately US$20) a month, paid by the Hindu and Sikh community. In Kandahar there is no school at all, only classes in the temple. Muslims have occupied two of the Hindu schools. In Khost, Jalalabad and Ghazni, schools are also desperately needed[xii].
Currently, the governments of several nations where Afghan Hindus live in exile—including the United States, Germany and India among many others — are exerting pressure on the Hindu and Sikh refugees to return to Afghanistan. At this time, there are no facilities to welcome returnees in Kabul, and most end up living in deplorable conditions in the three temples still functioning. Hindu refugees in Germany and elsewhere are under intense pressure to return to Afghanistan under the false belief of governments that Afghanistan is now “safe” for minorities. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the State Department to “communicate and act urgently to prevent the imminent involuntary deportation from Germany to Afghanistan of particularly vulnerable asylum seekers, including Hindu refugees who face the threat of violence upon return to Afghanistan.” The USCIRF urged the United States to “take steps similar to those it took in the late 1990s to allow applications for resettlement to the United States of Bosnian refugees who had been faced with the similar threat of forcible return and deportation from Germany.”[xiii]
Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul, Helmand and Khost have not been able to gain access to their property occupied by Northern Alliance commanders and other powerful warlords. In Kandahar, six Hindu temples, two schools, and one Hindu “soozan” (crematorium) have been usurped by the local Muslim population.
In Helmand, the local governor reportedly had Hindu and Sikh shops in Lashkar Gah demolished, and did not allocate new lands for them, although he did allocate lands for Muslims whose shops had also been demolished. People leasing their property to Hindus were pressured by the governor to expel them.
In Kabul, Gardez and Khost, religious sites of Hindus and Sikhs were destroyed during the period of Rabbani’s government, between 1992 and 1996, and under the rule of the Taliban. Currently only three Hindu and three Sikh temples are open in Kabul. These temples face discrimination from local warlords and governors. They are, for example, charged for electricity while mosques in the same localities are not.
With very few Hindus remaining in Afghanistan, and the small expatriate Afghan Hindu community afraid to return to their homeland, specific instances of human rights abuse against Hindus may be few and far between. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, in its detailed coverage of Afghanistan, does not point out to any particular acts of abuse against Hindus. Instead, they report that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has investigated over 2,500 cases of human rights violations since it began functioning in June 2002[xiv].
Afghan Hindus who are refugees in India have sought to become naturalized citizens of India. More than 8,000 Afghan refugees in India are of Hindu or Sikh faiths. Many of them are culturally and socially integrated in the Indian way of life, and because of the continuing violence and poor security guarantees, Afghan Hindus believe that naturalized Indian citizenship is their best long-term solution. Considering the plight of these refugees, the Indian government’s proposal to substantially increase in the application fee for naturalization from 2,100 rupees (US$49) to 15,000 rupees (US$347) is particularly onerous and inexplicable.[xv]
The movement to democratize Afghanistan has not taken into consideration the existential challenges for Afghan Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities. A solitary Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) seat has been reserved for them[xvi].
Violations of Constitution and UN Covenants
Afghanistan’s accession to the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights took place on April 24, 1983. Afghanistan also agreed to the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Afghanistan ratified a new Constitution on January 4, 2005. The country’s new Constitution pledges to “abide by the UN charter, international treaties, international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
According to Article 2 of the new Constitution, Islam is declared to be the “sacred religion” of the State, but “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.” This freedom of religion is contradicted by Article 3, which states, “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” According to the US State Department, “Militants sometimes harassed foreign missionaries and other religiously oriented organizations…Sikhs and Hindus returning to the country faced difficulties in obtaining housing and land in Kabul and other provinces. Both communities did not receive land on which to cremate their dead.” While the new government of Afghanistan is a step up from the rule of the Taliban, the interests and safety of Afghan minorities are far from secure.
Hindus in Afghanistan have a long history, predating the arrival of Islam. The government of Afghanistan needs to further protect its Hindu minority from persecution, and in particular, Hindu children from public ridicule. Foreign governments must desist from involuntary deportation of Hindus to Afghanistan because violence and persecution persists. India can help refugees by reducing the application fee for naturalization.