Chris Sands, Foreign Correspondent – The National
Last Updated: May 17. 2008 10:11PM UAE / May 17. 2008 6:11PM GMT
KABUL // Afghanistan’s minority Sikhs and Hindus say they are facing increasing persecution from the government and its Islamic fundamentalist allies.
They claim widespread discrimination is threatening their rituals and traditions, and that many are now considering joining an exodus that has seen thousands leave in recent years.
“We have had too many problems, especially under the [Hamid] Karzai government,” said Ravinda Singh, who heads the Sikh section of the Hindu and Sikh Council.
“The Taliban told us we had to do all our religious ceremonies in private, but they did not stop us from doing them. It was a government that was not recognised by the world, but it was better than now,” he said.
Hinduism was widely practised in Afghanistan before the introduction of Islam in the seventh century, when a mass conversion led to the slaughter of thousands of Hindus. So overwhelming was the massacre that the mountain range was renamed Hindu Kush – meaning “Hindu slaughter”.
The Sikhs were first brought to Afghanistan from India by the British in the 19th century and together with Hindus dominated the economy. Recent violence, however, has seen thousands flee.
Although no official figures exist, community leaders estimate 5,000 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are left in the country. In this Islamic society, they are the only non-Muslims who remain in any significant numbers.
But despite being proud of their Afghan heritage, they claim they are not afforded the same respect and rights as other ethnic minorities.
Although the country’s ethnic groups are mentioned in the national anthem, Sikhs and Hindus are not. They also say they have no representatives in the government and parliament.
For them, much of the blame lies with the warlords – commonly known as “mujahideen” – who first came to dominate politics in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.
Before 1992, there were as many as 50,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan. But when fundamentalist militias started fighting each other on the streets of Kabul, the number began to fall drastically.
“Our problems started when the jihadis rose to power,” said Mukesh Kumar, a Hindu and father of four.
“They came here to the temple and stole all our furniture. We have another temple in the old city and they robbed that as well. They even took the marble and tiles from the floor.”
Like other members of his community, Mr Kumar was keen to stress the difference between the mujahideen and the Taliban who came after them.
“The Taliban were fine; they just didn’t let us display any icons. Sometimes they also tried to get us to pray with them,” he said.
With many of the warlords from the 1990s now holding positions in the government and parliament, the problems for Sikhs and Hindus have started once again.
Community members claim the growing lawlessness pervading Afghanistan has affected them most. They say Sikh children are bullied at school; sometimes even the boys have their turbans ripped off their heads. Adults have also been beaten, threatened and insulted.
Their biggest fear, though, is that they may no longer be able to lay their dead to rest.
In autumn, a group of protesters disrupted a cremation ceremony in the south-east of Kabul, complaining about the fumes it would let off and saying it was against Islam. Sikhs and Hindus have since been told they must carry out the ritual elsewhere.
“This is our native country and we have a special love for it, but the conditions are not fair for us,” said Dayan Singh Anjaan, 44, a pharmacist.
“This is the hardest time we have had. A century ago our grandfathers bought some land and built those high walls so we could cremate our dead.” Mr Anjaan, who served in the army of the former communist government, also pinpointed the mujahideen warlords of the 1990s as being the source of today’s unrest.
“We are very worried about our children’s future because the situation is getting worse and worse,” he said.
Haji Mohammed Yaqub Ahmadzai, first deputy at the ministry of frontier and tribal affairs, defended the government’s treatment of Sikhs and Hindus, insisting they had the same rights as Muslims.
“The problem with the crematorium is that the city is getting bigger and bigger every day,” he said. “The crematorium used to be in a deserted area, but now it isn’t and that’s not good for the surrounding environment or the health of the people who live there.”
Cremations, he said, were allowed to take place at a new site on the fringes of Kabul.