Mon Aug 23 2010, 04:18 hrs
Election campaign posters plaster Kabul’s traffic circles these days but one face stands out. Of a Sikh. But he is not the only Sikh candidate in the fray — there is another, a woman.
Pritpal Singh Pal and Anarkali Kaur Honaryar are running for positions in Afghanistan’s Wolesi Jirga, the 250-seat lower house of parliament, elections for which are scheduled on September 18.
If they win, they will become the first democratically elected non-Muslim parliamentarians in the country — Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have held parliamentary positions before through nomination.
Both are Independent candidates from the Kabul province and are up against Mohammad Mohaqiq and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, former Mujahideen commanders who are now established politicians.
“I want to serve people regardless of religion. I’m an Afghan,” says 44-year-old Pal, a native of the Pashtun-majority province of Paktia where his parents were also born.
Pal runs an ayurvedic medicine shop established by his father who moved from Paktia to Kabul. Frustrated with the current Afghan government, he says: “I’m running for parliament for the service of all of Afghanistan.”
Of the estimated 3,000 Hindus and Sikhs living here, the majority have had generations living in Afghanistan as far back as they can remember. So most identify themselves as Afghans.
Pal says it is a common misconception that all Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are Punjabis who moved to Afghanistan from India years ago. In fact, many members of this community consider themselves to be the original Afghans who never converted to Islam. And this sense of rootedness only gives their pursuit of governmental representation in Afghanistan more zeal.
Honaryar, 26, was born in Kabul. Her father Kishan Singh is an engineer who moved to Kabul from Khost province. Honaryar’s mother, also a native Afghan, was born in Paktia province.
“I’ve travelled to many countries, including India,” she says at her campaign office in the Karte Parwan area of Kabul. “But I want to serve my own country and countrymen. I love Afghanistan.”
Honaryar trained as a dentist, but became politically active at the age of 19 when she participated in the Loya Jirga — or public assembly — and realised the number of issues facing Afghanistan. She then joined the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to work for women’s rights. In May, she decided to run for parliament.
Pal and Honaryar consider themselves truly Afghan but they are aware that as a minority group, the Sikhs suffer from problems such as “discrimination” in education, lack of representation, harassment to convert and, in particular, the struggle for cremation grounds.
Before civil war broke out in 1991, the Sikh and Hindu community in Afghanistan numbered 50,000 upward and held a large portion of Afghanistan’s business capital. Since then, their population and wealth have dwindled. They have had hard times, even after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Over time, these events have reinforced this community’s relationship with India. For example, while Pal chooses to remain in Afghanistan, his wife and three children live in New Delhi.
“I enjoyed my visit to India,” says Honaryar. “India is a country which is helping Afghanistan politically and economically. And the two have so many cultural similarities and a shared heritage.”
Pal and Honaryar hope that they can serve as a bridge between their disenfranchised community and the government.
The odds against Pal winning the election are high as he is new to politics. However, he says he has many supporters.
“They are also our countrymen,” says Mohammed Ali, a 42-year-old pastry shop owner in central Kabul, of the Sikh and Hindu community. “May be they can serve us better than other Afghans.”