Article by Anwesha Ghosh for The Diplomat – August 2016
A research paper on the Afghan Hindu and Sikh diaspora community in the West and how it has changed in recent years in regards to topics such as language, religion, and social customs.
Whether it was due to conflict or in search of better opportunities, migrating populations have provided opportunities for culture to develop in unique ways. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent conflicts led to the emergence of an Afghan Hindu and Sikh diaspora as members of that community left the country to find safety in the West. This diaspora has experienced several changing trends in recent years. My goal in writing this paper was to explore how the culture of the Afghan Hindu and Sikh community has changed through the question: “To what extent has the emergence of a diaspora been a force for cultural change in the Afghan Hindu and Sikh diaspora community in the West?”. I referenced different ethnographies conducted in the past that studied the Afghan diaspora, and conducted informal interviews with various knowledgeable community members to gather qualitative data and personal perspectives. I investigated the context of this diaspora and how immigration to other countries has affected language, identity, and the institutions of religion, marriage, and family in these Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities. I also examined the various factors that have influenced those changes. Moving in the midst of new culture added many more layers of complexity to an already multi-faceted communal identity. Diaspora has also changed the way religion and customs are practiced, as they pick up Western influences, and intermarriage with other communities has become more common. Furthermore, the mother tongue is being spoken much less by those in the second and third generation, and many fear it will become extinct in the near future. However, Sikhs have retained much more continuity than Hindus in regards to language, religious traditions, and marriage as a result of a much more close-knit community.
Source: Pajhwok News
WASHINGTON (Pajhwok): Public opinion continued to be hostile toward Christians, with Hindus and Sikhs facing societal discrimination and intimidation in Afghanistan, the US said on Wednesday.
There was open hostilityin the country toward converts to Christianity and to organisations that proselytised, the State Department said in its annual report on International Religious Freedom for 2014.
“Although Hindus and Sikhs said they were able to practice their religion publicly, they reportedly continued to face societal discrimination and intimidation,” alleged the report released by Secretary of State John Kerry.
The Hindu and Sikh communities reported the Afghan government provided police protection from societal harassment during burial rituals and offered free electricity for temples, the State Department said.
The Taliban attacked and killed members of religious minority communities, in part because of their beliefs, it said, adding due to fear of persecution, Christians continued to avoid situations where they might be perceived as seeking to spread their religion.
During a session of parliament in July 2013, four MPs called for the execution of converts to Christianity and the lower house speaker stated security officials should investigate the spread of Christianity. No information on any ongoing investigation was available during the year.
The government banned the pan-Islamic movement Hezb-ut-Tahrir – which calls for the overthrow of existing governments to create a unified Muslim state – on the basis that it is an extremist organisation, the report said.
Noting the right to change one’s religion was not respected either in law or in practice, the report said Muslims converts risked annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and villages, loss of employment and possibly the death penalty.
In previous years, Hindus and Sikhs stated they were not able to cremate the remains of their dead in accordance with their customsdue to interference from those living near the cremation sites.
While the government provided land for this purpose following the intervention of a Sikh senator, some Sikhs complained the land was far from any major urban area and in an insecure region that rendered it unusable.
“A member of parliament allegedly usurped the land bestowed to the Sikh community in Lata Band, outside of Kabul, and reportedly threatened to kill anyone who attempted to cremate a body there,” the State Department claimed.
During the year, the report said, the government designated a cremation site within the city and provided police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their rituals.
Members of the Bahai faithcontinued to face challenges and discrimination when attempting to attend to their dead in accordance with their customs, the State Department concluded.
October 9, 2015
– Violence has forced many of Afghanistan’s Hindu, Sikh minorities from home but many long to return
By Zabihullah Tamanna
KABUL – When the Taliban seized Afghanistan’s capital Kabul in 1996, Gurvinder, an Afghan Sikh, sold his properties and left the country.
He has since lived in India as a refugee, “but I am homesick for my home country Afghanistan and waiting for the right conditions to return to my homeland.”
“India won’t issue me a national identity card and Afghanistan’s situation doesn’t allow me to return to my home country and re-establish my grocery shop there in Kabul,” Gurvinder, now in his 50s, tells Anadolu Agency.
He was one of thousands of Hindus and Sikh Afghans who fled the country during the series of conflicts that have persisted over the past 40 years. Many of them fled to India or Europe but still cling to a hope of returning.
The population of the Hindu and Sikh minorities has dwindled in Afghanistan since the invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which spilled over into a series of civil wars that often took on sectarian dimensions.
There were once 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs families living in Afghanistan; the number has now dwindled to a few thousand.
At a Hindu temple in eastern Nangarhar province, a man ushered Anadolu Agency’s reporter into a corner to whisper: “please interview me, then I can seek asylum in the U.K. or any other European country.”
Despite his eagerness to leave, he immediately changed his mind, fearing that being named in any story could lead to reprisals from the Taliban or other factions.
The situation for Afghan minorities returned to the fore in 2014 when Meet Singh Kapoor, 40, died after he and 35 others were found hiding inside a shipping container arriving in the U.K.. Kapoor and his family were trying to escape death threats and extortion from local warlords in Nangarhar.
Like the rest of the Afghan populations, Sikhs and Hindus speak Persian and Pashto but many also speak their own languages, including Hindi, Bengali and Hindko. Their businesses are mainly focused on selling textiles and herbal medicinces, though some also work as exporters, or even soothsayers on the streets of the capital Kabul.
Though Sikhs and Hindus are often regarded by other Afghans as newcomers to the land, they themselves say that Afghanistan is their home; in the past they populated much of the country, including major cities of Kabul and Kandahar.
In 2013, former President Hamid Karzai had ordered a reserved seat for Hindus and Sikhs in Afghan parliament, though it was dismissed in August this year.
Many Sikhs say they have faced increasing hostility recently, especially with defected Taliban fighters regrouping under the more hardline banner of Syria-based militant group Daesh.
“Taliban only ordered us to mark ourselves with yellow patches but it seems Daesh won’t let us go alive,” says Dr. Anor Singh, 38, who treats both people from all religions.
Sitting in one of the two remaining Sikh Gurdwaras in Nangarhar, founded in 1520, he says there are numerous challenges for Sikhs in Afghanistan, who are still treated as migrants by many.
“Sikhs used to live in every single district of Nangarhar province but endless war and lack of safety forced them to move to [provincial capital] Jalalabad,” Singh says.
Source: Governance Now
India is home to about 2,00,000 refugees, mostly religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. But the country is yet to have a national policy on asylum seekers, creating an awkward situation for Sikhs and Hindus who seek shelter in India from persecution abroad but do not get citizenship here.
Within the narrow lanes of Delhi’s Tilak Nagar, in an airy room about 20 Hindu and Sikh refugees from Jalalabad town of Afghanistan are chatting among themselves. Their Afghan roots are immediately clear: the turbans are paired off with the typical pathani suit. This heritage streak becomes stronger when Manohar Singh Taneja starts speaking. His Punjabi still has the rough sounds of the mountains.
Taneja is the president of Khalsa Diwan, an organisation dedicated to helping the Hindu/Sikh refugees from Afghanistan. He is also a man who no longer has a country – he has been without one for two decades. He has found that the Indian government does not grant citizenship easily.
“In all these years, the Indian government has not helped us with even a single paisa. All we want is our identity,” Taneja says. He belongs to a group of Hindu and Sikhs whose ancestors had migrated to Afghanistan, participated in the country’s growth but had to flee it when tensions started. Today only about 5,000 Hindus and Sikhs remain in Afghanistan.
As Afghani citizens, when they returned to India, they applied for citizenship under the Citizenship Act. With luck not on their side, the government made changes in the rules of citizenship twice – extending the number of years that a person needs to stay in India legally before he or she can apply for citizenship; first from 10 to 12 years and later to 14 years. Two decades have gone by, yet they remain without a country.
READ: How India responded to the influx of 10 million refugees
Taneja says, “In 2009, the Indian government made certain changes in the law due to which the citizenship process came to a stop. One of the main conditions for this was that the applicant’s existing passport should be renewed. And the Afghani embassy has its own rules.” The group has approached the home ministry, the FRRO [foreigner regional registration office] but it has resulted in nothing. “They harass us. They ask us all – young children, old and sick people – to come to the office,” adds Taneja.
It is with an air of nostalgia that Kuldip Kumar, a Hindu refugee who came to India in 1993, remembers his wonderful life in Afghanistan. If there were no religious persecution after the advent of the Taliban on the scene, he swears, they would never have left their ‘homeland’.
“We had large businesses there. Some of us traded dry fruits; others ran a clothing business or medicine shops. At one point of time, Hindus and Sikhs were responsible for 50 percent of Afghanistan’s growth. We had houses (of roughly 5,000 yards) that were triple in size of the houses here. We left money in our bank accounts and fled. We just had to save our lives.” The properties were then taken over by locals – in some cases by warlords. Others had to dispose off their properties at throwaway prices – equivalent to 10 percent of the market price – and were asked to leave.
Highlighting the huge gap between the life in Afghanistan and the life they have here, Taneja says, “We have not experienced anything close to the good life we had in Jalalabad. We have been in India for so long , yet we do not have any documents to prove that we are Indian citizens.”
The struggle to find a new home has forced this group to question their own identity. The taunts have come from both sides. While the Indians call them “Afghanis”, back in Afghanistan there are many epithets. “They call us ‘Hindi’, and ‘kafir’. Even if somebody from our community does anything good, the locals say that had we been Muslims it would be better,” Taneja says.
Complaints of religious discrimination do not stop there. Both Singh and Kumar say that even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had discriminated against them on the basis of religion.
Taneja says when the refugees came from Afghanistan, majority of the Muslims were resettled in a third country. The Hindus and Sikhs were told to stay back in India.
“At that time, there were about 60,000-70,000 refugees with long-term certificates for stay. Today, there are only 25,000 people left. So what happened to the rest? The UN helped them settle outside, and left us on our own. We were told that this is your country. Your parents were from this place. They left and now you have come back. The western countries refused to take us and the UN did not pressurise them. But if the Indian government does not support us, how can we call it our own country?” asks Taneja.
He, however, takes a broader view of things. “We also realise that when the Indian government is not able to give basic amenities to its own people, how will it take care of us?”
In aid of asylum seekers
There are 31,000 registered refugees. The UNHCR has been helping them in collaboration with the government. The understanding is that while the government will deal with refugees from the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the UN body will deal with refugees from the non-neighbouring countries except Myanmar.
UNHCR facilitates proper documentation for the refugees and asylum seekers to help them stay in India. Lawyers provided by UNHCR verify the status of the refugees. Then the asylum seekers have to approach the government in order to receive the long-term certificates.
However, this is a longish process and takes about four months. In the intervening period, the FRRO provides a ‘stay visa’ that ensures they are not being detained for illegal stay. In turn, the long-term certificates help the asylum seekers in finding jobs and getting mobile SIM cards.
UNHCR also works with NGOs like Bosco and Slick to provide a dignified life to the asylum seekers. The NGOs help the asylum seekers in getting admission in government schools, learn languages and even access medical facilities.
“The children who come from places like Kabul lag behind in terms of education. These organisations provide classes so that their education levels can come up to a certain standard,” says Shuchita Mehta, senior communications officer, UNHCR, New Delhi.
The UN body also doles out cash in some cases. Mehta says, “UNHCR provides limited financial assistance to the most vulnerable refugees, which is however designed as a time-limited support and it does not constitute an entitlement.”
She explains that the UNHCR conducts individual interviews to determine the refugee status and issues documentation to asylum seekers and refugees. These papers are usually accepted by various authorities and save the refugees from being detained or arrested for illegal stay.
On paper, all refugees in India have access to government health and education services but given the rush there, it’s a harrowing task for the refugees to avail these. “The UNHCR along with its partner NGOs help them get access there,’’ Mehta says.
With the rise in the number of refugees across the world, the UNHCR has proposed three options for the asylum seekers. The first is local internalisation, wherein the refugees are encouraged to become a part of the local society and begin a life anew, like the Sikh Afghani refugees in India. About 800 Sikh refugees are currently residing in India.
The second option is to send the refugees back to their original country once the situation improves there. The Sri Lankan refugees are the best example of this.
The third and last option is to rehabilitate the asylum seekers in a third country. This is a rare option, and less than two percent of the refugees have been rehabilitated this way. Each country has a quota of the number of refugees they can take from each country. Currently, the Indian office of the UNHCR has 4,000 applications under process.
No law, no policy
In spite of the huge influx of refugees into India, New Delhi lacks clarity as to how to deal with them. It neither has a national policy nor has it signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
However, UNHCR officials are all praise for India’s handling of the refugees.
Mehta says, “India has over the years hosted waves of refugees and has demonstrated its commitment to refugee protection and adherence to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (The Right to seek and enjoy asylum). Additionally, India has developed positive and inclusive administrative practices that uphold the fundamental human rights of refugees.’’
Throughout history, India has been generous to those seeking protection from persecution. Even without a formal refugee law in place, India recognises the status determination undertaken by UNHCR with regard to individual refugees who have presented themselves,” says the official.
Notwithstanding the absence of a national policy, India has occasionally made country- and group-specific laws on refugees. For example, the Modi government recently decided to exempt the non-Muslim Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals from the condition of 14-year mandatory stay in India for citizenship.
This will enable hundreds of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists, who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution in other south Asian countries, to become Indian citizens. This decision, however, has come under attack from people alleging the citizenship on the basis of religion would set up a wrong precedent.
Click here to read a research paper by Roger Ballard on Afghan Hindus and Sikhs which was written in 2011
Click here to read the thesis by Chitra Venkatesh Akkoor who completed this work in 2011 as part of her PhD degree in University of Iowa. Chitra made multiple trips to Germany and spent significant amount of time with Afghan Hindus in Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne to complete this work.