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The National

A man and women from the minority Sikh register to vote in Parliamentary elections in old city of Kabul, Afghanistan. AP

Despite being dealt a major blow this year, Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikh communities came out in full strength on Saturday to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections.

For the first time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 these two minorities are voting to elect a member of the lower house, a seat they will hold jointly.

“This is our chance to put our representative in parliament,” Ram Prakash, a Hindu businessman from Kabul told The National.

Their candidate, Narendra Singh Khalsa, is the son of original nominee Avtaar Singh Khalsa – killed in July in asuicide attack in Jalalabd.

The blast killed 17 other members of the already dwindling communities.

“The community is still recovering from the tragedy but we have to continue to move forward together. This is that opportunity for us to seek our rights as Afghans,” Mr Khalsa told The National. “Of course we are sad and upset, just like any Afghan is these days. We are faced with difficult times, whether we are Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims.”

Mr Khalsa said he hoped to “end discrimination against the Hindus and Sikhs. A lot of Afghans are not aware of our history in the nation building of this country. They often think we have come from Pakistan or India. But we are natives of Afghanistan”.

Despite official political representation and freedom of worship, many face prejudice and harassment as well as violence from militant groups, prompting thousands to move to India, their spiritual homeland. India has issued long-term visas to members of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities.

“Many more Hindus and Sikhs left after that attack. I don’t know the exact figures but around 700 to 800 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country,” Mr Prakash said.

The Sikh community now numbers fewer than 300 families in Afghanistan, which has only two gurdwaras, or places of worship, one each in Jalalabad and Kabul, the capital.

Although almost entirely a Muslim country, Afghanistan was home to as many as 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before a devastating civil war in the 1990s.

Even a decade ago, the US State Department said in a report, about 3,000 Sikhs and Hindus still lived there. Today most are based in Kabul and Jalalabad, with a small community in Ghazni.

“Every one of us in Kabul and Jalalabad came out to vote. However, our brothers in Ghazni couldn’t vote because of the issues there,” Mr Prakash lamented, referring to the delay in the elections in the Ghazni province owing to the security and political situation. The province was besieged for five days by the Taliban in August and the situation remains tense.

Like most Afghans, their voting experience was affected by logistical and security issues.

“Many of our names didn’t appear in the lists,” Mr Prakash said, adding that many families who had registered together found only some of their relatives on the list. “We were disappointed with how it was managed.”

But Mr Prakash is confident he reflects the sentiment of the small but historical Afghan community when he explains that both Hindus and Sikhs are committed to bringing their representative into government.

“The Afghan Hindus who remain are those who can’t leave because they are too poor,” Mr Prakash said. “But today is significant for us because even if we can’t leave for safety, at least we can ensure that our representative is part of the government.”

“He will be our voice in the establishment, and will ensure that our rights and our identities are protected. Because we are also Afghans and we should have a say in the government,” Mr Prakash explained.

Being the only minority candidate running for a seat Mr Khalsa is likely to secure his place without any hurdles.

The democratic process, however, remains significant to the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. “We have been given this opportunity to participate in the government. If we don’t take it now, we will forever remain marginalised,” said Mr Prakash. “If we don’t look after ourselves, who will look after us?”

Men from the minority Sikh register to cast their votes in Parliamentary elections in old city of Kabul, Afghanistan. AP

Anadolu Agency

For first time, minority candidate to take part in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 20

By Shadi Khan Saif

KABUL

Afghanistan’s marginalized Sikh and Hindu minority has decided to field its candidate for the very first time in the forthcoming parliamentary elections later this month.

Narendra Singh, a young herbal medicine expert, has been nominated by the tiny minority as its candidate for the reserved seat of Wolesi Jirga (lower house).

Afghanistan will go to parliamentary polls on Oct. 20 in which a total of 2,565 candidates will compete, according to the country’s election commission.

The Afghan government reserved one seat for the Sikh and Hindu minority in 2016 along with some relaxations of rules.

Speaking to Andadolu Agency, Singh, who is son of the community’s long-cherished slain leader Avtar Singh, said one of the biggest problems of Sikhs and Hindus in the country is that there are no dedicated schools where children can learn their own religions and native Punjabi language.

Another problem faced by the minority is that there is no proper place to perform cremation rituals, he added.

For years, the Sikh community in Afghanistan lived on the margins of the society. But, they were never targeted in the deadly fashion until Daesh terrorists blew-up a generation of its community leaders, including father of Narendra, in a suicide attack in Jalalabad city in July this year.

Due to such threats, unlike public gatherings and roadside campaigns by other Afghan candidates, Singh’s electoral campaign for the forthcoming elections is literally confined to the few remaining temples in limited cities of the war-ravaged country.

At a temple in the old Kabul Bazar area, the Sikh community gathered over the weekend to offer prayers for the victims of July bombing and to get to know about each other.

Loss of leaders  

Singh said the Jalalabad blast has taken away towering figures of the community, but the spirits of the community are still high.

“We are devastated by the loss of our leaders, but we have not lost the morale. In Afghanistan, everyone is suffering for long. Our Sikh community and my Muslim friends are equally happy for me. We have no other option, but to fight and not lose the seat in the parliament we have been offered,” he said.

“My father served as senator, and served the community for 22 years. People are sad at his demise, he had lost three brothers in Gardez city and now he also got killed, but he never thought about leaving the country. He used to say I have 14 members in my family for the service to the country and service to the nation,” Singh recalled.

For ages, the Afghan Sikhs were known as leading traders in major urban centers of the country such as Kabul, Ghazni, Jalalabad and Khost, but they complain their properties, even temples have been encroached upon.

Teyaan Singh, a senior member of the community, has seen time change from good to bad and to worst over the years.

“Our community is frightened now, from 50,000 families we have been reduced to only around 200 families, all have escaped since the civil war in the 1990s, and all these temples are now deserted,” he said.

An overwhelming majority of the Sikhs left behind are generally the poorest in the community.

BBC News

Narinder Singh is the only Sikh candidate in the upcoming Afghan elections.

He is standing in place of his father, Avtar Singh Khalsa, who was killed in a suicide blast in Jalalabad last July.

The parliamentary election will be held on 20 October and more than 2,500 candidates are reportedly standing in it.

Both the Taliban and the Islamic State group have urged a boycott of the vote and there have been threats of violence.

On 2 October, a suicide attacker killed 13 people and injured more than 30 at an election rally in Nangarhar province.

Watch Video

The Diplomat

The Last 2 Sikhs in the Taliban’s Heartland
Atar (left) and Charan Singh (right) in the last remaining Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Lashkar Gah.
Image Credit: Franz J. Marty

LASHKAR GAH, HELMAND, AFGHANISTAN – Like many other Afghans, Satnam Singh rides on a bicycle to work in his hometown of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern Afghan province of Helmand; that’s what he was doing on one day in early summer 2018.

“But that day, a man on a motorcycle deliberately hit me and I fell,” Satnam recounts. The reason that he got knocked over was apparently because the style of his turban clearly shows that he belongs to Afghanistan’s Sikh minority, members of a religion that has its center in India and Pakistan.

The incident might be small, but the seemingly never-ending nature of such harassment is – together with more serious threats and the dire economic situation – one of the main reasons that almost all Sikhs have left Lashkar Gah. In fact, as of summer 2018, only two Sikhs remain in Helmand, which is considered the Taliban’s heartland. The province is where U.S. and British forces suffered the highest casualties during the long Afghan war’s latest ongoing chapter, which started with the U.S.-led intervention after 9/11.

The Sikhs have always been a small but native minority in Afghanistan; according to one account, prior to 1992, there were about 220,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan with another putting that number as low as 50,000. By now, the very few remaining are concentrated in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kabul, and Ghazni.

Until a few years ago, there was also still a tiny community of Sikhs in Lashkar Gah. During the Taliban regime in the 1990s, about 60 Sikh families were living in Lashkar Gah, Satnam remembers. They held out there despite the extremist Islamist rule of the Taliban, who forced non-Muslim Sikhs to identify themselves by wearing yellow patches. Satnam asserts though that, while the time under the Taliban was tough for Sikhs, things were worse in the preceding civil war – and the situation is also worse now. This was corroborated by other reports citing Afghan Sikhs.

Hence, the exodus of Lashkar Gah’s Sikhs only began after the overthrow of the Taliban regime by the U.S.-led intervention, which was supposed to bring greater freedom for all Afghans, including minorities. “Since 2001 many left. And about three years ago, almost all of the remaining around 30 families of Sikhs decided to leave together,” Satnam said during an interview in July 2018. Virtually all of them, like the Afghan Sikhs that had emigrated before, went to India. “About two years ago, I sent my wife and daughter to my father-in-law in Kandahar [the capital of the neighboring province with the same name] and about a month ago from there to my father in India,” Satnam added. By now, he and his friend and neighbor Charan Singh are the only two Sikhs left in Lashkar Gah.

When asked why all the other Sikhs, including his family, had left, Satnam’s first reply is, “It is the harassment by the people.”

“They throw stones at our houses, smash windows, and spray nasty graffitis on our walls,” he continues. Those allegations are proven by the dents and washed out scribblings on the wall of the house in a sleepy dusty street, where Satnam and Charan live and where they renovate the last remaining Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Lashkar Gah. Such continued harassment is also confirmed by a 2017 report from the U.S. State Department, showing that the (albeit limited) freedom of religion that the Afghan constitution guarantees exists on paper, but hardly in reality.

“And this harassment is not done by Taliban, but by ordinary local people,” Satnam adds, voicing desperation about the fact that he and his fellow Sikhs are treated like unwanted strangers in their own birthplace. Slowly, over time, this has become intolerable.

“We have complained to the police about this, but they cannot prevent it,” Satnam alleges. This was contested by Mohammad Zamon, the spokesman of the police in Helmand: “There are no problems between the Sikhs and other residents of Lashkar Gah. And if there should be any, the Sikhs can call the police and the police will – as in the case of any other resident – help them.”

In view of the aforementioned damage, however, this sounds like whitewashing the problems of Lashkar Gah’s last Sikhs by a police force that arguably needs almost all hands on deck to keep the insurgency at bay.

In any event, Satnman also indicates many other issues that Sikhs face. For example, they would not be able to cremate the bodies of deceased Sikhs, the usual funeral method in their religion, as their Muslim neighbors see this as a sin.

There are also threats. One letter that Satnam received demands all remaining Sikhs to pay a tax for non-Muslims and threatens that “bad things” will happen otherwise, with the original Pashto language implying that this is a death threat. The letter was sent in the name of insurgents, but its authenticity is unclear.

The fact that on July 1 a suicide bomber specifically targeted Sikhs in an attack in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, that killed at least 19 people (most of them Sikhs) and wounded 20 more, shows that threats have to be taken very seriously. It should be noted, though, that said attack was claimed by the self-declared Islamic State, a group that is known for much more ruthlessly targeting civilians and religious minorities than the Taliban. Hence, as the self-declared Islamic State has no known presence in Helmand, such an attack against Sikhs appears significantly less likely here than in Nangarhar.

Be that as it may, in the wake of the July 1 attack, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani assured Afghan Hindus and Sikhs that the government is not indifferent and will protect them. However, before this presidential assertion, Satnam stated that he does not have much confidence that the government can effectively protect them.

Another Afghan and member of the (Muslim) Hazara minority that is also targeted by extremists summed up how bad the overall situation for the Sikh in Afghanistan is: “To be a member of a minority in Afghanistan is hell; but to be a Sikh means being in the innermost circle of hell,” he said.

Satnam Singh, one of the two last Sikhs in Lashkar Gah, in his herbal medicine shop in his hometown. Photo by Franz J. Marty.

Another reason for the Sikh exodus is the dire economic situation, which was also noted by the 2017 U.S. State Department report. “I left Lashkar Gah for India about two and a half years ago,” Atar Singh, another Sikh who was visiting Lashkar Gah in July 2018, told The Diplomat. “The reasons were the war, the harassment, and the fact that there was no work,” Atar, who used to be a cloth seller in his native Lashkar Gah, added.

The importance of this economic component becomes clear from the explanation for Atar’s visit. “I came back to Lashkar Gah to see whether I can return and set up shop again here,” he said. “The life in our exile in India is very difficult. We barely find any work to support our families and, although we are refugees, we don’t receive any help from anyone. This is why I wanted to come back. But unfortunately the rents for shops in Lashkar Gah are high and the market in general is down. So I can’t move back here.”

This was corroborated by Satnam, who sells herbal medicine in his small store in Lashkar Gah: “Work has become very bad. However, the work here is still better than in India, where I wouldn’t know what to do. So I stay.”

Asked whether he would leave Lashkar Gah, if there was an alternative – another place where he could live and work – Satnam answered evasively. First, he said that there is no good alternative. When pressed again, he replied: “I will stay in Lashkar Gah until there is absolutely no possibility any more to do so.” Although he never stated this explicitly, one main reason Satnam is still holding out in Lashkar Gah is apparently that he simply does not want to leave his home, the place where he was born and grew up.

Echoing this, Atar, who – not without pride – mentioned that he had served seven years in Afghanistan’s army in the 1980s, at one point melancholically said: “This is our homeland too.” That’s a fact that many of their Muslim neighbors seemingly ignore.

But with only Satnam and Charan remaining, there is a very real danger that the Sikhs will disappear from Lashkar Gah and – even though there are still Sikh communities in places such as Ghazni, Kabul, and Nangarhar – maybe also from Afghanistan as a whole, especially as those other communities are not that numerous anymore. The U.S. State Department report from 2017 cited estimates that there are only 245 Sikh and Hindu families with about 1,300 individuals left in Afghanistan.

However, Satnam has not yet lost all hope. “I hope that the situation will become good again. Then, other Sikhs might return. After all, some of the ones that left did not sell their houses, but have only rented them out.”

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. He writes on a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. Follow him on twitter: @franzjmarty.

VOA – Dari

Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, although far from the homeland, remember their country.
Southall, a town in the west of London, is the 35th largest region of Greater London. The population of this region is considered to be 28,000, most of whom are Indian, Pakistani and Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. The bazaar of Southall is considered one of London’s most prominent tourist destinations, and thousands of tourists visit from around the world every year.
This corner of London is unique as it has restaurants and shops of various foreign cultures, especially Asian, in between the English and Indian bazaar. The Afghans living there call it ‘Little Shorbazaar’. Sameer Rassoly, from Voice of America, has recently visited this bazaar and prepared an interesting report (with English subtitles).

تعداد باشندگان این منطقه تا ۲۸ هزار نفر ارزیابی شده است که بیشتر آن را هندو و سیک های افغان، هندی و پاکستانی تشکیل میدهد.

بازار سوت هال یکی از نقاط با اهمیت سیاحتی در لندن محسوب میشود و همه سال هزاران سیاح از سراسر جهان از این بازار دیدن میکنند.

این گوشۀ شهر لندن، بدلیل داشتن دوکان ها و رستورانت های متفاوت که نمایندگی از فرهنگ های مختلف بخصوص آسیایی را میکند، در میان انگلیس ها به هندو بازار شهرت دارد، اما افغان های مقیم در لندن آن را شوربازار کوچک مینامند.

سمیر رسولی از صدای امریکا به تازگی از این بازار دیدن نموده و در مورد یک گزارش جالب را تهیه کرده است.

Beyond Boundaries by Bela Kaul

Lives of two women, Taara and Janki, separated by time and place, bound by blood, search for a sense of belonging. Taara struggles with her individuality in contemporary Minnesota (USA). Her Hindu immigrant parents help her in this journey by steering her toward her heritage and the story of her great grandmother, Janki. Janki’s journey begins as Jeevani, the name her parents gave her. At eight she learns of a groom whose family was coming to see her. From Quetta to Kandhar to Dehra Dun Janki lives through splitting of a nation (India), creation of a new one (Pakistan), and mutiny in the tribal lands of Afghanistan. She survives through earthquakes, wars, and loss and prevails beyond all bounds.

Global Voices

If any one attack this year has spotlighted deepening insecurity in Afghanistan it was the July suicide bombing that killed 19 people and injured 10 as Sikh and Hindu representatives made their way to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

For the ISIS group who claimed the targeted suicide bombing in Jalalabad city, the bombing was a coup. Not only was the group able to create a deadly explosion in an area that should have been cleared for President Ashraf Ghani’s arrival, they were able to kill a man who would have been the country’s first ever Sikh representative in parliament’s popularly elected lower house, Awtar Singh Khalsa. A prominent Sikh activist, Rawail Singh, was also killed.

In total the attack killed 17 Sikhs and Hindus. As such, many social media users described it as an attack on the diversity they cherish, and that ISIS is known to loathe.

The Afghan constitution stipulates that the President of Afghanistan should be a Muslim. But electoral legislation supports the political participation of Sikhs, who number over a thousand in Afghanistan, and Hindus, of which there are only a few dozen remaining.

According to amendments to the electoral law in 2016, one seat out of 249 seats in the lower house is secured for a representative of either the Hindu or Sikh communities. Women’s rights activist Anarkali Honaryar has held her seat in the upper house since 2010, following a presidential decree by ex-President Hamid Karzai, and has emerged powerful voice for minorities.

Awtar Singh Khalsa would have been the first representative from the two communities in the lower house had he not been killed in the attack. Now his son, Narinder Singh Khalsa will take his place following a request from the community, knowing that he has a target on his back.

Edged out of society

While more than 300 Hindu and Sikh families currently live in Afghanistan, the number of Sikhs and Hindus entering higher education institutions is zero.

Rawail Singh and his daughter Komal, Rawail Singh’s Facebook page.

Sikhs and Hindus overwhelmingly stop education during middle school, a trend driven by bullying (both from teachers and schoolmates) and economic pressures.

Research from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2009 showed that Sikhs and Hindus are effectively barred from most governmental positions and face wide-ranging social discrimination.

Many have relocated to Kabul after being displaced during conflicts in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Most commonly, they run grocery stores.

Data from 2016 suggests that 99% of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu citizens have left the country in the last three decades.

Back in the 1980s, when they numbered over 220,000, they were able to find jobs in politics and play a more significant role in society. Sikh and Hindu community intellectuals argue that in a country ruined by war, many Afghans have forgotten this role their community used to play.

The July 2 attack was followed swiftly by a protest of Sikhs in New Delhi, where Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Dr. Shaida Abdali, also joined the protesters.

But in the aftermath of the violence many of Afghanistan’s remaining Sikhs see their future in Afghanistan’s bigger neighbour, with which they have greater cultural and religious ties. A total of 25 Sikh families reportedly applied for Indian citizenship immediately after the bombing.

Many Afghans feel a sadness witnessing their fellow citizens leave the country:

For those Sikhs and Hindus that remain, the patriotism and sense of community embodied by Rawail Singh and Awtar Singh Khalsa are the main motivations for staying in Afghanistan.