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Archive for April, 1994

Hindus Abandon Afghanistan

April 1994
By Lavina Melwani, New York

Kandahar in Afghanistan is a small town-a sleepy, four-bazaar town-but
within its heart it holds a burden of griefs: ten-year-old Mukesh had
been sent by his mother to the nearest bazaar to fetch yogurt for
lunch. He never returned home alive. Caught in a sudden volley of
cross-fire between warring factions, he was shot in the brain. His
mother never recovered from the meaningless loss of her youngest
child, and died within a few months.

Over the past ten years, the rest of this Hindu family have had to
flee, one by one, from their beloved homeland of Afghanistan where
they were born and brought up, and scatter into the far corners of the
world. They are just some of the thousands of Hindu Afghans who have
seen their loved ones, their community and their way of life evaporate
before their very eyes. Such are the daily tragedies behind the stark
newspaper headlines of the war in Afghanistan.

The once-flourishing capital of Kabul has been turned into a morgue as
the troops of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the rebel fighters led
by his opponent, Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fight to the
bitter end. Indeed the last day of a recent four-day ceasefire was
used by the warring factions to dig new trenches in preparation for
more fighting. As jets bomb the embattled city, which is on the brink
of famine, people flee the war zone with a handful of belongings.
Thousands are homeless. The key players in this endless war may have
changed from time to time, but the real victims have always remained
the Afghan people.

The War With no Winners

Like pawns in a high-powered chess game, the Afghans-Sunni and Shiite
Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike-have watched helplessly as homes,
businesses, places of worship and even lives have been snuffed out by
bombs and bayonets. As Afghans, the Hindus suffer with the rest of the
population. But as minorities in an Islamic country, they are placed
in double jeopardy. When Babri Masjid was destroyed in India by
fanatical Hindus at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally in December, 1992,
some radical Muslim Afghans seemed to forget that Hindu Afghans were
their countrymen, and burnt and looted their temples in Kabul,
Kandahar and Jalalabad in retaliation.

The once-thriving Hindu community in Afghanistan which numbered 40,000
has now dwindled in some parts to a paltry three families. Manu Lal, a
young Hindu who escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan and then took
refuge in the U.S., recalls the golden days of Hinduism in
Afghanistan: “Indians have been there for thousands of years. My
great-grandfather was born in Afghanistan. Even in a small town like
Kandahar, we had 5,000 Hindus, and many beautiful temples. There were
temples to Shiv Parvati, Devi Mata, Satyanarayan and also many
gurudwaras. There were four big gurudwaras which even people from
India came to see.”

Indeed, many Hindus point out that Afghanistan was originally a Hindu
country, and that 99 percent of the Hindu Afghans were born there. A
statue of Buddha has stood in Kabul for more than 2,000 years and a
mountain is named Asha Mai, after a Hindu goddess. Madan Kumar (his
name has been changed to protect his family still in Afghanistan), a
Hindu Afghan who fled to the U.S. nine years ago, observes: “We have
lived in Afghanistan for generations-why should anyone question our
nationality? So it is the religious differences which are being
attacked.”

The Hindus were mostly prosperous merchants, dealing in clothes, dry
fruits, pharmaceuticals, currency exchange and Indian tea and spices.
This may have hardened resentment amongst the Muslim Afghans. Says
Kumar, “Although some Hindus have been so powerful that they have even
controlled the exchange market [looted and burned in the January
fightin], there were thousands of Hindus living in the slums. Overall,
though, Hindus have done well, and that makes them a very visible
minority and an easy prey for opportunistic forces who are looking for
unstable situations.”

Manu Lal recalls, “While Kandahar had more Hindus, Jalalabad [just on
the Afghan side of Khyber Pass], which had once been partly controlled
by Ranjit Singh, had a large population of Sikhs. The capital city of
Kabul had a big temple which had a Hindu school and taught religious
scriptures and Hindi. In those days Hindus were very safe because they
were treated like honored guests.” Kumar acknowledges that though
there may have been some religious bigotry, generally Muslims and
Hindus lived in mutual respect and friendship. Not any more.

Temple Destruction

Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras have been attacked by rockets and
bombs, some the casualty of war, and some of religious intolerance.
About two years ago the ancient Mata Asha Mai Temple in Kabul, to
which the local Hindus had devoted a lot of time and money, was hit by
rockets. A new building erected in the surroundings has also been
damaged, as have the Hindu cremation grounds. Hindus started using the
gurudwara grounds for their cremations, until the gurudwara was also
struck.

Last January Barnett Rubin, Director of Central Asian Studies at
Columbia University, visited Afghanistan as part of a delegation sent
by the International League for Human Rights, the New York-based
organization which has consultation status with the United Nations. He
visited Jalalabad, where Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras had been
destroyed, to investigate whether the cause had been religious
intolerance. The city, which before the war had 4,000 Sikhs and
800-900 Hindus, now has just 50 Sikh families and three Hindu
families. He points out that while Hindus and Sikhs, like all the
communities in Afghanistan, have suffered tremendously due to the war,
these two communities have suffered most profoundly due to the
destruction of Babri Masjid.

Says Rubin: “According to the Hindus and Sikhs in Jalalabad, their
places of worship were undisturbed throughout the war. However, after
the destruction of Babri Masjid, there was an emotional reaction on
the part of some of the people there, and they attacked both the
mandir and the gurudwara and destroyed quite a lot of the property
there, although nobody was injured.” Roopchand, a Hindu trader and
community leader, explained that over 2,000 carpets and other
valuables which had been endowed to the temple and which were stored
in the basement were burnt or looted.

The Shurra of the town later apologized to the Sikhs on realizing that
they had nothing to do with the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
Comments Rubin, “Of course, the Hindus in Jalalabad had absolutely
nothing to do with that too but I’m afraid there’s a kind of tribal
mentality still which is that when members of a certain group harm
your group, then you take vengeance on that group. So they did not
apologize to the Hindus.”

Rubin and his team interviewed the three remaining Hindu families in
Jalalabad and also visited the 850-year-old mandir which is a mazaar
or pilgrimage place of the Bhakti saint Mathuradas. According to the
Hindus, it was visited by people of all faiths since it was a combined
Bhakti-Sufi shrine. But as Rubin points out, “All the religions have
become more fundamentalized now, so they are more separate.” The
Hindus told the delegation that the destruction of the temple was not
a mass movement and that they do not suffer continuing harassment. The
delegation, however, found plenty of human rights violations. Rubin
says, “Obviously burning or looting of temples and gurudwaras is an
example of religious intolerance”

No Easy Way Out

With the capital of Kabul totally swallowed in the fighting, Hindus
can no longer get visas from the consulate there or fly to Delhi. The
alternate route is overland through Pakistan, but Pakistan will not
issue transit visas unless they already have visas to India. Since
there are no distinguishing marks to separate them from other Afghans,
who do not require visas, Hindus do slip into Pakistan without visas.
However, the situation is fraught with danger if their Hindu identity
is discovered. Sikhs, because of their turbans and beards, have an
even harder time entering Pakistan without a visa. Rubin observes,
“There is some kind of religious discrimination on the part of the
Pakistani authorities since they don’t allow Hindu or Sikh Afghans to
go into Pakistan without a visa while other Afghans are allowed to do
so.”

So as the once-beautiful, rugged country of Afghanistan slowly
disintegrates, those who can escape, do. Many Hindus and Sikhs have
fled to safety in India, Germany and the U.S. Those who stay behind,
as one Hindu pointed out, are either too poor or too greedy. Indeed,
contrary to the stereotypes of all Hindus being rich traders, there
are many struggling there who have no way of paying passage out of
war-torn Afghanistan. Rubin says, “There are no wealthy Hindus in
Jalalabad. If they are wealthy, they are not living in Jalalabad.”

While the majority have found refuge in India, a small number have
landed up in America. Manu Lal, whose young brother was killed in the
bazaar crossfire and whose mother died from the trauma of her son’s
death, fled to Pakistan and then to the U.S., to escape compulsory
induction into the Afghan army. Another brother, who was in the army,
was paralyzed during warfare. Yet another brother, forced into the
army at age 14, managed to also flee to the U.S. Relative newcomers,
the hardworking family is starting from scratch.

Madan Kumar has been luckier than most refugees: he came into the U.S.
nine years ago as a professional and managed to make a good living for
himself. The scars, however, remain. Asked if he experienced any
tragedies while fleeing, he says, “That in itself is a tragedy-being
forced to leave the country where you were born and raised. You
establish links throughout your life and all of a sudden you’re
cut-off. Not all the families have been able to re-unite. It would not
be an exaggeration if I told you that for the first five years every
single night I had nightmares about the war. I thought I was back in
Afghanistan.”

A sizeable number of refugees have joined family members in Germany.
The U.S. has a small community of Hindu and Sikh Afghan refugees,
totalling about 500-600 people, or about 150 families. About two years
back they formed an Indian Afghan Organization, which has its main
office in New York and a branch in Maryland. Since many of these
refugees fled with just the shirt on their backs, they have few
possessions or mementos of their life in Afghanistan. They have just
the memories and they share these with each other in social gatherings
organized on religious festivals like Diwali and Holi.

If you ask Madan Kumar what he misses the most about a peaceful
pre-war Afghanistan, he says, “The peace itself. That was a time when
people were innocent, when there wasn’t much dushmani (enmity). There
was little religious intolerance. Hindus and Muslims were friends.
They were a God-fearing people, living in peace. People have lost the
culture they had for centuries. Something has been lost in this war,
and it cannot be found again.”

As the guns of war continue their maniac destruction of Afghanistan,
it seems a certainty that the Hindu population will have vanished when
the smoke clears. The ageless Asha Mai Mountain, the 2,000-year-old
Buddha, and the Mathuradas Temple may still stand, but there will be
no worshippers. Generations of Hindu Afghans will grow up on foreign
shores without knowing their land. As Madan Kumar sadly admits: “If I
go there, I will feel a stranger. That circle of friends and family
has completely vanished. A piece of land means to you as much because
of social relations bound to it. If you’ve lost all connections, you
go to that country in what hope, to know whom?”

Afghan Hindus in Delhi

While those who have stayed behind struggle with food shortages, bombs
and a ravaged economy, those who have managed to escape struggle to
start a new life in new places. According to Hinduism Today
correspondent in New Delhi, Rajiv Malik, a large number of refugees
have sought asylum in the capital and adjacent cities. The wealthy
ones have settled down in the posh colonies of New Delhi like Lajpat
Nagar and Defence Colony. Others have purchased homes in middle-class
areas East and West Delhi. While Delhi has attracted the Sikh Afghans,
many Hindus have settled in Faridabad, an industrial township in the
neighboring state of Haryana.

Tek Chand Sarin, 66, is a Hindu refugee from Kabul who came to India
eight months ago and is living with his family in Faridabad, in a
middle-class neighborhood. Sarin, an active member of the Democratic
Party during the early 80’s, believes that Hindus were still happy and
prosperous during the period the Russians were in Afghanistan. He
noted, “Even after the Russians left Afghanistan, the Hindus faced no
problem during the regimes of Babrak Karmal and Dr. Najibullah. I
remember when Dr. Najibullah was in India, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
checked up with him about the position of Hindus in his country. To
this the Afghan premier’s reply was, `Hindus of Afghanistan are our
own people, and I will ensure that they face no problem in my
country.'”

Sarin believes the real problems of the Hindus began when the leftists
and fundamentalists came to the forefront in 1992. He says, “Three
members of an influential family of Hindus were brutally murdered by
Muslim fundamentalists after which it became abundantly clear that
Hindus were no longer secure in Afghanistan.”

He recalls the big backlash after the Ayodhya incident, with temples
and gurudwaras being attacked: “There was also an attempt to burn the
Holy Granth in one of the gurudwaras. But the fact is that the exodus
of Hindus had started much before it. Nevertheless, after Ayodhya the
feeling of insecurity gripped the minds of Hindus in a big way as even
their women were insulted.” Sarin and other Hindu leaders had also met
with Afghan President Rabbani to discuss their concerns. He, however,
offered no assurances and that itself showed that times had changed.
Says Sarin, “There were lots of cases of kidnapping and looting and
the situation was going from bad to worse.”

Sarin, who had given an interview to BBC on the violence faced by
Hindus in Afghanistan, found certain cases registered against him and
finally felt compelled to leave the country. While in Afghanistan, he
had been a member of the managing committee of Mata Asha Mai temple.
He turned over the charge of the 2500-year-old temple to the United
Nations force, which set up an office in the temple building. At the
same time, he found many temples and gurudwaras were controlled by
militia who were using them as storehouses for arms and rockets.

The journey into India via Pakistan was a rocky one. Sarin told
Hinduism Today, “We were harassed along the way. At many places we had
to pay money to avoid inconvenience and harassment. Though I myself
had no problem, many of my co-passengers were asked to shell out Rs.
2500 [US$75] to get the passport stamped by Pakistani officials.”

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