Archive for January, 2002

Afghanistan’s new elite is moving into Kandahar’s formerly wealthy neighborhoods. One such place, known as the Hindu neighborhood, was extensively damaged during air attacks. NPR’s Steve Inskeep reports on the rebuilding efforts.


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Author: Amy Waldman
Publication: The New York Times
Date: January 20, 2002
The men emerge from the rubble like an apparition, 10 of them, most bearded and turbaned. They move toward a bruised, shuttered building whose roof has been caved in by a rocket, and unlock the door. They pass through an interior courtyard, remove their shoes and enter a vast room empty except for a barren altar and perfumed smoke. They move down a path formed by incense holders and fan out around the altar into a semicircle. Their voices echoing off the emptiness, they pray.

Every Sunday in the late afternoon, the Sikhs and Hindus of Kabul – those few who are left – traverse a circuit of sorrow. Like family members visiting a grave, they go to their five ruined houses of worship, stopping to pray at each one. The temples were on the front line during the factional fighting that devastated Kabul in the early 1990’s. Only two survived intact.

The temples once held large crowds of worshipers. But the Sikh and Hindu populations of Afghanistan have hemorrhaged over the last decade – from around 50,000 in the early 1990’s to 2,000 or fewer today, in cities like Ghazni, Jalalabad and Kandahar. In Kabul there are exactly 520 Sikhs and Hindus, in 40 Sikh and 10 Hindu families.

The two religions are distinct – Hinduism, the majority religion in India, recognizes both a single deity and other gods and goddesses as his manifestations while Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the late 15th century. In India, they have sometimes been at odds. But in Afghanistan their adherents have been brought together in part by their depleted ranks and common language and origins. So small are their numbers now, and so few are the places to worship, that they pray together.

Many of the Sikhs and Hindus here were once prosperous merchants, bankers, moneylenders or currency exchangers, in some cases controlling the currency bazaars. But in the last decade they were battered by war, sectarian violence and criminality. So they pulled up roots hundreds – even thousands – of years old, and left for India and Pakistan, Europe and America. A series of attacks on their temples in late 1992 and early 1993, in retaliation for an attack by militant Hindus on the Babri Masjid, a mosque in northern India, were the most searing.

Those who remain here, often the least well off, reserve their harshest criticism for the mujahedeen government of that period. “They were looters and thieves,” said Ravindar Singh, who runs a school for Hindu and Sikh children.

Then, in 1996, came the Taliban, who offered security, but at the cost of freedom.

Under Taliban rule, the Hindus and Sikhs made their Sunday pilgrimages in secret, wanting to preserve what little was left from a capricious leadership. They could not use microphones or loudspeakers during their prayer services. Girls had to study in secret. Their property was sometimes taken. At various points, the Taliban government tried to force them to wear identifying yellow cloth and fly yellow flags over their homes.

Now, with elements of the old mujahedeen government part of the power structure again, the Sikhs and Hindus are watching carefully, as are their co-religionists in exile. Many of them found life abroad difficult, and they were often unable to find work. They are eager to return.

The signs so far are positive. In December, an emissary of the interim government came to meet with Sikhs and Hindus, assuring them that they were part of Afghanistan, and to invite them to send representatives to the inauguration.

Kartar Singh, who used to import clothes and other items from Dubai, says he hopes that soon, if the new government holds, he will be able to again. In the early 1990’s the mujahedeen burglarized his house and shop. “In the last years, we were broke,” said Mr. Singh, who is not related to Ravindar Singh, the school principal. Sikhs commonly hold that surname.

Their spirits were broken too, but not completely; ritual and spirituality have girded them. Each morning and evening, they gather at one of the two remaining houses of worship, Singh Saba, in the Karte Parwan district, to pray.

A 12-year-old girl, Balmed Kaur, has helped to lead the prayers, a yellow scarf draped around her neck. She is a natural religious leader, with a strong, confident voice and devoutness written on her face. With the school behind the temple lacking for teachers, she has been roped into religious instruction.

The school was started 25 years ago, and used to have a roll of thousands. Today there are 52 students.

In one room, two dozen or so children, ages 5 to 12, are sitting, their small shoes strewn in the hall outside. They have one teacher. Ravindar Singh, the principal, says the school cannot afford to hire any more. On one recent morning, with the teacher outside, the children quietly read to themselves, whispering the letters and words of their books, the sound filling the room like rustling leaves.

When the students are older, the teacher, Autar Singh, 35, may perhaps instruct them in the cruelties of human behavior and Afghan history.

Mr. Singh is one of five brothers, born in Paktia Province, and is the only one left. His last brother’s death came as Muslims in Paktia, and elsewhere in the country, were taking retribution for the attack on the Babri Masjid in India in 1992. Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras in Afghanistan – in Ghazni, Khost, Jalalabad and even Kabul – were looted of carpets and other valuables, and in some cases burned. Thousands of Sikhs and Hindus fled the country.

Hindus and Sikhs had always existed apart from the country’s tribal politics. They speak Punjabi at home and Dari or Pashto, depending on where they live, in public. This was the first time they had felt singled out for their religion, said Ravindar Singh, the principal.

“There had never been Hindu- Muslim problems,” he said. “Hindus and Sikhs here were not interested in politics. They were traders and workers.”

Even that commercial identity came under threat as the mujahedeen looted their way across the country. Autur Singh, too, was a robbery victim, at his house and shop, when the mujahedeen entered Kabul in 1992. Now, as a teacher at the school and assistant at the temple, he is the breadwinner for 27 people.

“I do not believe in these people,” he said of the new government.

In 1999, the Taliban fatwa, or holy order, came. It required all non-Muslims to wear identifying yellow cloth and to fly strips of yellow cloth over their homes as well. Non-Muslims were forbidden to live in the same houses as Muslims, to criticize Muslims or to take them to court. They were also forbidden to build places of worship. Hindu women, who had been allowed to cover only their heads, were ordered to wear burkas but also the identifying yellow cloth.

The decree was only sporadically enforced until last year, when officials suddenly decided to hew to it strictly in Kabul. The government said the decree was meant to protect Hindus – who, unlike Sikhs, do not wear beards and turbans and who thus could be subject to harassment by the religious police.

The Hindus and Sikhs rejected that explanation. “They wanted to humiliate us,” Kartar Singh said.

They protested, but to little avail. So they went to the Foreign Affairs Ministry with a list of every Sikh and Hindu in the country, and said, “If you do this by force, we will all evacuate the country and go to India.”

It seemed a sadly empty threat, given how few of them were left, but combined with pressure from the United Nations, it worked. The Taliban backed off.

Less than six months later the Taliban were gone, and the Hindus and Sikhs were not. Today, by choice, they fly a yellow flag over the Singh Saba temple, proudly proclaiming its presence, and theirs.


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