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Archive for May, 2002

May 7, 2002
The Boston Globe

They no longer have to wear yellow badges like the Jews under Nazi rule, but little else has changed for Afghanistan’s religious minorities, the Hindus and Sikhs. One year ago, the Taliban provoked an international outcry with a decree that Hindus and Sikhs must identify themselves to the feared religious police by wearing patches, turbans, or veils of saffron yellow, the holy color of the two religions. Four months ago, a new government took office, promising equal rights for all Afghans. Yet many Hindus and Sikhs say that life is no better – and in some cases, is worse – under the new Afghan flag. Despite the end of official discrimination and kind words from the new leaders in Kabul, Sikhs and Hindus have no schools for their children, no access to government jobs or university education, no seats on the commission that set rules for electing a new government, and no protection from warlords who have seized their lands and homes. ”During the Taliban, we were first put in jail and then forced to wear yellow turbans and brown skullcaps, but at least we had law and order,” said Bajan Singh, 27, a Sikh. A few months ago, he said, his land and house were confiscated by a local commander in this eastern city near the Pakistani border. ”After the Taliban left, it’s turmoil in this city,” said Bajan Singh, who like many Sikh men uses the last name Singh, as many women use the last name Kaur. ”By night, burglars rob our houses. By day, thieves steal from us. The police station closest to us harasses us. ”One of my brothers was kidnapped by security guards from this area, and we had to pay ransom,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. ”We are stopped everywhere, and many don’t dare to go out of the house.” Cooped up in walled compounds, a virtually invisible community that is among the poorest in Afghanistan has been overlooked even by the international aid agencies that came to help the needy after the fall of the Taliban. Programs have been created for women and ethnic minorities who were persecuted under the Taliban, but not for Hindus and Sikhs, the only non-Muslims here in any numbers. Hinduism in Afghanistan dates back at least to the seventh century, when a Chinese traveler reported Hindu kingdoms in Kabul and Ghazni. In 1992, the community whose ancestors emigrated from what is now India numbered 50,000. When the mujahideen defeated the Soviet-backed regime that year, soldiers ran rampant in minority communities, burning homes and raping women, spurring an exodus to India that continued over the last decade of civil war and Taliban repression. The community dwindled to about 2,000 people in seven cities. Because of their tiny numbers and related faiths, the Hindu and Sikh communities in Afghanistan have merged, sharing temples and residential compounds, even though their coreligionists in India have often been at odds. Those who remain in Afghanistan say they were simply too poor to flee. Under the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and later the communist government of the 1980s, Sikhs and Hindus held respected positions as doctors, engineers, and civil servants. They had two parliamentary representatives until the early 1990s, when the Islamic mujahideen government banned them from official jobs and college placements, restrictions that have not yet been lifted. The situation is particularly bad for the 176 Sikhs and Hindus here in Khost, with Kandahar one of two former Taliban strongholds where authorities succeeded in forcing them to wear yellow last year. (In Kabul, Sikh leaders defeated the decree by threatening to move the entire community out of Afghanistan.) Men here were beaten and jailed for three days and then were marched around the town center wearing the new headgear so everyone would know they were not Muslims. Looking back on that period, Singh considers the Taliban’s discriminatory dress code ”a minor problem” compared to his current woes. Like many Afghan Sikhs, he wears a Muslim-style skullcap and ignores his religion’s prohibition against haircutting. A local commander has seized land and houses, even cemetery plots, of Hindus and Sikhs for his personal use, according to community elders. They say that guards at a nearby checkpoint did nothing when a car was stolen and its driver beaten in front of the compound where Hindus and Sikhs now live. A dozen Hindus and Sikhs who opened video and music shops to capitalize on the renewed popularity of Indian movies after the fall of the Taliban keep their shutters half-closed since two bombings targeted their businesses. Unsigned pamphlets spread before the February attacks warned that those who sell or use ”things prohibited by Islam will face the consequences.” Video store owners Jagjeet Singh and Seeda Nand escaped injury, but lost ,000 each in inventory when their shops were bombed. Despite the danger of a fresh attack, they can’t afford to start new businesses. The front of Gopal Singh’s music shop was destroyed by another bomb, and his terrified landlord terminated his lease, leaving Gopal Singh broke and jobless. ”Like other Afghans, we’d like the right to live somewhere else, not just in this compound,” said Khost community leader Prakash Lal, 76, gesturing toward the dilapidated mud dwellings of the compound, which stretch for blocks. They also want a new temple, ”so we can pray freely and comfortably,” Lal said, gesturing miserably at their bombed-out house of worship. It was sacked by a local commander in 1992 to avenge the destruction of a mosque in India by Hindu extremists. In Kabul, community leader Autar Singh, 39, is more optimistic than Lal, thanks to a recent visit from interim leader Hamid Karzai. Yet Singh admitted his pleas for assistance have yet to yield any results. The community’s top wish is for a teacher, because their children can’t go to school without enduring hurled stones and insults. In its heyday, Kabul’s Sikh and Hindu community had a school for 5,000 children; today, they have 100 youngsters and not one teacher. ”In terms of freedom, our lives are much better now, and we have good relations with officials in Kabul,” said Autar Singh, who displays his loyalty to Afghanistan on his office walls, where framed portraits of Karzai and Northern Alliance hero Ahmad Shah Massood share space with posters of temples in India. ”But economically, our lives are approaching zero,” he said with a sigh. ”All the other ethnic groups are getting help from the government, the aid agencies, or the United Nations. Why not us?”

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Tribune News Service

Jalandhar, May 1
The Hamid Karzai government will return the property of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs, which had been freezed by the Taliban regime and offer protection and support to them on their return to Afghanistan.

The Hamid Karzai-led interim government has also expressed its desire to invite the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) for the repair of historical gurdwaras and other Sikh shrines which were partly destroyed during the decade-long internal strife in Afghanistan and due to the indifferent attitude of the Taliban. Meanwhile, the SGPC has welcomed the gesture of the Afghanistan Government and had decided to send jathas to Afghanistan for the reconstruction of gurdwaras.

Mr Sayed Sadi Mutafaqir Afghanistan?s Deputy Minister for Transport, while talking to The Tribune during his one-day official visit to the city said the interim government had decided to grant full protection to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, who had fled from the country following the policies of the Taliban. Most of these Afghan Hindus and Sikhs had migrated to Pakistan and India.

?I invite them to come back to their country and assure them that we will take care of their problems. I also assure them that their properties, either usurped by the Taliban or those which were seized by the previous regime will be returned to them,? said Mr Mutafaqir.

The minister further said to instil confidence among the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, Mr Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet had celebrated Baisakhi in one of the gurdwaras in Afghanistan. Mr Mutafaqir said his government would provide assistance to the SGPC if it desired to reconstruct gurdwaras there.

The SGPC chief, Mr Kirpal Singh Badungar, has welcomed the initiative of Afghanistan and said the organisation would strive to initiate the reconstruction of the shrines at the earliest.

The minister was here to inspect a fleet of 50 buses, which had been given to Afghanistan by the Indian Government as part of aid for rebuilding would leave Amritsar for Afghanistan through the Wagah border tomorrow. The aid includes buses and one lakh tonnes of wheat.

Mr Mutafaqir said India had contributed a lot in the development of his country. He said normalcy had returned to Afghanistan and the priority of the new government would be to establish links with different countries. ?As part of this move, we have decided to reconstruct airstrips and have identified new air routes to be opened soon,? he said.

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