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Archive for June, 2002

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[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

KANDAHAR, 17 Jun 2002 (IRIN) – For 15 year-old Ruby the prospect of being able to visit her homeland after the Afghan airline, Ariana, recently resumed flights to the Indian capital, Delhi, was something she had only dreamt about. “I used to ask my father when we would visit India, because I want to see my relatives,” she said.

© IRIN - Daulat Raam and his family at their home in the backstreets of Kandahar

Born in the Afghan capital, Kabul, her family are of Hindu origin, and moved to the southern city of Kandahar some 10 years ago, but she was unsure of when her ancestors first moved from India to settle in Afghanistan. The first presence of Hindus and Sikhs in the Central Asian country is said to be roughly 200 years ago.

Of the estimated 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs living in Afghanistan 10 years ago, most have left. Only about 1,000 Sikhs remain in the country today, half of them concentrated in Jalalabad, the provincial and commercial capital of the eastern Nangarhar Province.

“There are four or five Hindu families and about 15 Sikh families in Kandahar city, and a further 15 to 20 families in Helmand Province, Daulat Ram told IRIN. He had been a photographer before the Taliban came and banned photography. “I have been working as a labourer for the past six years,” he said, adding that he was hoping to resume his former trade.

Hindus and Sikhs in the southern region and elsewhere in Afghanistan are now hoping for a more peaceful life. They suffered most during the time of the mujahedin between 1991 and 1994, the period during most of them left the country, an aid worker told IRIN.

Sikhs left Afghanistan en masse, along with thousands of Hindus, after Hindu extremists destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, in India, in December 1992, in fear of threats from radical Muslims following large-scale looting of Hindu and Sikh temples all over Afghanistan.

Their properties were looted, they were tortured and treated inhumanely, particularly in Kabul, with women reportedly raped, he said. Under the Taliban, Indians were marginalised and were not allowed to have any major stake in local economies as they had previously done.

The Hindus and Sikhs, with their typical business acumen, had established factories in Kabul and operated a healthy exporting business, trading in Afghan goods such as dried fruit, textiles and precious stones. With the coming to power of the Taliban, however, they had had to resort to operating small shops selling food and textiles.

Their social status prior to the 1990s had also enabled them to be a part of the military and civil services, and some even took up high positions in banking. With the fall of the Taliban, the Indian community in the battered country is hoping to prosper once again and to rehabilitate the local economies.

For generations, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews lived in harmony with Muslim Afghans. Their rights were respected, and they regarded themselves to be Afghans much as the Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks or Uzbeks born and raised in the country did.

Born in the back streets of Kandahar, Daulat Ram told IRIN he had a dream of reopening his business one day soon. Still able to speak his native language, Hindi, taught him by his parents, the father of three girls said one of his main concerns now was whether he would be able to marry off his daughters while living in such a small community of Indians. “This is a big worry for me and I don’t know what to do. Maybe I will have to send them to India,” he said.

With his house located opposite the local Hindu temple, known as a mandir, Ram’s family visit the holy shrine every day. The building is tucked away from the main streets and looked after by an old woman who has lived there for the past 20 years. “The Taliban used to harass me and tell me that I’m not allowed to stay here and work,” Naemu said, recalling her past troubles.

However, she said that times had changed. “Not many people would visit the mandir when the Taliban were here, because they were scared. But now more and more people are coming,” she added. She also told of how formerly it had been necessary to hide the temple’s pictures of Hindu deities to avert their destruction by the Taliban.

She conceded that although the Taliban had allowed her community to practise their faith behind closed doors, she was relieved they had gone. However, she remained unsure of what kind of attitude the new administration would assume towards the Hindus.

“We don’t bother anybody, we did not mix with the Afghans, because they are Muslims, and [in any case] the Taliban did not allow this,” she explained. She did not know whether, now that the new administration was in place, the two communities would resume visiting each other’s homes. However, there is some hope of improved relations inasmuch as the Interim Authority has planned to include seven Hindu representatives in the Loya Jirga.

Further along the same street down a winding alley stood a Sikh temple. Once again, although as in the case of the mandir, the site of the building was well secluded, sounds of religious chanting could be heard emanating from it. “I will stay in Kandahar, because there is work for me here,” 43-year-old Sardar Balwant Singh, a Sikh by religion, told IRIN.

Born in the southern province of Oruzgan, he had moved to the former spiritual capital of the Taliban some 20 years ago. Twelve years later he had sent his immediate family back to the Indian city of Amritsar in the Punjab. “I have been to the new Indian embassy in Kabul and have applied for a visa to see my family,” Singh said, having not seen them for several years. “We hope there is peace in Afghanistan now as we too have been victims of the war,” he maintained.

 

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Publication: Tehran Times
Date: June 10, 2002

Afghanistan’s tiny Hindu and Sikh communities, forced to the brink of extinction by the Taleban regime, are hoping to make a social and political re-emergence at this week’s Loya Jirga Assembly.

The minority groups, persecuted during the six years of the ultra-orthodox Islamic regime, will be represented by four delegates at the tribal gathering which is to select a new leadership for Afghanistan, AFP reported.

Community leaders said their presence at the assembly was a reassertion of the rights of the nation’s only non-Muslim minorities and that they expected the tribal gathering to alleviate the suffering of the country’s 30,000 Sikhs and Hindus.

“We take it as the return of our luck. In almost a decade, for the first time our rights have been determined and we have to defend our rights,” said Awtar Singh, a delegate to the Loya Jirga from the eastern province of Paktia.

“We want somebody who would treat all Afghans — irrespective of their religious and ethnic backgrounds — as his own equal children,” said Singh, who is in charge of the main Sikh temple in Kabul.

Sikhs and Hindus, united in adversity, are close in Afghanistan, unlike their counterparts in India where the faiths are clearly separate.

In predominantly Muslim Afghanistan, they share the same temples as well as many religious ceremonies.

Singh said the four representatives were appointed to sit among the 1,551 Loya Jirga delegates from 22 communities in 11 different provinces across the country.

Balbir Singh, 52, the temple’s priest, lamented the social injustices Hindus and Sikhs had faced since the fall of the Communist regime in 1992 but said they now felt optimistic about their future.

“Now there is no obstacle and no opposition to our religious rituals,” he said in the city’s main Kart-i-Parwan temple.

“We are from Afghanistan, having to share its every joy and grief. Loya Jirga is very important for us because we have suffered under the Taleban, we had our temples destroyed,” he said.

The priest called upon the Loya Jirga delegates, who will meet from June 10 to 16, not to discriminate against the country’s religious minorities.

“We want them to do for us what they will do for the rest because Afghanistan is our common home,” he said.

The decade-long civil war and particularly the six years of Taleban rule saw the numbers of Hindus and Sikhs plummet from a few hundred thousand to only 30,000.

As relatively well-off minorities, they were the first to be targeted with looting when Mujahedin in-fighting broke out in 1992 after the fall of the Communist-backed regime.

The eight Sikh and Hindu temples in the capital Kabul were ransacked and destroyed.

The Taleban, who won international notoriety for their ultra- puritanical interpretation of Islamic sharia law, forced them to wear yellow badges to distinguish them from the Muslim majority.

Autar Singh, an ex-officer from the Paktia Army Corps, recounted a long list of edicts announced by the religious militia which were aimed at eventually ridding Afghanistan of its Hindu and Sikh population.

“We were told not to wear Muslim outfits, not to carry guns, not to mingle with Muslims, not to build more temples, to wear yellow clothes and to put up yellow flags on our houses and shops,” he said.

“The most dreadful was that those of us who have migrated outside could never return back as Afghans.” Although community representatives say the situation has changed for the better since the Taleban’s ouster, they have yet to reclaim 250 houses taken illegally by military commanders in the city’s Kart-i-Parwan area.

“These are people’s houses handed to the care of the temple.

Some people have moved in and when we want back our houses they ask us for the documents,” Singh said.

The political changes here have encouraged some Afghan Hindus and Sikhs now living in India to consider returning home, he said, but a major deterrent was the fact there were no proper education facilities for their children here.

Hindu and Sikh students are still hesitant to attend the general schools in fear of harassment, and the city’s only temple-run special school is not functioning properly.

Baldip Kohr, a 12-year old female student there, said the 100 young pupils were discouraged because “there are no proper classes and teachers who come at 8:30 a.m. and leave after one hour.” Standing in front of a crowded class of boys and girls reading in the local language of Dari as well as Punjabi, Kohr said she was happy to have seen the back of the Taleban.

“They were bad and they beat us. I am very happy they are gone,” she said.

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