Archive for September, 2003

Sikhs struggle in Afghanistan


By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Kabul
Nearly two years after the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan’s Sikh community is once again trying to establish itself.

Sikhs and Hindus share the Dharamsal temple
The Sikhs were first brought to Afghanistan by the British in the 19th century and once dominated the Afghan economy.

But since then they have seen their fortunes fade, especially during the civil war in the 1990s which was followed by the rule of the Taleban.

Several thousand Sikhs, who are mostly Pashto-speaking Afghan nationals, reside in the Afghan capital Kabul and the cities of Jalalabad, Ghazni and the former Taleban stronghold of Kandahar.

Fleeing community

In a narrow lane in a dusty Kabul neighbourhood, hundreds of Sikhs and a few Hindus gather every Sunday for prayers at a shared temple, known as Dharamsal.

This is Karte Parwan, the main Sikh-Hindu area in the capital, where most of the community live.

Rajinder Singh is head of the temple trust.

“This temple was built 45 years ago during the rule of King Zahir Shah,” he says.

“At that time we had no place to pray or hold ceremonies. But the king granted us permission to hold special prayers at this site to commemorate births and deaths.”

The Sikhs along with the Hindus had at one time controlled the currency markets in the main cities.

But all that changed with the advent of the mujahideen fighters who overthrew the Soviet regime and then the arrival of the Taleban.

“The overthrow of Najibullah’s regime in 1992 and the fighting between the warlords hurt us very badly,” Mr Singh says.

“The constant violence forced many Sikhs to flee, mostly to India, some to Pakistan.”

Yellow tags

Just over 100 Sikh families stayed on in Kabul.

We were made painfully aware of the fact that we were minorities

Inder Singh Majboor
They were forced to pay the price for events taking place miles away at Ayodhya.

“When the Babri mosque was demolished in India in 1992 the mujahideen burned down our temple in retaliation,” says Mr Singh.

Things got worse during Taleban rule.

In a controversial move, the Taleban forced Hindus and Sikhs to wear distinctive yellow tags and ordered Hindu and Sikh women to be veiled.

Inder Singh Majboor, who owns a small shop outside the temple, remembers it as a difficult time.

“We were frightened by the order. Even though we were allowed to continue praying and holding ceremonies, we were made painfully aware of the fact that we were minorities,” Mr Majboor says.

New problems

The fall of the Taleban and the formation of a new Afghan Government has seen many Sikhs return to what they consider to be their homeland and the strength of the community in Kabul has grown to about 360 families.
Gurcharan Singh had to pay a bribe to get his shops back

Some like Preet Singh were invited to take part in the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of tribal chieftains which elected Hamid Karzai as the new president.

Many others have returned elsewhere.

But those who have returned are confronted with fresh problems.

Most of them find their property in ruins or, in many cases, seized.

Gurcharan Singh’s family has been living in Kabul for three generations where they worked as traders and businessmen.

He returned to Kabul last year after 10 years to discover that his shops and home had been captured by warlords.

“For the past year I’ve been running from pillar to post to try and get my property back,” Gurcharan Singh says.

“I’ve finally agreed to pay a hefty bribe and will hopefully get my shops and home back.”

Cremation controversy

Almost all the Sikhs here face this problem. There are very few people who are lucky to be living in their own house.

The Sikhs face another, urgent problem.
The new government urges Sikhs to play a more active role

For months now, they have been denied access to their cremation ground.

“We have not been able to use the ground which has been in our possession for over a hundred years,” says Gurcharan Singh.

“Three days ago a Sikh woman died and we had to send her body to Pakistan for cremation.”

Afghan Religious Affairs Minister Nasir Yar says the government is aware of the problem and is doing something about it.

“Their cremation ground was occupied by some irresponsible people – we are taking this matter very seriously and a delegation has been dispatched and will report back to me,” Mr Yar said.

But this is of little comfort to the Sikh community.

“We need access to it immediately,” says Rajinder Singh.

“The Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan still face tremendous problems. Although the whole country is trying to recover from the years of war, it appears that no one is thinking of us.”

In the fading light of twilight, the Sikhs of Karte Parwan down their shutters and head home.

A proud community who consider themselves Afghans, they may soon be able to cremate their dead.

But clearly there is a lot to be done before they can rebuild their lives.

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Source: Foundation for Cultural and Civil Society

6 September 2003
Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul – a Fact Sheet

Compiled with information provided by Dr. Andar from the Academy of Sciences
and APAMR, the Afghan Professional Alliance for Minority Rights

Hindus have an ancient history in Afghanistan.
• The ties go back to the Vedic age: the ancient Aryans who settled in India presumably came through – or, according to some scholars, from – Afghanistan
• Afghanistan was a centre for Buddhism between the 2nd and 7th centuries A.D. and thus attracted many pilgrims from the subcontinent
• From the end of the 6th Century A.D. to end of the 10th Century A.D. Kabul and most of South-eastern Afghanistan was ruled by the “Hindu Shahs”, a series of small dynasties of Hindu faith.
• Hindus and later the Sikhs co-existed peacefully with the rest of the Afghan population before 1992. At times there were some tensions, however this never turned into pogroms or religious strife. The communist period is seen by Hindus and Sikhs as the time they most fully enjoyed their minority rights. This was only interrupted by the tensions that erupted between the Hindu and Muslim communities in 1986, with the destruction of the Baburi mosque in India. At that time several Hindu temples were burnt in Afghanistan.
• Several Afghan place-names bear witness to the Hindu influence: Bagram (Bagi Ram), Laghman (Lam Gan), Parwan (Pagwan), Shakar Dara (Shankar Dara) etc.

The Hindu and Sikh population in Afghanistan
Before the civil war the Hindus and Sikhs represented about 1% of Afghanistan’s population, or about 200,000 people. About 15 to 20 thousand families lived in Kabul, and the rest of the population lived in other Afghan cities (Jalalabad, Khost, Ghazni, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar) and some in the countryside.
Now the estimated population of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan is about 1,200 families, of which 350 live in Kabul. Last year (2002) only about 50 families returned from exile. The rest emigrated to India (an estimated 100,000 people) or further abroad.
Hindus and Sikhs have traditionally specialized in trade, traditional medicine, the crafts, and music. The Afghan King Shah Shuja, when he returned from exile in India in 1839, brought with him Indian musicians – the trappings of a royal court. He installed these musicians first in the Bala Hissar, his royal residence, and later in Kharabad, the area at the foot of the palace. Over time Kharabad was to become known as the musicians’ quarter.
According to Afghanistan’s 1964 Constitution, Hindus and Sikhs enjoy equal rights with the rest of the Afghan population. They may practice their religion in private. However, during the reign of Zaher Shah, they could not obtain a permit to build a temple. The dharamsal (Sikh temple) that was built in Kharabad dates from the late 1980s.

The major Hindu clans living in Afghanistan are the Katri, Chawa, Bapla, Kandi, Katal and Daka. The Katri clan is the largest, and is also known as the Sardar Khel.
The main Sikh clans are:
• In Khost: the Gogardh, Chokra, Matoja and Chawla. These speak Pashtun
• In Kabul: the Soti, Rardha, Takdha, Jagama, Maden, Ahoja and Chapak.

Religious Festivals
The main religious festivals of the Sikhs are:
• Waisak (13 April): on this day the 10th and last Guru of the Sikhs, Gobind Singh, proclaimed the 5 mandatory distinguishing signs of the Sikhs: the bracelet, not cutting facial hair, the knife, the comb and the underwear.
• The birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhs
• The Sri Guru Granth Sahib festival, dedicated to the holy book of the Sikhs, the “Granth Sahib”
The main religious festivals of the Hindus are:
• Rokhi (also celebrated by the Sikhs). On this day the brother promises to protect his sister, who ties a bracelet to his arm and gives him some sweets.
• Holi (March): dedicated to Ganesh, and a celebration of happiness.
• Diwali (November): the Hindu New Year

Human Rights issues (extract from a paper prepared by APAMR in May 2003)

1 Education
• Due to fear of persecution or ridicule Hindus and Sikhs do not send their children to public schools.
• They receive neither government nor international assistance for their schools. Currently only a school in the dharamsal of Karte Parwan is functioning, on a shoestring.
• There are no professional teachers, and those that do teach receive only 1,000 Afghanis a month paid by the Hindu and Sikh community
• In Kandahar there is no school at all, only classes in the temple. Two of their previous schools have been occupied by Muslims. In Khost, Jalalabad and Ghazni schools are also desperately needed.

2 Assistance to Returnees
• During their exile in India Hindus and Sikhs received almost no aid at all. Currently the Indian Government is exerting pressure on them to return to Kabul. Those living in Afghanistan have great difficulties obtaining visas for their travel to relatives and religious functions in India
• There are no facilities to welcome returnees in Kabul; most end up living in miserable conditions in the temple still functioning, on the expenses of the diminished and impoverished Hindu/Sikh community still living in Afghanistan. Community leaders have advised other families still in India not to return.

3 Unlawful occupation of their property
Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul, Helmand and Khost have not been able to gain access to their property, occupied by Northern Alliance commanders and other powerful people. They suffer from the same lack of access to justice as other Afghans and are generally intimidated by the unlawful occupants. For example House #10 in St. 13, Wazir Akbar Khan, is illegally occupied by Prof. Rabbani who has made it into a guesthouse – claims Mr. Sobersingh

4 Religious persecution
In Kandahar alone, the following public spaces of the Hindus and Sikhs are occupied by Muslims:
• Two dharamsals (Sikh temples)
• Six mandars (Hindu temples)
• Two schools
• One Hindu Soozan (crematorium)
In Helmand
• the Governor reportedly had the Hindu and Sikh shops in Lashkar Gah demolished, and did not allocate new lands for them, although he did allocate lands for Muslims whose shops had also been demolished.
• People leasing their property to Hindus were pressurized by the Governor to expel them
• In Kabul, Gardez and Khost religious sites of Hindus and Sikhs were destroyed during the period of Prof. Rabbani’s government and under the Taliban. Currently only 3 Hindu and 3 Sikh temples are functioning in Kabul.
• These temples are charged for electricity while mosques are not


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