Author: Shahabuddin Tarakhel in Kabul
Publication: Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Date: November 5, 2003
Hindu and Sikh community wants to reopen Kabul cemetery for cremations, but locals object.
Kabul’s Hindu and Sikh communities are finding it hard to hold funerals because local residents object to open-air cremations.
Despite the objections, Afghanistan’s religious affairs ministry has promised to let Sikhs and Hindus reclaim their traditional sites and use them to cremate the dead.
Awtar Singh, who represented the Sikh community at last year’s Loya Jirga or grand national assembly, estimates that there are 64 Hindu and Sikh temples and 20 cremation grounds in Afghanistan, although most have been destroyed in years of war.
The Hindu and Sikh communities – traditionally involved in trade – have shrunk from tens of thousands in the Eighties to just a few thousand, as most left the country because of the continual conflict or the prejudice they faced. As non-Muslims, they had an especially tough time under the hard-line Taleban regime, which announced plans to make them wear badges that would mark them out.
Those who remained, or are now returning, find it difficult to reclaim their religious sites. Sometimes this is because powerful people have seized the land. In the case of the cremation site in Khamdan Qalacha in south-eastern Kabul, the objections come from local people who do not want funeral pyres so close to their homes.
“After ten years, we wanted to burn our corpses in the Kabul cremation ground, but people in the area won’t let us because 95 per cent of them are against us burning our dead bodies there,” said Awtar Singh.
Both Sikhs and Hindus – who in Afghanistan are generally referred to collectively as Hindus – currently have to travel to other towns to cremate their dead.
“A 70-year-old woman died, and we had to take her to Ghazni in spite of the fact that the government has announced several times that Hindus and Sikhs should be given their rights,” Awtar Singh told IWPR. “But our rights are being trampled on.”
Inder Singh Majboor, 42, who also transported a body to Ghazni to be burnt, appealed to the authorities to back the community’s claim, “I ask the government to give us our Hindu cremation ground back in Kabul, so that we can perform our duties close by…. Our fathers and ancestors burned their dead here.”
In the years that the site was in disuse, housing sprang up closer and closer to it. Now the residents say that despite the high walls surrounding the grounds, they are against the cremations resuming.
“If Hindus bring their corpses here they will be faced by popular resistance, because the people of this area – male and female, young and old – don’t want Hindus to burn their dead bodies here,” said Abdul Wali Sahi, 43, a community leader in Khamdan Qalacha.
Local Muslims say their objections are based not on religious prejudice, but on practicalities. Sahi says the Hindus can build anything they want on the site, “but we can’t accept their cremation ground”.
Abdul Salam, 52, who lives with seven family members about 200 metres away from the cremation ground, said lighting funeral pyres is inappropriate in a residential area, “The Hindus have not burned their dead bodies here for ten years now. Our children will be very shocked if they begin to do this again. They could be frightened and have mental problems.”
Sikhs and Hindus face similar difficulties elsewhere in Afghanistan.
In the southern province of Khost, Charan Singh Sachdev said his community has been forced to carry out cremations at a private home because the site gifted to them in the Eighties has been seized by a local mujahedin commander and a tribal leader. Religious rites are carried out at a school because the temple was destroyed by rocket-fire in the early Nineties.
Ataurahman Salim, an under-secretary at the Haj ministry which oversees religious affairs in Afghanistan, told IWPR that the authorities were doing their best to look after the rights of religious minorities, and would not allow their temples and cremation grounds to be appropriated by anyone else.
“We look on the ‘Indian’ Afghans as we do other Afghans,” he said. “Kabul’s Hindu cremation ground has a 200-year history. We are sending a delegation to the people of that area [to tell them] not to disturb these Hindus, and to let them burn their dead.”
Salim added that his ministry would be working with the Indian government, which has offered to help restore three temples in Jalalabad, Kabul and Ghazni, as well as three mosques in Kapisa, Kabul and Paghman districts.
Shahabuddin Tarakhel is an independent journalist in Kabul.
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