Archive for December, 2006


Afghanistan: Forced to wear yellow patches in the days of the Taliban, the homesick Sikhs of Afghanistan still hide in back alleys and yearn for India.

In the Taliban’s birthplace, the southern city of Kandahar, their children cannot go to school and locals stone or spit on the men in the streets, who mostly try to hide in the narrow alleys of the mud-brick older quarter of the city.

“We don’t want to stay in Afghanistan,” says 40-year-old Balwant Singh. “The locals tell us ‘you are not from Afghanistan, go back to India’. Sometimes, they throw stones at us, the children. We feel we have to hide. I am even afraid to go to parts of the city.”

Their gurdwara (place of worship), in Kandahar is a simple traditional yellow pole capped by the orange Nishan Sahib flag. It sits outside a stark prayer room in an obscure courtyard reachable only after knocking on two sets of unmarked heavy timber doors down a cramped mud-brick tunnel-way.

The pole does not rise above roof level, unlike the splendid gurdwaras across India where they tower above the temples and the countryside, visible for kilometres.

There are about 10 Sikh families in Kandahar – fewer than 50 people. Another 22 lonely men, all their families back in India, live as traders in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan, another Taliban stronghold.

Similar numbers are scattered across Afghanistan, a strictly Islamic nation where most people do not recognise Sikhism’s close links with Islam.

Founded about 600 years ago in the western plains of India, Sikhism combines elements of Hinduism and Islam. In the late 1980s, there were about 500,000 Sikhs scattered across Afghanistan, many here for generations.

The country’s Islam was moderate, based on the Sunni Hanafi sect. Sikhs, Hindus and Jews were prominent in the economy, mainly as moneylenders – often underwriting the wars of various kings.

Most Sikhs, along with the country’s handful of Hindus, came with the British from the Indian empire in the 19th century. But after the mujahideen civil war and the 1994 rise of the Taliban, most had fled by 1998.

In 2001, the Taliban ordered Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities to wear yellow patches, ostensibly so they would not be arrested by the religious police for breaking Taliban laws on the length of beards and other issues. It is not clear how widely the rule was enforced.

The Sikhs who have returned since, like those of Kandahar and Uruzgan, are mainly small-time traders who complain of the pittance they make here, but say it is more than India offers.

Most come from poor families who fled to Delhi when Britain arbitrarily divided its Indian empire into Muslim Pakistan and secular but mainly Hindu India in 1947, forever splitting the Sikh homeland, the fertile plains of the Punjab.

“We don’t want to stay in Afghanistan. But we have no choice,” says Santok Singh, 39, whose family is in New Delhi. Almost all have no papers or visas and are at the mercy of authorities in a country where corruption is rife – one of the biggest challenges to Afghanistan ever succeeding as a nation.

“They take our homes, they take our businesses,” says Hem Singh, a 42-year-old trader from Uruzgan. “We can’t do anything. “We have no rights.”

Most of these men are general traders or pharmacists, forced to sell their goods cheaper than their Afghan competition to win business, they are too ashamed to tell their families what life is really like.

“We keep it secret,” says Hem Singh. “We don’t tell our families how bad our life here really is.”

Scars of War
They cannot travel to Afghanistan via the fastest route through Pakistan because of the decades of enmity between New Delhi and Islamabad so they use alternative routes which can be difficult and sometimes dangerous.

In a cramped room in Kandahar, a dozen turbaned Sikh men drink Afghanistan’s ubiquitous sugary green tea. Several show scars from bomb blasts suffered travelling the roads of the dangerous south to stock their shops or wholesale to Afghan traders too scared to travel themselves.

The resurgence of the Taliban is making their lives worse: the highways are more dangerous with a new spate of suicide bombings and a resurgence of fundamentalist Islam is making their differences from Afghans more pronounced.

The Taliban is the strongest it has been since US-led forces ousted its hardline government in 2001. This has been the bloodiest year since then, with more than 3,700 people killed, almost a third of them civilians.

“We are always afraid someone will kill us or hurt us because we are Sikh,” says Sabrat Subir Singh, a 62-year-old trader from Uruzgan. “But what can we do? We need the money. “No one here is happy. We are angry and sad.” (From CNN)


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14 Dec 2006 08:45:23 GMT
Source: IRIN

NEW DELHI, 14 December (IRIN) – Manmeet Kaur was four years old when her family fled Afghanistan. Today, this 18-year-old Afghan Sikh refugee calls Delhi her home, avidly watches ‘L’il Champs’ – a hugely popular show on one of India’s myriad satellite television channels for young, aspiring singers – and dreams of carving out a niche for herself. “Here, you have freedom! I would like to establish my own identity, achieve something in life and be self-reliant,” she said.

Manmeet is one among the 9,000-odd Afghan refugees in India, 90 percent of whom belong to Hindu or Sikh faiths – religious minorities in Afghanistan.

Physically Manmeet is in exile. But in words and attitude, the teenage girl is barely distinguishable from millions of urban youngsters in small towns and cities in the country readying themselves for a slice of the India’s burgeoning new economy of information technology, entertainment and lifestyle-related services.

“If I was in Afghanistan, I may not have been allowed to study further. My family would have been scared. One reads and hears of violence and insecurity there. Here, there are so many opportunities! I am improving my English, taking computer classes and learning music. Maybe, one day I will be a playback singer for Bollywood movies!” she said.

Kuljeet Kaur, Manmeet’s friend, who also attends computer classes and dresses like any other middle-class teenage girl in Delhi, wants a job in the front desk of a hotel or in a call centre. The 16-year-old keenly follows the goings-on in Afghanistan by watching world news on television and would love to visit Kabul one day, but only as a tourist, out of curiosity.

The here and now – such as the vocational classes run by Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society – are the immediate priorities. The Welfare Society, a Delhi-based NGO, is dedicated to the welfare of Afghan refugees who fled their homeland over the past few decades following the turbulent, and often violent events in that country. Most of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees in India sought asylum after 1992, following the fall of the Najibullah regime.

“I vaguely remember our big garden in Jalalabad. My father was a businessman. We had a swimming pool. My teacher was very strict,” recalls 21-year-old Harmohan Singh, another Afghan Sikh refugee. Harmohan runs the Welfare Society’s “Self-Reliance Programme” in Delhi. The emphasis is on equipping the young refugees with skills that are in demand in India’s new economy.

From time to time, they organise contests between the various refugee settlements in Delhi and its neighbourhood to spur youngsters to work harder, adds Singh, who is preparing for a bachelor’s degree through a correspondence course. The qualification, he hopes, will get him closer to a “really good job in a good company in India.”

For the elders among the Afghan Sikh refugee community, mostly shopkeepers, India’s new economy is a world far removed from the one they left behind or the one they know best, but India – old and new – provides a better cultural fit than Afghanistan, they say.

Manmohan Singh, President of the Welfare Society, was among the first batch of Afghan Sikhs to leave Afghanistan for India. He came to Delhi in the late 1970s, leaving behind a flourishing business. Today, a part of him still lingers behind in the land of his birth. “I was born in Jalalabad in 1949, two years after India became independent. My parents came from Northwest Frontier, now in Pakistan. In my family, those who lived closer to the Indian border fled to India. My parents were close to the Afghanistan border and fled to Jalalabad…”

On the wall in his office in West Delhi, there is a 1958 photograph of an Afghan Sikh delegation from Jalalabad who met Zahir Shah.

But photographs and mementoes are things of the past, admits the Welfare Society president. For most of the younger generation among the Afghan refugee community in India today, Afghanistan is increasingly a hazy memory and naturalised citizenship in India, the best long-term solution, he points out.

“We do not see the likelihood of many of these refugees going back to Afghanistan because of the enormous challenges facing education and healthcare in that country. More and more Afghan refugees are showing interest in becoming naturalised Indian citizens,” say officials from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Delhi. But the process is long and complicated. To be eligible, a refugee must have lived in India for 12 years or have been married to an Indian for seven years. The length of stay must be supported by documentation – a Residence Permit issued by the Indian government – for it to count towards naturalisation.

UNHCR’s local partner, the Socio Legal Information Centre (SLIC), a Delhi-based NGO, has helped nearly 1,600 refugees to fill in application forms while the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society tries to push the process forward by lobbying the government. “We now have a whole generation of Afghan Sikh refugees who grew up in Delhi. Their future is in India,” says the Welfare Society’s Singh.


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Afghan Art in Paris



Improbably, given the terrible destruction in Afghanistan over two decades of war and upheaval, the country’s most precious treasures — gold ornaments from a first-century Bactrian hoard and ivory carvings from the central city of Begram — emerged intact from a vault in the presidential palace in Kabul in 2003.

This week, 228 masterpieces go on display at the Musee Guimet in Paris. Beautiful and sometimes whimsical, the objects tell the story of a rich civilization that sprang up along the Silk Road, the trade route between Europe and China. They also tell the story of how Afghanistan managed, against heavy odds, to preserve an important part of its heritage.

“Afghanistan: Refound Treasures,” runs through April 30 at the Musee Guimet, 6, Place d’Iena, Paris, +33-1-5652-5300,


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Temple razed in Almaty


December 10, 2006
New Delhi: The demolition of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) temple in Kazakhastan has snowballed into a raging controversy. ISKON devotees, protesting the incident, went on a rampage outside the Kazakhastan Embassy in Delhi. While the Kazhakh authorities claim the temple was built illegally, devotees call it a religious persecution. Life could not have taken a more ugly turn for Rati Manjari, an ISKCON devotee, from Kazakhastan who was on a pilgrimage to India, when Khazakh authorities bulldozed her house in the ISKON complex.

“I have no roof over my head in this winter time. It’s not only me, there were mothers with children. Where will they go?” Kazak Hindu devotee Rati Manjari said. She is not the only one; 10 dozen ISKON devotees were pushed out of their homes in the winter chill as authorities knocked down their houses into rubble. The incident has assumed communal overtones, with the Hindu community alleging it is a case of religious discrimination.

“Nothing will happen to the Christians, nothing will happen to the Muslims. But it’s the Hindus and particularly the followers of Lord Krishna who are targeted. It is selective discrimination,” ISKCON Central Asia Head, B B Govind Swami said. The Khazah authorities claim that the temple was constructed on illegally purchased land. “It’s a civil case and the demolition has nothing to do with religion,” said Kazak Ambassador Kairat Umarov. Lord Krishna devotees plan to take this protest globally and more so because British Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken up this issue with the President of Kazakhastan.

The BJP national president Shri Rajnath Singh has expressed his deep concern over the media reports of a temple demolished in Kazakhastan. He said that the reports of atrocities on Hindus in Kazakhastan are a cause of worry for the entire nation and reprehensible. However, what is truly shocking is the gross indifference of the Govt. of India on such an important issue, which affects the sentiments of Bharat. This is becoming in increasingly clear that any hurt to the Hindu sentiments never affects the UPA Government, which remains as usual poker faced. The agony of the situation is that the British Prime Minister Tony Blair has expressed his anguish to the Kazakh Govt., but not the Indian Prime Minister or the ruling party.

Shri Singh urged the central government to strictly convey the concern to the Govt. of Kazakhastan through its ambassador and ask for a proper report of the situation. he said that the Govt. of India should try to restore the sanctity of the temple there.

Further expressing his concern over the media reports of atrocities and humiliation of Sikhs in Afghanistan. There is a miniscule minority of Sikhs now left in Afghanistan, as most of them had migrated to India in the face of Taliban rise earlier. It is reported that there were several incidents of atrocities on Sikh in Kandhar in recent days. It is strange that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or his government was unable to even register a protest on this issue to Shri Hamid Karjai, President of Afghanistan, who had just visited India. Previously, whether it was the issue of destruction temple in Kazakhastan or it was the issue of banning use of turban in France, it seems that the present Union Government is highly insensitive to any issue hurting the sentiments of Hindu or Sikh community. On the other hand, the government leaves not even slightest chance to react on any issue even remotely related to sentiments of other minority communities. This is glaring evidence of duplicity of the government stand on the issues related to the sentiments of Sikhs on one hand and other minorities on the other hand. He urged the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he should react to this issue, which had hurt the sentiments of entire Sikh community. Shri Singh demanded that the government of India should exert strong diplomatic pressure on Afghan Government to ensure the safety and dignity of Sikh community living in Afghanistan. (FOC)

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New Delhi, Dec 04: The government has expressed concern over reports about ill-treatment of Sikhs in Afghanistan and said it will take steps to address their woes.

“Reports about the condition of Sikhs in Afghanistan are a matter of grave concern. Both India and Afghanistan have good relations and we will take appropriate measures to address their problem,” Union Minority Affairs Minister A R Antulay told a congregation at Bangla Sahib gurdwara last evening.

His remarks came after Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) chief Harvinder Singh Sarna requested the government’s intervention over reports about attacks on the members of the community in Taliban stronghold Kandahar.

The minister also promised consideration of the DSGMC’s demands for Indian citizenship to Hindus and Sikhs, who migrated to India after the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

He said he would take up the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

The minister, who was on his first visit to a gurdwara after he became minority affairs minister, was honoured with Siropa (holy Sikh sash) and a sword.

Antulay said the government would consider the committee demand to include on its agenda for talks with Pakistan visa-on-arrival facilities for Indian pilgrims at Wagah border.

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