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 temple, or Gurdwara, 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 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.”
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.”