Archive for July, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010, 13:03

Source: Spicezee

Kabul: Swagatam! Yeh aapka pehla visit hai?

For a moment, I was stunned when Ahmad Zaher Faqiri, the Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, spoke to me in chaste Hindi during my first encounter with him in Kabul.

The handsome Afghan diplomat had more in store for me when he belted the popular song `Pehla nasha, pehla khumaar, naya pyaar hai, naya intezaar….,” from Bollywood movie `Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar`, to relate my first visit to Kabul.

Faqiri is not alone in war-torn Afghanistan who is influenced by Hindustan (as India is known in this country) and its famous Bollywood films.

Despite the resurgence of Taliban and their austere moral code, Afghan people`s love for India and its culture remains unaffected, officials said.

“Mujhe Hindustani film achchha lagta hai,” a gun-totting Afghan police officer told reporters.

“Watching an entertaining Hindi film is one way to relax after a day`s tension ridden duty along with US-led multinational forces in Kabul`s sensitive diplomatic area,” he said.

Afghanistan was one of the biggest foreign markets for Bollywood films until the early 1990s. Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Hema Malini still have fan-following here.

Newer Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham and Katrina Kaif too have developed vast admirers among Afghan youngsters who watch Hindi movies on local TV channels and through DVDs in bigger cities like Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Bollywood broke new ground in Afghanistan in 2006 with the release of Kabul Express, the first international movie filmed in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

India`s traditionally friendly ties with Afghanistan have been on a high since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. India is the sixth largest donor with an aid budget of USD 1.3 billion, and Indian companies are rebuilding roads and schools in this country despite constant security threats.

India and Afghanistan have established a strong relationship based on their historical and civilisational ties and strengthened New Delhi`s role in the reconstruction of the war-scarred nation.

“The principal objective of India`s development partnership is to build indigenous Afghan capacity and institutions,” officials said.

India has played an active role in the development of Afghanistan based on the understanding that social and economic development is key to the country becoming a source of regional stability, they said.

Speaking at the recent International Conference on Afghanistan, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna said, “the ultimate aim of our assistance is to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan state and people to stand on their own feet in the areas of governance and services for the Afghan people.”

Describing India and Afghanistan as “historic friends,” Krishna said New Delhi has contributed to Afghanistan’s efforts in nation-building and reconstruction “entirely in accordance with the priorities of the Afghan government and people.”

The India Cultural Centre (ICC) was inaugurated in Kabul in 2007, reflecting the close cultural links between the two countries. Through its diverse activities, including conduct of Indian classical music and yoga classes, the ICC has become a place where people of all background come together in the spirit of mutual bonding, Indian officials said.

India’s aid programmes covers four broad areas ? infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, small and
community-based development projects and education and capacity development.

The 218-km-long road from Zaranj to Delaram in south- western Afghanistan that facilitates movement of goods and
services is a landmark project undertaken by India here.

India has also erected a 202 km-long 220 KV transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20 KV sub-station at Chimtala to bring electricity to the Afghan capital from Uzbekistan.

Two other major infrastructure projects, the construction of the Afghan Parliament in Kabul and Salma Dam power project in Heart province, are under progress and would be completed by 2011-12.

Around 3,500 Indian nationals are estimated to be
currently working in Afghanistan. Many of them are engaged in various aid projects undertaken by the Indian government and private businesses.

Around 3,000 people belonging to Sikh and Hindu communities, spread over a number of provinces, permanently live in the country as Afghan nationals.


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Tuesday 6 July 2010

Source: Guardian

They suffered under the mujahideen and the Taliban – but Afghan Sikhs still feel a strong bond with the country

    Few people outside Afghanistan are aware of the Afghan Sikh community: a little-known, inconspicuous religious minority whose mass exodus from Afghanistan began with the coming to power of the mujahideen in 1992. The decision to leave Afghanistan at that particular juncture made sense. After all, the new rulers had an established reputation for religious intolerance.

    The collapse of the Soviet-backed regime had left Afghan Sikhs in a vulnerable position. With their black dastar headgear and their neat but untrimmed beards, they stood out from the Muslim crowd, and became an easily identifiable target for crime and harassment. A community of traders with business contacts stretching from Afghan cities to India, Japan and Korea, the Sikhs were perceived as wealthy and this perception, in turn, made them a key target for kidnapping gangs. Even during the famously rigid rule of the Taliban, members of the Sikh community were kidnapped for ransom, and according to one trusted source, the kidnappers included Taliban. One Sikh family, for example, lost six members during the Taliban rule, having failed to collect the required ransom to secure the release of relatives.

    In many ways, the Sikh community’s experience of loss and forced migration had much in common with that of their Muslim counterparts. Families were torn apart and ended up stranded in refugee camps before eventually settling in whichever country was ready to let them in. But the Sikhs’ distinct religious identity came with additional hardships that affected both those who had been left behind in Afghanistan and those struggling to survive abroad.

    In Afghanistan, the mujahideen, and later the Taliban, elevated ordinary Afghans’ intolerance of non-Muslims to the level of official state policy – depriving the Sikhs of state protection, the only protection that the community have ever had in recent Afghan history. Subsequently, the Sikhs were denied their basic rights, including the right to bury their dead in line with the requirements of their faith.

    Religious intolerance, especially towards Sikhism and Hinduism, is a deeply ingrained part of Afghan national identity which was formulated in opposition to the Hindus and Sikhs of India. Often, it takes exile and exposure to racism to make mainstream Muslim Afghans realise just how unfair society has been towards the Sikh community. “It was only when I came to England that I realised that our attitude towards our Sikhs had been wrong,” said a young Muslim Afghan whom I met in London’s Southall market recently. With the exception of a restaurant and a music shop, the market is run almost entirely by Afghan Sikhs.

    Like most Afghans, the young Muslim was suspicious of my motives for asking questions and refused to let me interview him. Instead he introduced me to an Afghan Sikh friend who was the owner of a small shop, jam-packed with colourful shiny fabrics, South Asian-style garments and bejewelled sandals.

    “Talk to Harpal Singh, our community leader. He knows everything,” the shopkeeper advised. Such delegation of authority to a community leader, which often results in block voting during elections, is widespread in South Asia, and the Afghan Sikh community has replicated this pattern in British exile. But aside from the issue of delegation of authority, the Sikhs’ fear of speaking out was striking.

    Decades if not centuries of oppression have obviously left their mark on this community, and their fear manifests itself in other ways, too. Unlike most Afghans, who tend to be unreserved and gregarious, the Afghan Sikhs speak in a quiet voice. Their manner of conversation to non-Sikhs is structured to avoid confrontation and often begins with formulations of reassurance.

    “We never had problems with the people in Afghanistan,” said Harpal Singh. That he was not telling the full truth was clear. After all, in my own school in Kabul, our Sikh classmate was regularly pressured to convert to Islam and even in present-day Afghanistan, Sikh children stay at home and are deprived of education because of widespread harassment at schools.

    Harpal Singh offered me what sounded like a standard community leader’s speech. The community was peaceful, had no problems with other Afghans or the British people. He then told me about the Sikhs’ specific problem of having to authenticate their Afghan identity when arriving in England or other western countries. The authentication process involves speaking Dari and knowledge of the city they lived in before exile.

    Given that the community’s children often grew up in refugee camps outside Afghanistan, young Afghan Sikhs sometimes no longer speak Dari, being fluent only in their mother tongue, Punjabi. This, in turn, adds to the complication of corroborating their identity outside Afghanistan.

    “But these days, the British no longer believe that we are oppressed, that we are still not allowed to bury our dead in line with our religious regulations,” said another Sikh shopkeeper on condition of anonymity. “The British say they are running the country, and know what’s happening there.”

    I asked him whether there was anything he could do about this. He shrugged and said: “I have letters of my family from Kabul but the British say they know what’s happening there.”

    Despite daily harassment in Afghanistan and the additional complications that stem from being Afghan Sikhs abroad, the community still feels a powerful sense of belonging to Afghanistan and its members are known to have helped non-Sikh Afghans make a living by setting up businesses in the UK. It is this solid loyalty to Afghanistan and touching solidarity with non-Sikh Afghans that dismantles the popular myth that only Islam can create unity among Afghans.

    Being Afghan is about more than religion, and as possibly the country’s oldest inhabitants, the Afghan Sikhs have always known this much.

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By Sayed Salahuddin

Fri Jul 2, 2010

KABUL (Reuters) – They thrived long before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century and for a long time dominated the country’s economy, but Sikh and Hindu Afghans now find themselves struggling for survival.

“We have no shelter, no land and no authority,” says Awtar Singh, a senator and the only non-Muslim voice in Afghanistan’s parliament.

“No one in the government listens to us, but we have to be patient, because we have no other options,” says Singh, 47.

In a brief idyll in 1992, after the fall of the Moscow backed-government but before civil war erupted, there were around 200,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan compared with around just a few thousand today.

When warring factions fought over Kabul, razing entire neighbourhoods in deadly rocket barrages, the two communities became targets partly because of their religion, but also because they didn’t have a militia of their own for protection.

Armed men stormed a temple in Kabul and tore a religious book to avenge the destruction of a mosque by fanatic Hindus in India. After complaining of extortion, intimidation, kidnappings, theft and even rape, those with the means fled to India where they live as aliens and require visas, like other foreigners.

Ironically the rise to power of the hardline Islamist Taliban marked an improvement in the lives of those who remained — and some emigres even started to return.

“The Taliban did not suppress us — they respected our religion and if we had any problem they would resolve it immediately, let alone delay it until the next day,” says Singh.

Some Afghan Hindus were baffled by Western outrage at one Taliban decree — ordering them to wear a yellow tag to identify their religion — saying in practical terms it spared their clean-shaven faces from the wrath of the Taliban religious police, who insisted Muslim Afghan men must grow beards.

The Sikhs escaped scrutiny because they also grow their beards long.

Since the Taliban’s fall, Afghanistan’s new constitution promises religious minorities greater freedoms than before, but it is harder to ensure in practical terms.

Hindus and Sikhs had scores of properties stolen during the civil war and its aftermath and thousands of claims lie gathering dust in the arcane bureaucracy that makes up the government.

“I have my family still in India because I have lost my house and other properties,” says Awtam Singh, who was an important trader in the old days but is now reduced to selling herbal medicines in a tiny Kabul shop.

“We feel ignored by this government,” he laments.

While tens of thousands of Muslim Afghans have the same problems, they at least have politicians or leaders fighting their corner.

Some of the returning Hindus and Sikhs have brought their families and live mostly in secure areas such as Kabul and eastern city of Jalalabad, where they have temples and segregated schools.

Even after death, problems continue. Part of the land that Sikhs and Hindus use for the funeral pyres for their dead has been taken over by urban sprawl in Kabul.

“I can not see things getting better for us,” said Awtam.

“The Indians say you belong to Afghanistan, and here we are seen as Indians. No government cares for us, he said.

(Editing by David Fox and Sanjeev Miglani)

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