Tuesday 6 July 2010
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.