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Can an Afghan be a Hindu or even a Sikh? History says yes. Islam entered Afghanistan in the 7th century. The Hindu Shahi rulers of kabulistan were replaced only by the end of the 10th century by the Ghaznavides, who maintained Hindu forces. For three-quarters of the 13th century, The pagan Mongol ruled the region. Timur the lame fought with the jats in Central Asia in the 14th century. Babur, who captured Kabul in 1504, refers to Kabul as hindustan’s own market. Further, Guru Nanak visit in the early 16th century laid the foundation of Sikhism in Afghanistan. Several documents record the native Hindus and Sikhs in the Afghan society and their thriving trade. But today, almost 99 percent of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have left the country. The khurasan of yore accommodated Hindus and Sikhs as its own, yet today’s Afghanistan refuses to see them as natives. Will history claim justice for the original ‘lalas’? Afghan Hindus and Sikhs narrates the history of their rich contribution and turbulent journey in the last millennium.

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Afghan Sikh Tragedy

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Global Voices

If any one attack this year has spotlighted deepening insecurity in Afghanistan it was the July suicide bombing that killed 19 people and injured 10 as Sikh and Hindu representatives made their way to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

For the ISIS group who claimed the targeted suicide bombing in Jalalabad city, the bombing was a coup. Not only was the group able to create a deadly explosion in an area that should have been cleared for President Ashraf Ghani’s arrival, they were able to kill a man who would have been the country’s first ever Sikh representative in parliament’s popularly elected lower house, Awtar Singh Khalsa. A prominent Sikh activist, Rawail Singh, was also killed.

In total the attack killed 17 Sikhs and Hindus. As such, many social media users described it as an attack on the diversity they cherish, and that ISIS is known to loathe.

The Afghan constitution stipulates that the President of Afghanistan should be a Muslim. But electoral legislation supports the political participation of Sikhs, who number over a thousand in Afghanistan, and Hindus, of which there are only a few dozen remaining.

According to amendments to the electoral law in 2016, one seat out of 249 seats in the lower house is secured for a representative of either the Hindu or Sikh communities. Women’s rights activist Anarkali Honaryar has held her seat in the upper house since 2010, following a presidential decree by ex-President Hamid Karzai, and has emerged powerful voice for minorities.

Awtar Singh Khalsa would have been the first representative from the two communities in the lower house had he not been killed in the attack. Now his son, Narinder Singh Khalsa will take his place following a request from the community, knowing that he has a target on his back.

Edged out of society

While more than 300 Hindu and Sikh families currently live in Afghanistan, the number of Sikhs and Hindus entering higher education institutions is zero.

Rawail Singh and his daughter Komal, Rawail Singh’s Facebook page.

Sikhs and Hindus overwhelmingly stop education during middle school, a trend driven by bullying (both from teachers and schoolmates) and economic pressures.

Research from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2009 showed that Sikhs and Hindus are effectively barred from most governmental positions and face wide-ranging social discrimination.

Many have relocated to Kabul after being displaced during conflicts in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Most commonly, they run grocery stores.

Data from 2016 suggests that 99% of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu citizens have left the country in the last three decades.

Back in the 1980s, when they numbered over 220,000, they were able to find jobs in politics and play a more significant role in society. Sikh and Hindu community intellectuals argue that in a country ruined by war, many Afghans have forgotten this role their community used to play.

The July 2 attack was followed swiftly by a protest of Sikhs in New Delhi, where Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Dr. Shaida Abdali, also joined the protesters.

But in the aftermath of the violence many of Afghanistan’s remaining Sikhs see their future in Afghanistan’s bigger neighbour, with which they have greater cultural and religious ties. A total of 25 Sikh families reportedly applied for Indian citizenship immediately after the bombing.

Many Afghans feel a sadness witnessing their fellow citizens leave the country:

For those Sikhs and Hindus that remain, the patriotism and sense of community embodied by Rawail Singh and Awtar Singh Khalsa are the main motivations for staying in Afghanistan.

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Daily O

The killing of 17 Hindus and Sikhs in an explosion in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on July 1 last was probably a final attempt to obliterate the last vestige of pre-Islamic civilisation which held a complete sway over the landlocked nation till about eight centuries ago. On the following day (July 2), the Islamic state claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.

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The number of Hindus and Sikh families in Afghanistan is estimated at less than 300 [Photo: Reuters] 

Rising intolerance

The killings have shaken the small community of the Hindu-Sikhs, who are planning en masse migration from their homeland.

“I am clear that we cannot live here anymore”, Tejvir Singh, 35, whose uncle was killed in the blast, told the media. Singh who is the secretary of national panel of Hindus and Sikhs further said, “Our religious practices will not be tolerated by the Islamic terrorists”.

The number of Hindus and Sikh families in Afghanistan is estimated at less than 300, and their total population below 1,000.

The country was home to as many as 2, 50,000 Sikhs and Hindus before the devastating civil war in the 1990s.

Some of the frightened Hindus and Sikhs have sought shelter at the Indian consulate, following the recent attack at Jalalabad.

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What Hindus and Sikhs are facing in Afghanistan is a repeat of the experience of non-Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh [Photo: Reuters]

Speaking to media, Sardar Baldev Singh, who owns a book and textile ship in the city, said, “We are left with two choices: to leave for India or convert to Islam.”

What Hindus and Sikhs are facing in Afghanistan is a repeat of the experience of non-Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 1947, the share of Hindus in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was 30 per cent and in Pakistan, 24 per cent. Today, both Bangladesh and Pakistan have roughly a population of 20 crore each.

Going by their percentage share of population at the time of Partition, the number of Hindus in Bangladesh now should be around six crore and in Pakistan 4.80 crores. Together, both the countries should have a total of around 11 crore Hindus and Sikhs.

However, the total number of Hindus/Sikhs in both the countries does not add even to two crores today. What happened to the balance nine crores? Obviously they were either forced to convert to Islam, or migrate to escape persecution.

Islamic zealots

The remnants of the pre-Islamic civilisation in the region have been vandalised and destroyed over the centuries. The vandals claimed inspiration from Islam. Mahmud Ghazni (971-1030) during the solemn ceremony of receiving caliphate honours on the accession to the throne of Ghazni had taken a vow to wage jihad every year against the idolaters of India. Mahmud lead over a dozen campaigns into India during his 32 years reign. The Sultan had three motives in his Indian raids: to slaughter heathens, destroy their places of worship and to gather plunder.

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The Buddha statue in 1963 and in 2008. It was destroyed in 2001. [ Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In March 2001, the Taliban, on orders from Mullah Mohammed Omar dynamited and destroyed the fourth and fifth century monumental statues of Gautam Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan Valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan.

The statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art and were 115 feet and 174 feet tall respectively. For the Islamic zealots, they were neither works of art nor a historical heritage. To them the statues were kufur and deserved to be destroyed, as per dictates of their “faith”.

Mass conversions

Up to 12th century, Afghanistan (along with present day Pakistan and Kashmir Valley) was predominantly Buddhist and Hindu.

In The Afghans, Willem Vogelsang writes: “During the eighth and ninth centuries AD the eastern parts of modern Afghanistan were still in the hands of non-Muslim rulers. Most of them were either Hindus or Buddhists”.

Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni began crossing the Indus River into Hindustan (land of Hindus) in the tenth century. The military incursions assured the domination of Sunni Islam in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Afghanistan: A new history, Martin Ewans notes that Mahmud who ruled between 998 and 1030, expelled the Hindus from Gandhara, and succeeded in conquering the territory stretching from the Caspian Sea to Varanasi, Bokhara and Samarkand. He encouraged mass conversions to Islam, looted Hindu temples and carried off immense booty, earning for himself, depending on the viewpoint of the observer, the titles of “Image-breaker” or “scourge of India”.

Mahmud died almost a thousand years ago. But that sick mindset continues to thrive. The recent explosion in Jalalabad is just one more deadly episode in the ghastly drama that has no end in sight.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Link to Petition on Change.org

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The Pioneer

Through the decades of internal conflict, religious minorities in Afghanistan have fallen through the cracks. International organisations often fail to recognise the plight of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs

India’s foreign policy has its task cut out — to ensure the safety of the Hindu-Sikh community within Afghanistan or its safe repatriation to India (or migration elsewhere) with full citizenship and rehabilitation. In a positive move, New Delhi has issued long-term visas to members of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities and offered them the right to live in India without any limitation. India’s envoy to Afghanistan, Vinay Kumar, said that these Afghan citizens must take the final call. The Jalalabad bombing (July 1, 2018) has complicated matters for New Delhi and Kabul. India has given sustained support to successive Governments in Afghanistan (barring the Taliban that behaved shabbily during the Kandahar episode); Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested personal capital in support of “Afghanistan’s multicultural fabric”. India has invested in many large development projects but growing insecurity has forced a slowdown. Seven Indian engineers kidnapped in May, in Baghlan Province, remain captive.

Some things are notable about the Jalalabad incident. First, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, though security agencies are yet to confirm this. IS fighters are fleeing Syria in droves under pressure from the Syrian Arab Army and need safe havens; Pakistan which has long desired to be leader of the Islamic world seems a natural destination. How IS coexists with other terrorist groups there remains to be seen but Nangarhar, where the attack occurred, borders Pakistan and is a terrorist stronghold despite sustained operations by Afghan commandos and American airstrikes.

Second, Avtar Singh Khalsa, an important Sikh community leader and among the 19 victims in a convoy of Hindus and Sikhs that was going to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, may have been an intended target. He was planning to contest Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in October and would have been elected unopposed to the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) as the seat he was planning to contest was reserved for minorities by Presidential decree in 2016. The IS statement disparaged Hindus and Sikhs as “polytheists” and may have aimed at preventing even token political diversity in the nation.

Afghanistan’s Hindu-Sikh minority has lived under various strains for decades. The rich fled to India after the assassination of President Daoud in 1978. The assassination of President Najibullah in 1996 made life more difficult and a silent exodus began towards the West and India. In 2016, TOLOnews reported that 99 per cent of Hindus and Sikhs had left Afghanistan in the past three decades. From 2,20,000 in the 1980s, their number shrank to 15,000 during the mujahideen era followed by the Taliban rule, and currently stands at barely 1,350. The television channel said that the main reasons for their flight were religious discrimination and official neglect. Under the mujahideen-Taliban, their lands and assets were seized by warlords, reducing them to penury. These were never restored after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Under the Taliban, Hindus and Sikhs wore yellow armbands and were not allowed to hold Government jobs. Even post-Taliban, bigoted neighbours harassed them while cremating their dead, children were bullied and could not attend schools and the community as a whole was made to feel like outsiders. The head of the Hindu Council in Afghanistan, told TOLOnews that he had lost 10 members of his family in the Afghan conflict; two brothers in the Army had died fighting the mujahideen. He said discrimination against the community began in 1992 “when people started counting who were Hindu or Muslim and Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara.” TOLOnews observed that Hindus and Sikhs once had thriving businesses in the country, but now faced increasing poverty. There are no Sikhs or Hindus in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Only two gurdwaras function, one each in Jalalabad and Kabul; most temples are deserted.

The timing was political. It came the day after the Government ordered Afghan security forces to resume offensive operations against the Taliban on expiry of the Government’s 18-day ceasefire that overlapped with the Taliban’s three-day ceasefire for Eid, which IS did not join. It coincided with the visit of US envoy Alice Wells, who came to pressure the Taliban to engage with Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban is demanding direct talks with the US, which Washington has refused. Wells said, “Right now it’s the Taliban leaders … who aren’t residing in Afghanistan, who are the obstacle to a negotiated political settlement”, and added that Islamabad had to do more to bring Taliban to the negotiating table.

The attack is a setback to the Afghan Government as it has forced the minorities to weigh the prospects of continued survival in that country. Tejvir Singh, secretary of a national panel of Hindus and Sikhs, told Reuters, “I am clear that we cannot live here anymore… We are Afghans. The Government recognises us but terrorists target us because we are not Muslims.” Sikhs who took shelter in the Indian consulate in Jalalabad added, “We are left with two choices: To leave for India or to convert to Islam”.  Some Sikhs, however, said that their ties with Afghanistan were too deep to contemplate leaving. The situation is grim. Hours before the Jalalabad bombing, terrorists set fire to a boys’ school in Khogyani district and beheaded three workers, a standard tactic of IS, which had threatened to attack schools in the area as revenge for the US-Afghan military operations. It had specifically stated that it would also attack schools with girl students. The Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs a programme for displaced students, noted that, “Afghan schools are increasingly at risk on military, ideological and political fault lines, with attacks increasing in eastern Afghanistan”.

In a heart-warming gesture on July 3, 2018, as members of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee protested against the attack outside the Afghanistan Embassy in Delhi, Afghan diplomats and officials joined the protests. Stating that Afghans were also victims of cross-border terrorism, they said Ambassador Shaida Abdali viewed the incident as “a shared pain” and the embassy “was obliged to protest together with the Afghan Sikhs residing in India who also found support from Sikh brothers of India”. The attack underlines the fragility of the regime in Kabul. The rogue elements in Pakistan cannot be controlled without joint and concerted action by the US, Russia, India and China.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)

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