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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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Eurasia Review

By Dr. Bawa Singh and Dr. Jaspal Kaur

The safety and security of minorities have always been remained in question, particularly in the war-torn and highly terrorism infested countries. Recently, Afghan minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs had undergone the horrible experience of a terrorist attack in which 19 people were killed and about 20 injured. The responsibility of the same was claimed by the Islamic State. Given this terrorist threat, the population of these communities has been decreasing substantially (from estimated seven lac to only a few hundred families). The recent terrorist attack (1 July 2018), in which Awtar Singh Khalsa (only one candidate of these communities running for the parliamentary election 2018) was killed. It has further created panic in the community.

Seeing the exponentially declining the population of such communities, perhaps make us convinced that these people are on the brink of extinction. Many media reports indicated that they used to feel at sea and one question is pestering them how to face/come out of this challenge? In this dire straits, how Afghanistan can assure the safety and security of the affected minority, is a major question to be taken into account?

Despite the civilizational and geo-cultural relations of Hindus and Sikhs with Afghanistan, these minorities had been remained eclipsed and invisible for the scholarly attention for a long time. However, when these communities had come under security threats, then only the communities started getting the attention of the media, scholars and policy makers etc.

The beginning of the Afghanistan and Punjab relations started with the visits of Sikhs’ first Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the 15th century way from Mecca to Jalalabad and Ghazni. However, all the Sikhs have not been of the Punjabi origin, rather a small number of locals, whose ancestors adopted Sikhism during Guru Nanak’s visits to Afghan cities, had become part of the same. Sikhs and Hindus were sent by Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) as part of missions (the 1820s) to promote trade, who in due course of time had settled in Jalalabad and Ghazni provincial towns. As per the study of anthropologist Ballard (2011) the Hindu Khatri merchants settled in Afghanistan, and since then they have been enjoying a substantial share in the regional trade.

The Taliban rule (1996–2001) had spelled doom for the lives of minorities. Afghanistan’s economy and infrastructure have been devastated. But Bansal (2012, 4 March) had contested this argument who was of the opinion that during the Taliban regime, the Sikhs and Hindus had not been suffered any discrimination, rather their businesses grown by leaps and bounds. This community used to share good terms with the Taliban and many members of the same used to make frequent visits to Sikh shrines as well. Rather, with the outbreak of civil war in the post-9/11, the Hindu and Sikh have been caught in the crossfire of violence. Their gurdwaras and temples have been destroyed. Most of the remaining Gurdwaras (65) and temples (21) have been taken over by the local authorities given their misuse by the terrorists as ammunition warehouses.

Currently, these communities are passing through the cycle of violence and many other serious challenges haunting their lives in Afghanistan. Protection of ethnic identity has become a major question for these minorities given the compulsion of paying Jizya, (a religious tax), generally imposed on the non-Muslims. These people have been asked to put on the yellow bands by the individuals on their arms and have to hoist yellow flags on the rooftops of their homes and businesses shops for public identification purposes. They lost the meaning of freedom due to some restrictions on their religious practices as well. The forced conversion, the imposition of strict Islamic laws, staged public executions, forbade the practice of cremation, harassment, atrocities, violence, beating, looting, land grabbing, and banning girls from schools etc. are part and parcel of their day to day lives.

The prevailing hostile environment had forced these people to leave Afghanistan. As per the report of Ehsan Shayegan (Afghan Researcher with Porsesh Research and Studies Organization-Kabul), which is studying minority religions, is of the opinion that, “In the 70s, there were around 700,000 Hindus and Sikhs and now they are estimated to be less than 7,000.” During the Karzai administration (2004-14), these communities had felt more ostracized than ever. As per the report of UK Border Agency Report COI (16 November 2009), “There were approximately 500 Sikhs and Hindus in the country. Although those communities were allowed to practice their faith publicly, they reportedly continued to face discrimination, including intimidation; discrimination when seeking government jobs….”

The minority leaders of Sikhs and Hindus communities have also been expressing their concerns over declining their population. Dr. Anarkali Kaur (Honorary Senator in the Afghan Parliament) said, “The number of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus has dwindled over the years with only about 1000 Sikhs remaining in the country as they migrated, leaving their successful businesses in Kabul, Kandahar and other cities, to safer places in India, Europe, and Canada.” Awtar Singh Khalsa, Head of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu Council (recently killed in the attack), has also substantiated the same argument by saying that given the decades of war, instability, and intolerance, our community had just reduced from lacs to 372 families nationwide. It means once the thriving community, is on the brink of extinction in Afghanistan, raising a serious question for the host country and government, Indian government, international human rights protecting organizations in general and the countries which are engaged in fighting against Taliban in particular.

On the unfortunate day of July 1, 2018, a suicide bomber attacked the convoy of Awtar Singh Khalsa (An Afghan Sikh Politician from Jalalabad), who was going to meet President Ashraf Ghani, the latter was going to speak in the governor’s residence in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Avtar Singh Khalsa was about to be elected unopposed for the lower house of Afghanistan Parliament in the coming election (October 2018). He had made a very special and important place in the hearts of not only Sikhs and Hindus given his selfless service, rather of the local people as well. During his interview with BBC Punjabi, he expressed his dreams how he would love to work for Afghanistan where, each one of the Afghans either Sikhs, Hindus, Uzbek could enjoy a peaceful and respectful life.

Along with Avatar Singh Khalsa, about 19 other people including the activist Ravail Singh, Sikh Community spokesman Iqbal Singh and peace activist Anup Singh was killed. As per the report of public health officials, about 20 people were wounded in the same attack.

Since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), these communities have frequently been exposed to life threat vulnerabilities. Once these communities are believed to be the most prosperous but now the spurt of the violence and discriminations against them, made their lives bad to worse. In the 1970s, the share of the Afghan population stood at estimated seven lac, which is currently declined to 350 families only. In this backdrop, the extinction of such minorities in Afghanistan seems within the realm of possibility. In the dire straits, how these minorities could be kept safe in the highly terrorism infested country like Afghanistan, has been worrying not only the stakeholders rather the humanistic thinkers and scholars as well?

Since the end of the WWII, several human rights protective mechanisms at the international level have been put in place to protect and promote the same. The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (18 December 1992) is one of them. Its article 1 says that “ the states shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.” Despite given several such mechanisms in place, still, the lives of these minorities have been exposed to the vulnerabilities. Declining of the population along with always hanging the sword of Damocles have been putting them in panic, how to face violence, discrimination and life threats at the moment.

Under Article 1 of the Declaration(1992), it is obligatory for Afghanistan to take some steps to ensure their safety and security. However, given its limited capacity particularly from defence forces side, it seems to be very difficult for Afghanistan to take care of these communities. India has been sharing good terms with Afghanistan. Using its good office and influence, it may urge Afghanistan to take some strong steps and cooperate with the latter to find out some ways/means to ensure the safety and security of these communities. The future of peacebuilding also seems very bleak given the divergent interests of the geopolitical players engaged in Afghanistan. Trump’s South Asia Policy did not show any concrete results. Along with the safety and security of such communities, peacebuilding would remain major strategic concerns. If these people are not protected and left them to leave the country, it would emerge as a major set back for Afghanistan. It would also prove as a major set back for Trump’s South Asia policy, by exposing its hollowness.

Violence and use of military are not the means to sort out any ethnic issue/s. Dialogue is only can become a pathfinder. The Taliban should understand that they are killing only their own innocent people, which is of no use and would take them nowhere. Afghans people including these minority communities would be on their side provided they should become part of the mainstream national/international social and political norms along with the shunning of violence. Being in the mainstream, world, Afghanistan and its people would become yours.

Going by such means, only Afghanistan and Taliban could check the role/intervention of the external powers. Until Afghanistan remains under the control of external powers, the same situation would remain prevailed. In this background, the minority communities likely to suffer extinction, which further torn the country. Therefore, the constructive role of Afghans including Taliban and other minorities only could turn Afghanistan into one of the best countries, peaceful and progressive provided the Taliban could part of the mainstream. No other countries/financial aids are the solutions of any ethnic/social/political problems, if it comes, it always comes with a lot of strings. In this way, only Afghans could sort out their political and ethnic problems and check the anticipated extinction of these communities. Alas! peace and prosperity should prevail in Afghanistan. The pluralistic fabric of Afghan society may remain intact!!

*Dr Bawa Singh is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India and Dr.Jaspal Kaur (AP), teaches in the Department of Law, Regional Campus Jalandhar, Guru Nank Dev University (Amritsar).

 

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Foreign Policy

BY RUCHI KUMAR

Rawail Singh believed in a peaceful future for Sikhs like him in his homeland — and died for it.

Sikh community leader Rawail Singh lights the Diwali lamps with his daughter Komal on Oct. 18, 2017, in Kabul. (Ruchi Kumar for Foreign Policy)

Sikh community leader Rawail Singh lights the Diwali lamps with his daughter Komal on Oct. 18, 2017, in Kabul. (Ruchi Kumar for Foreign Policy)

KABUL — When I saw the news of the brutal suicide attack on Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus on Sunday, my first instinct was to call my friend and regular source Rawail Singh for more details. I didn’t realize until his phone went unanswered that the Kabul-based peace activist had been among the 19 people killed, 17 of them Sikhs or Hindus, while waiting to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Jalalabad.

Singh was one of the kindest and most recognizable faces in Kabul’s nascent civil society and one of the most active members of his community. He’d had many offers to help him and his family leave Afghanistan, but he insisted that he was a son of the Afghan soil and refused to depart a country where he still saw tremendous potential.

“Why would I leave? This is my land, my country, my culture. Historically, we belong to Afghanistan. One of the founding leaders of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, visited Afghanistan in 1520. We’ve been his followers since then,” he told me last year.

The loss of Singh, who was in his late 40s, isn’t just a tragedy for those who knew him; it may be the final deathblow to a community that was once a symbol of a very different Afghanistan.

“Within a few minutes, a significant part of our fraternity was wiped out: our leaders, elders, and mentors,” said Sachdeva Omprakash, an Afghan Hindu attending the mass funeral on Monday at the Bagh Bala Gurdwara in Kabul, one of a handful of temples left in the city. Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan closely identify with each other’s communities, both politically and socially, as non-Muslim minorities.

As in Iraq and Syria, the long war in Afghanistan has been particularly harsh on religious minorities. Afghanistan once had thriving Sikh and Hindu communities, but today, the numbers have been reduced to only the most determined and persistent. On Monday, the Gurdwara was filled with sounds of women and children wailing for the martyred leaders and muted sniffles from the men, who refused to allow themselves the luxury of mourning amid preparation of last rites and filing documentation to identify their compatriots.

“It’s not as if we haven’t suffered enough already,” Omprakash said, referring to the persecution at the hands of every Afghan government since 1992. “There were 400,000 families here once,” he said, “Now there are not even 400.” Most estimates put the community at a high of about 250,000 people at its peak. Today, while there are no official records, community leaders believe there are just 1,400 Sikhs and Hindus remaining in all of Afghanistan. Two years ago, I was told this figure was closer to 3,000.

He could be phlegmatic about the persecutions his community faced. “Believe it or not, the Taliban government was more tolerant of us than the mujahideen government before them,” Singh told me in 2016, referring to the brief-lived Islamic State of Afghanistan government of 1992 to 1996. “Of course, they did discriminate, and we also had to wear certain pieces of clothing that identified us, but they also had court hearings [in case of disputes within communities] and were often fair in their judgement, even if it was prejudiced toward non-Muslims,” he recalled.

“It was a different society before 1992. Hindus and Sikhs lived in prosperity and harmony in Afghanistan,” he told me. “Our community members were mostly business owners, and finance and trading in Afghanistan was largely operated by Hindus and Sikhs. When the mujahideen came to power, this community became a target for criminals controlled by them. There was widespread kidnappings, extortion, and banditry, as well as religious persecution.”

Singh helped smuggle his own relatives to India via Pakistan in the 1990s, hidden in trucks transporting goods over the border. But he soon returned, newly married and unwilling to give up on his homeland. Yet even after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there was little hope for the community. “Our children were harassed in schools during the mujahideen years — many of them were forced to drop out, affecting a whole generation. Things didn’t improve during the Taliban, and even today, little has been done to accommodate our children,” he explained.

The new Afghan government that formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 attempted to build a more tolerant and inclusive system of governance. Under then-President Hamid Karzai, one seat in the upper house of the Afghan parliament was allotted to Sikhs and Hindus. However, despite Karzai’s best attempt to allow the Hindus and Sikhs to contest the lower house, the move was blocked by parliamentarians. In 2016, though, President Ashraf Ghani, by a presidential decree, made it possible for the minority community to elect a representative to the new parliament in the upcoming elections. That candidate, Avtar Singh, died alongside Rawail Singh on Sunday.

Despite government efforts, life was hard for the Sikhs and Hindus who returned in the 2000s. Most found their property had been seized. “They returned to find their homes occupied by strangers, their lands captured by warlords,” Rawail Singh told me in 2016. “My own cousin’s house was taken over by a notorious strongman, who refused to hand over the house even after the courts ordered him to leave. We spent nearly 12 years between courts and officials, and paid a collective bribe of $35,000 to various officials.” Singh noted that he was often challenged by officials who told him he couldn’t be both non-Muslim and Afghan.

“They [Muslims] keep asking me to convert to Islam because they consider our religion as something less. It’s not always forceful, but it’s there everywhere,” he said, recalling conversations with even government officials and ministers who have “strongly suggested” he convert to live a better life. “Some of them [Afghans] think we are from India and they tell us to ‘go back.’ There’s a limit to how much one can tolerate. After a while, people will leave, and those who could afford it have already left,” he said in another interview in 2017.

Sacred cremation grounds in Kabul were seized. “Even the land around it belonged to us. But the areas around it have been grabbed by Afghans with the help of local warlords. Now, the residents living close to it complain about our cremation practices. They throw stones and garbage at us,” he said. In 2012, Singh campaigned successfully for Hindu and Sikh burials to be provided with police escorts for protection. At his own funeral, armed security officers accompanied the funeral procession.

Rawail Singh had already lived in a kinder, more tolerant Afghanistan. He was hopeful that things could change. He wanted to raise his three children as close to their heritage and culture as possible, and they helped in his peace activism. A mural of his youngest daughter Komal’s eyes graces the walls outside the National Directorate of Security — Afghanistan’s intelligence agency — at a busy checkpoint in central Kabul, carrying an anti-corruption message.

For all of Singh’s message of hope, there was little of it to be found at the funeral, as one community member told me: “Many of us aren’t sure if we will stay in Afghanistan anymore. Unfortunately, a lot of us can’t afford to leave right now, but we are going to try. If we don’t, we will all perish here.”

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