Source: AlJazeera

“I am an Afghan first… But if our life is under threat, if our families are faced with risks, we have to leave.”

Kabul, Afghanistan – Hidden in plain sight, on a poorly lit busy road, the exteriors of the Asmayee temple are deceiving – a plain, old building that could easily be confused for any other building in Kabul.

In contrast, the mosque next door stands out with its beautiful, intricate architecture. The call for evening prayers from the mosque intertwines with the sounds of the Hindu chants resonating from within the halls of the temple.

Several finely dressed, middle-aged women, move in and out of the many rooms of the vast temple complex, offering prayers and lighting candles. There are seven rooms built in a circle that serve as the temple for the various Hindu goddesses and gods, and one expansive hall, colourfully decorated and covered in Persian carpets, that serves as the community prayer room.

The women celebrate separately from the men. There is also a separate dining hall and community kitchen for the men and women who come to the temple.

Ramnath, 25, explains that “this is because the culture among Afghan Hindus is predominantly Pashtun”.

Over the years, Hinduism in Afghanistan survived and thrived in Pashtun-dominant provinces, resulting in a confluence of cultures that combines practices and rituals of the region.

“If you go up the hill, there is another small temple of the Sherawali,” says Ramnath, referring to the Hindu goddess Durga by one of her many names.

“It was said that years ago, a white river of milk flowed down from the foot of the statue of the goddess to Kabul. This is how this place got its name joy-e-sheer, which translates to ‘stream of milk’ from Dari,” Ramnath tells as the men gather quietly in one of the rooms over a cup of tea.

Ramnath, like many Afghans, only uses one name.

“Of course, those are reminiscent tales of the past. Who can tell how much of that legend is true?” he adds.

A history of diversity and repression
Afghanistan’s history is full of such anecdotes and lore about a substantial thriving community of Hindus and Sikhs who have called this country their home over the centuries.

“There is a place in Jalalabad where it is believed Guru Nanak visited in the 15th century and is very sacred to the Sikhs in Afghanistan,” says Rawail Singh, an Afghan Sikh civil rights activist, adding that Jalalabad, to the east of Kabul, continues to have a substantial Sikh population.

But, sociologists note, the population of Hindu and Sikh minorities has seen a drastic decline over the past several decades.

“If you go through the evidence and data from the 1970s to date, you will be able to see how drastically their population has fallen,” says Ehsan Shayegan, an Afghan researcher with Porsesh Research and Studies Organization studying the minority religions of Kabul.

“In the 70s, there were around 700,000 Hindus and Sikhs, and now they are estimated to be less than 7,000,” Shayegan says.

Although there is no census data available in the country to estimate exact numbers due to years of war and conflict, the community members themselves speculate that there are perhaps no more than a few thousand Hindus and Sikhs left in Afghanistan today.

“It is estimated that Hindus and Sikhs make up around 3,000 Afghans scattered across provinces of Kabul, Nangarhar and Ghazni,” says Singh. “In 1992, they were a 220,000-strong community, just before the start of the civil war in Kabul. It was also around the same time that our problems started,” he says.

According to Singh, during the years of Mujahideen rule and the civil war in the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet-backed government, were the worst for Afghan religious minorities.

“We were harassed, our lands were forcefully taken, we were persecuted and even killed for even slightest display of our faith. Kidnappings of Hindus and Sikhs were rampant,” he recalls.

Many Hindus and Sikhs who spoke to Al Jazeera agreed that in comparison, the Taliban regime that followed, although extremely conservative and discriminatory, offered a relief from the repression of the Mujahideen.

“Under the Taliban, we were often required to identify ourselves in public by wearing a yellow armband, but were largely left alone,” Singh explains.

Biharilal, who like many Afghans only goes by one name, prepares offerings to the gods inside Asyamee, a Hindu Temple in Kabul Afghanistan, on 9 December 2016. The offerings are left to honor the gods and show respect to the various dieties. Biharilal volunteers at Asyamee and occasionally leads prayers and performs other custodial duties throughout the temple grounds as needed. There are an estimated 7000 Hindus remaining in Afghanistan, down from 70,000 in the 1970s.

Religious persecution
After the United States invasion in 2001, many Hindus and Sikhs who had fled the country in the last decade retuned, including Singh and Ramnath, who had briefly moved to India and Pakistan with their families.

“The first few years of the Karzai regime were very prosperous,” shares Amarnath, Ramnath’s older brother, in Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s national languages.

However, things quickly started to deteriorate as Mujahideen groups returned after President Hamid Karzai came to power and gained positions in government and ruling structures.

“Persecution started again, and several big and small warlords forcefully took away lands belonging to the Hindu and Sikh minorities,” Singh says.

Threatened and afraid for their lives, many have felt compelled to leave again. “There were around 100 families in Khost, but they’ve all left because of the conflict and moved either to India, or are in Kabul,” says Ramnath. He moved his family from Khost, a city also in the east of the country, to Delhi in 2009, but he continues to work in Kabul.

OPINION: New Afghanistan: Mujahideen need not apply?

“There are no Hindus in Khost today,” he says.

Despite the continued violence in the country, religious persecution remains the strongest motivator for Afghan Hindus leaving the country.

At the Hindu temple, people say the temple hasn’t faced any direct threat so far. “We have been left to practise our faith in peace,” one man says.

“If we don’t hurt anyone, why would anyone want to hurt us?” Ramnath adds.

“The security of the country is deteriorating for all – whether they are Hindu or Muslim. When you leave the house in the mornings, you can’t guarantee you’ll return alive in the evening,” he says.

On December 29, 2016, an Afghan Sikh Nirmohan Singh, fondly known as Lala Dilsoz, was killed by armed gunmen in Kunduz. The city has has seen repeated bouts of heavy fighting where the Taliban has made attempts to capture the city. An outcry from the Hindu and Sikh communities and other Afghans followed the murder, with some community leaders reportedly appealing to the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi to “rescue the remaining Afghan Hindus and Sikhs” by providing them asylum in India.

The emigration figures are serious, with Afghanistan producing significant numbers of refugees – second only to Syria, according to a UNHCR report. The Taliban has gained more ground than the last 15 years and even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has dug roots in parts of the country.

However, despite Ramnath’s reluctance to admit this, Hindus in Afghanistan are leaving because of religious discrimination and social exclusion, insists Shayegan. Incidents of systematic and institutional discrimination have even made local headlines, although many more go unreported, he says.

Singh agrees. “There is only so much a community can tolerate. We can’t practise our faith openly; our children can’t go to school because of harassment; we can’t even cremate our dead without being stoned by the public,” he says, referring to the 2012 incident when civilians and security forces prevented them from performing funeral rites at their ancient cremation grounds, parts of which had been taken over by armed locals.

Women gather for langar, a shared meal that is usually held to feed the under privileged but it is also an occasion for the congregation to gather after worship, on 9 December 2016. Afghan Hindus share cultural similarities to Pashtuns and have historically thrived in Pashtun majority provinces. However, there are only an estimated 7000 Hindus remaining in Afghanistan, down from 70,000 in the 70s.

Institutionalised discrimination
With years of war and internal conflict, the minorities in Afghanistan have fallen through cracks, where even the international and local civil organisations often fail to notice and recognise the plight of the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs.

Kamal Sadat, Afghanistan’s minister of culture and information, agrees that the treatment of the minority groups hasn’t been fair, but says the government is taking necessary steps to address the matter.

“It is indeed tragic how our Hindu and Sikh brothers have been treated over the years. They’re an integral part of our history and community, and we are working to improve their conditions,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the government was looking into all allegations of land grabbing made by Sikhs and Hindus.

The problem, however, lies in the inadequate systems and institutions that were brought in place post-2001, according to Shayegan.

“Our new constitution was drafted to imitate some of the best model constitutions of the world, but they are still inadequate when it comes to supporting a pluralistic system of democracy,” he says. He notes, for example, the example of Article 62 that prohibits non-Muslim Afghans from becoming president of the country.

“The constitution guarantees equal rights to all Afghan citizens in Article 22 and then contradicts itself in Article 62 by excluding a section of the population,” Shayegan points out.

Furthermore, courts that operate on laws emulating Islamic religious law are sometimes unsuited to the needs of the religious minority populations. “When we go the courts, at times they ask us if we are even really Afghan. Can’t a non-Muslim be an Afghan?” he asks.

Despite the discrimination, Afghan Hindus and Sikh strongly identify with their national identity.

“Of course, I am an Afghan first,” Ramnath answers fiercely when asked about his Afghan identity. “This is our land, the land of our ancestors. We owe our loyalty to the soil of Afghanistan – we are Afghans,” he says.

“But if our life is under threat, if our families are faced with risks, we have to leave,” he adds with some sadness.

At the Hindu temple, the men huddle together in rooms for a shared meal of delicacies of sweet rice made with raisins, sweets, and dried fruits. In the evening, they sit around in a candle-lit courtyard talking and speculating over the future of Afghanistan, a country they love dearly.

“As of now, I would not want my children in Delhi to return to this life in Kabul,” says one of the older men. “Maybe if the situation changes and things get better, they might come back to better Afghanistan,” he says.

“God willing,” everyone replies.


Source: Link

KUNDUZ – A prominent Sikh leader in the restive Afghan city of Kunduz was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on Thursday, the latest in a string of attacks targeting the minority community whose members have left the country in droves.

Lala Del Souz, a naturopath, was gunned down in Haji Gulistan Kochi Haman area of Kunduz at 9 am, Tolo News channel reported. He was reportedly on his way to his shop when the shooting occurred.

Del Souz, who headed the Sikh community of Kunduz succumbed to his injuries while being taken to hospital, said Naeem Mangal, the chief of the regional hospital.

Kunduz security chief Masoum Stanikzai confirmed the incident and said police had arrested three suspects. Investigations will continue, he added.

Prem, Del Souz’s uncle, said his nephew was well liked and had no enemies. Other relatives said Del Souz was shot five years ago but survived. Prem asked the government to investigate the killing and make sure those responsible were brought to justice. He said if this does not happen, the few remaining Sikhs will “sell up and leave” Kunduz province.

This was the second killing of a Sikh since October, when Sardar Rawail Singh was abducted from his home and gunned down by suspected militants wearing military fatigues in the restive Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan.

Del Souz’s killing sparked an outcry on social media, with hundreds condemning the incident and sending condolences to his family.

Following the collapse of Kunduz province to the Taliban on two occasions in a little more than a year, many Sikhs left the area. After the fall of Kunduz city last year, Del Souz reportedly moved his family to India but stayed on himself with Prem in a ‘dharamsala’.

Only three Sikh families still live there. Sikhs have lived in Kunduz for more than three decades and there were as many as 40 families at one time.

Some 30,000 civilians fled Kunduz province after the Taliban launched an offensive in October to take over the region, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Nearly 99% of the Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan have left the country over the past three decades, Tolo News said. It added that the Sikh and Hindu population numbered 220,000 in the 1980s but was now estimated to be only 1,350.

Tolo News said a survey done by it in June had showed that Hindus and Sikhs were once very active in business but now faced increasing poverty. The population of the two communities plummeted to 15,000 when the Taliban were in power during the 1990s and remained at that level during the militant regime.

Sikhs and Hindus suffered huge setbacks after the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001. This forced many of them to leave rural areas and move to Kabul to make a living.

Source: The Times of India

AMRITSAR: Murder of an Afghan Sikh Nirmohan Singh Bindra, also known as Lala Dilsoz, has once again shocked the tiny Sikh and Hindu community of Afghanistan in India, largely concentrated in Delhi. They have appealed to Prime Minster Narendra Modi to evacuate the remaining Sikh and Hindu families from war-torn Afghanistan and announce a rehabilitation package for them

Afghan Sikh Hindu Welfare Society president Khajinder Singh told TOI on Friday that Nirmohan’s murder was a vivid example of the threat to minority communities living in Afghanistan and how unsafe they were in the country which was once their motherland.

“It’s a restive region, where normally fights start over small reasons, including personal animosity and for money. Before 1992, the population of Sikhs and Hindus was more than 70,000 whereas now only around 2,500 of them are left with Hindus accounting for nearly 10% of that,” he said.

Bindra, a herbal therapist known as Lala Dilsoz among his friends, was gunned down in Haji Gulistan Kochi Kaman market of Afghan town of Kunduz. Lala is used to address Sikhs and Hindus as elder brother as a mark of respect.

Khajinder informed that a majority of Sikhs and Hindus had left Kunduz when it had fallen to the Taliban, but once the Afghan government reclaimed the town, male members of a few Sikh and Hindu families went back leaving behind their families in India or in Kabul.

Bindra, who is survived by four children and wife, had also migrated with family to Delhi. However, he went back to Kunduz where he had a roaring business.

Sikhs had been living in Afghanistan for over 500 years with a majority of them were the descendants of Afghan population who were inspired by the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev who had visited Afghanistan in the 15th century while Hindus had been living in Afghanistan much before that.

Another Afghan leader in Delhi, who didn’t want to be named, said Bindra’s father Sarbir Singh and his other family members lived in Tilak Nagar area of Delhi and had moved to Gurdwara Arjan Dev. They are waiting for Bindra’s body to arrive from Afghanistan.

 In the recent past, an Afghan Sikh Kulraj Singh had arrived at Attari land border seeking permanent shelter in India. Kulraj, 22, was kidnapped by the Taliban for ransom and had remained in their captivity for 40 days including 17 days in solitary confinement. Taliban had cut his hair and had kept him without food.
 The president of the society said they had appealed to Modi to come forward and rescue the remaining families of Sikhs and Hindus living in Afghanistan and announce their evacuation and rehabilitation programme during his address to the nation on New Year eve.
 Khajinder informed that there used to be more than five dozen historical gurdwaras in Afghanistan, but now there was installation of Guru Granth Sahib in only about couple of the Sikh worship places.

Source: The Citizen

Tuesday, December 20,2016

NEW DELHI: In the last few months, insurgency in Afghanistan has taken on an added dimension, as ethnic minorities — specifically Shias — are increasingly targeted.

This rise in sectarian violence, which has historically been a characteristic of terror in neighbouring Pakistan and not Afghanistan, corresponds with reports of the Islamic State making inroads into the conflict torn country. As the Taliban moves to distance itself from the attacks, insurgency and terror in Afghanistan have come to acquire a new colour — one that is increasingly centred on the country’s ethnic context.

As news headlines are dominated by the recent spurt in violence targeting minorities in Afghanistan, with the focus being on Shias, one ethnic minority is virtually absent from the news pages. Earlier this year in downtown Kabul, Jagtar Singh Laghmani was going about his daily business, when a man pulled up, drew a knife, and threatened Laghmani, ordering that he convert to Islam or have his throat cut off. As shopkeepers and bystanders intervened, the attack was a jarring reminder of the fate of a neglected minority — Hindus and Sikhs — in the troubled country.

“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,” said Dr. Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, Senator in the Afghan Parliament.

Life under the Taliban was a particularly dark time. Officially, Taliban commanders were ordered by their leadership to respect Sikh and Hindu communities, on the condition that they paid jizya, a religious tax imposed on non-Muslims. But they also required Sikhs and Hindus to publicly identify themselves, by wearing yellow patches on their breast pocket or armbands, and to mark their homes and businesses with yellow flags. Sikhs were allowed to continue daily prayers at the gurdwaras so long as they couldn’t be heard from the street, but it also wasn’t uncommon for the Taliban to harass or beat them. Children stopped going to school as a result of being continuously subjected to harassment. Under the Taliban, Sikhs and Hindus were marginalised and were not allowed to have any major stake in local economies as they previously had.

“Our properties were looted, we were tortured and treated inhumanely, particularly in Kabul,with women often raped” said Siveder Singh, an Afghan Sikh now residing in Amritsar.

The Sikhs say local hardliners have been particularly intolerant of Sikhs cremating their dead, a practice forbidden in Islam. “They throw stones and bricks at us, at the bodies of the dead, whenever there is a funeral,” said Avtar Singh, one of the leaders of the Hindu and Sikh communities in Afghanistan.

“Whenever we go to Afghanistan they ask us ‘Oh, have you returned from your country?’ And when we are in India, we are asked, ‘When are you returning back to your country?’ We neither belong to India nor Afghanistan — what can be more pathetic than this?” says Narinder Singh summing up the plight of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.

The Sikhs and Hindus have a long history of living in this region mainly concentrated in Khost, Kabul, Kandahar and Ghazni. Majority of them are descendants of members of the indigenous Afghan population who aligned themselves with the teaching of Guru Nanak during his visits to Kabul in the 15th century. The Afghan Sikh population grew in 1947 as Sikhs from Pakistan arrived fleeing persecution following the partition of India.

The Sikhs particularly prospered during 1933-1973 reign of Zahir Shah and during the strongly secular period of Soviet rule. The Hindus and Sikhs were successful businessmen who owned factories in Kabul and operated a healthy exporting business, trading in Afghan goods such as dried fruit, textiles and precious stones. Their social status prior to the 1990s also enabled them to be a part of the military and civil services, and some even took up high positions in banking. For generations, Hindus and Sikhs lived in harmony with Muslim Afghans. Their rights were respected, and they regarded themselves to be Afghans much as the Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks or Uzbeks born and raised in the country did. Before the 1990’s the Sikh population in Afghanistan was estimated to be above 50,000 but the withdrawal of Russian forces and arrival of the Mujahideen and Taliban placed the Sikhs of Afghanistan in severe difficulty.

The current climate has forced many Hindu and Sikh families to leave Afghanistan. According to Avtar Singh, chairman of the national council of Hindus and Sikhs, the community now numbers fewer than 220 families. This in comparison to around 220,000 members of the community that lived in Afghanistan before the collapse of the Kabul government in 1992.

The case of the Afghan “refugee” has been tricky. Officially recognizing them as refugees would have meant a comment on the political situation of their home country. In the absence of the host government’s recognition, protection, and guidance to deal with the dynamic situation in an alien land, life in India has been extremely challenging for the displaced Afghan population. They were required to deal with innumerable difficulties, be it self-settlement, visa issues, or making a living in an environment where even legal refugees are not allowed to work.

The bulk of them thus found employment in the country’s parallel economy.While there is no doubt that non-recognition from the government as refugees meant lack of access to certain basic rights and privileges, at the same time it also implied that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were not required to carry the “refugee” tag — an identity which is seldom viewed positively by the host population. Since assistance was not forthcoming, these communities showed an incredible amount of strength and unity to deal with the challenges of their settlement phase in India and to a large extent succeeded in coping with those issues.

Over the years these communities have been lost between two worlds. For decades they had to negotiate and renegotiate with various identities for survival in their home and host countries. But the recent decision to offer citizenship to these communities seems like a promising step to heal the wounds of these communities.

Source: AlJazeera

The main place of worship and a communal canteen are both a stronghold and refuge for a community facing extinction.

Mukesh, the head cook at the Karte Parwan Gurudwara, the central place of worship for Kabul’s dwindling Sikh community [Sune Engel Rasmussen/Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – On December 16, Mukesh woke just before 5am. He smoothed down his shirt, slipped on leather sandals, and shuffled out into the dark courtyard of the Karte Parwan Gurdwara, the main place of worship for Kabul’s Sikh community.

Mukesh, 40, who only goes by one name, walked quietly to the cold kitchen, flicked on the lights and began preparing the morning “langar”.

Like all Sikh gurdwaras, the Karte Parwan Gurdwara has a langar – a free kitchen serving daily vegetarian meals to visitors. Langar is one of the Sikhs’ most sacred traditions, with simple rules: everyone is welcome, whether or not they are Sikh, and people eat the same meal, shared together.

Sivender Singh, another gurdwara resident, arrived to help. Together they poured canola oil into an enormous iron cauldron, and waited for it to heat, warming their hands holding steaming cups of sweet green tea.

“In the past there would have been dozens of people here helping, many cauldrons,” Mukesh said, motioning to the expansive empty kitchen space behind him. “Not any more.”

Not so long ago, Kabul’s largest gurdwara prepared food for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of worshippers. These days, on average, there are only a few dozen mouths to feed.

That’s because Afghanistan’s once thriving Sikh community is facing extinction.

Mukesh and Sivender Singh, another resident of Kabul’s Karte Parwan Gurdwara, prepare chole, a chickpea curry, for the morning langar [Sune Engel Rasmussen/Al Jazeera]

Shrinking community

Official census figures do not exist, but according Rawali Singh, deputy head of the Afghanistan Sikh and Hindu Community Council, about 40 years ago, an estimated 50,000 Sikh and Hindu families lived in Afghanistan.

That number has shrunk to around 363 families, the vast majority of whom are Sikhs, and has steadily declined in recent years, largely due to persistent social discrimination and prejudice.

In Kabul, only 102 Sikh families remained, said Rawali, and in the past year alone, more than 150 families have left Afghanistan.

In other areas of the country, such as Jalalabad and Kandahar, where Afghan Sikhs once lived in large numbers, at most only a few dozen families remain.

Afghanistan’s constitution formally enshrines Islam as the country’s official religion. But it also protects the rights of Sikhs, and members of other faiths, to practise their religion freely.

“On paper we have equal rights, but I can’t go out at night,” said Kuljeet Singh, a shopkeeper. Like many of the men who live at the gurdwara, Kuljeet sent his family to live in India a few years ago, remaining behind only to take care of his business.

In line with his beliefs, Kuljeet always wears his distinctive turban and other Sikh religious articles of faith, known as kakkar, which in Afghanistan, he said, makes him vulnerable to beatings and harassment.

“With these I cannot hide,” he said, pointing to some of the kakkar: a metal bangle, uncut beard and a small curved sword worn strapped to his body.

Most of the family of Surjeet Kaur, a widow who lives in another Sikh shrine in Kabul, left Afghanistan during the civil war [Sune Engel Rasmussen/Al Jazeera]

Sikh exodus

The most significant Sikh exodus from Afghanistan occurred during the civil war (1989-1996) and during the subsequent Taliban rule (1996-2001), during which thousands, like many other Afghans, sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Life under the Taliban was a particularly dark time. Officially, Taliban commanders were ordered by their leadership to respect Sikh and Hindu communities, on the condition they didn’t proselytise and paid jizya, a religious tax imposed on non-Muslims.

But they also required Sikhs to publicly identify themselves, by wearing yellow patches on their breast pocket or armbands, and to mark their homes and businesses with yellow flags.

They were allowed to continue daily prayers at the gurdwaras so long as they couldn’t be heard from the street, but it also wasn’t uncommon for errant Taliban to harass or beat them, Kuljeet said.

Even after the fall of the Taliban, however, and promises by both the Karzai and Ghani governments to do more to protect their communities, each year the number of Sikh families continues to shrink.

“Before the wars we were integrated in local communities,” said Sivender. “But with the passing of time the prejudice against us has increased. People were really radicalised by the civil wars and the Taliban.”

Some in Afghanistan have been particularly intolerant of Sikhs cremating their dead, a practice forbidden in Islam. Protesters have interrupted funeral processions by throwing stones and shouting insults, forcing the Sikh community to request police protection so they can mourn in peace.

During the civil war, local commanders from different sides illegally confiscated housing and land from many Sikhs, and Muslims were also discouraged from doing business with them, impoverishing the minority.

“I would have left if I could afford it,” said Surjeet Kaur, a widow who lives in another Sikh shrine in Kabul.

Surjeet had also arrived before dawn to the Karte Parwan Gurdwara, and sat in the tandoor room, to prepare fresh bread for the langar. She worked quickly, slapping the dough into shape before firing it in the open oven.

One by one, Surjeet’s extended family left Afghanistan during the civil war. After her husband was killed in a car accident, her home was illegally seized, giving her no choice but to move into the shrine.

“I miss them a lot; family is like part of your body,” she said.

But, she emphasised, proudly showing her own kakkar, a small curved sword, she took comfort in the remaining Sikh community, and said volunteering for the langar gave her a sense of purpose.

“I’m here to serve God and my community,” she said. “These people have been my brothers for the past 30 years.”

In the kitchen, Mukesh watched Sivender drop dough into the hot cauldron oil to make pakora, a deep-fried appetiser common in Indian cuisine. But this one had a special Afghan touch: in addition to the usual flour, oil, ginger, garlic, spices and coriander, the batter was studded with fresh pomegranate seeds.

The first batch was ready by 5:10am. “I am the guru of food here,” laughed Mukesh as he was complimented on the hot, delicious food.

Mukesh isn’t himself a Sikh, nor is he Afghan. He’s a Hindu, from India, and his Sikh wife and three young children live in New Delhi. He was working in Dubai when his uncle, who prepares food in a langar for a gurdwara in Pakistan, told him the Karte Parwan Gurdwara needed a new cook.

“I miss my children, of course,” said Mukesh, as he began to cook a large pot of chole, a chickpea curry, stirring rapidly as steam filled the room.

But his uncle’s message “was God’s intervention for me”, he said. To him, cooking for the langar is a spiritual pursuit – “a type of worship”.

Sivender Singh, a gurudwara resident, drops the first batch of pakora batter into the hot oil just after 5am [Sune Engel Rasmussen/Al Jazeera]

A small, tight-knit community

Despite dwindling in size, Kabul’s Sikh community has retained a strong sense of community.

The gurdwara rooms, which once stored hundreds of bags of flour and rice to feed thousands of worshippers, are now simple bedrooms for dozens of Sikhs with nowhere else to go.

The residents rarely eat outside the gurdwara. While leaders say anyone is welcome, they rarely see visitors from outside their community, apart from the occasional official or foreigner.

Some of the community members are vegetarian and concerned about the use of animal products in food, Surjeet explained.

Meat is not allowed to be consumed at the gurdwara, but some still do eat it, but only if it is slaughtered according to Sikh custom.

With all meat sold in butchers and served in restaurants in Afghanistan prepared according to Islamic principles, the Sikh community will only eat meat they prepare themselves.

“We live together, we help each other and we prepare the food together,” said Mukesh. “And we eat together, here in God’s house.”

That day was particularly special for Kabul’s Sikh community. It was the first day of their calendar month, when almost all the remaining Sikhs traditionally come from across Kabul for morning prayer and the langar, but it was also the anniversary of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth of the 10 Sikh gurus.

In the late 17th century, Guru Tegh Bahadur, a Sikh from Amritsar in India’s Punjab state, was sought out by a Hindu community to intervene in the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s efforts to forcibly convert them to Islam.

When the guru appealed to the emperor, he was asked to convert or perform a miracle. He refused, and was arrested and publicly executed in 1675 in Delhi on the emperor’s orders.

“Guru Tegh Bahadur was an exceptional man,” said Mukesh as he handed out milky, sweet cups of masala chai, with crushed spices floating on the surface. “He saw all people as equal, everyone as a human being.”

“The message of today is tolerance,” added Kuljeet. Even if their community faced discrimination, he said, “if we retaliate when they attack us, we become just like them”.

Upstairs in the brightly lit shrine, with mirrored walls and carpeted ceilings, the priest had been sitting since 4.30am, cross-legged and barefoot, knees covered in a thick blanket, reading the morning’s prayer over a loudspeaker.

The first handful of worshippers arrived just after 7am. Men sat on one side, women, wearing colourful, jewelled skirts and fringed head scarves sat opposite, huddled around a bukhari, a traditional Afghan wood heater.

The priest began to sing and play the harmonium while the worshippers listened or quietly read aloud to themselves from palm-sized prayer books.

Numbers began to swell at 8am, as members from the Sikh community around Kabul arrived at the gurdwara for their special celebration.

Suddenly, from the usual group of fewer than 40 worshippers, there were a couple of hundred men, women and children, probably almost the entire Kabul Sikh community, gathered together in the one room.

As the praying continued upstairs, Mukesh made the final langar preparations, carrying piles of Surjeet’s freshly made bread into the eating hall on the ground floor.

Bored and hungry, a few dozen young boys filtered down to the hall and practised their kung fu moves on each other as they waited for breakfast.


The langar provides the dwindling community the opportunity to come together, catch up and reconnect [Sune Engel Rasmussen/Al Jazeera]

We eat so ‘our hearts heal’

Sikh children commonly face taunts and discrimination in Afghan schools, resulting in many of the remaining families to send them to be educated abroad.

Kuljeet, who can trace his Afghan lineage back four generations and served in the Afghan army for seven years, said that while he “feels Afghan in [his] heart”, his children are much happier living in India.

One day, Kuljeet said, his nephew returned from school devastated. The school had organised an official ceremony for Teacher’s Day, and the school principal decided his nephew would not be allowed to participate.

The boy wasn’t a real Afghan, the principal said, and he would have to wait outside, by himself, until the party was over.

“He was humiliated,” said Kuljeet. “He said that was enough; he wasn’t going back to school again. The entire family then decided we had to send all our children to India.”

As the prayers finished, the families flooded the eating hall, laughing and smiling. They sat, men on one side, women on the other, in long rows on the floor.

The young boys sprang into action, placing metal plates and chai glasses between the rows, while the men quickly served the hot bread, chole and pakora on the communal plates.

The younger children buzzed excitedly around the room, and women admired the few babies – the newest additions to their small community. Old friends stood up to cross the room and greet each other.

Guljeet Kaur, 33, looking around the room, said it was clear the numbers of Afghan Sikhs shrank each year. “So many have left, and they aren’t willing to come back,” she said.

For her, this meant the large monthly langar meals, like today’s, had become increasingly important to the community.

“It’s an opportunity to honour our religion together but it’s also social,” she said, as a handful of pakora was dropped on her plate.

“We pray upstairs to clean our heart. Then we come downstairs here to eat together. That’s when our hearts heal.”

After hours of preparation, the eating was over in less than 20 minutes, and the room emptied as quickly as it had filled.

Mukesh stood watching as the young boys dutifully gathered the discarded plates and returned them to the kitchen. Smiling broadly, Mukesh said it filled him with joy to see the small community come together.

“Look at all the cleaning we have to do,” he laughed, as the dirty plates piled up. “But I’m very happy.”

Afghan Sikhs eat breakfast together at the langar in mid-December; the small community come together every month to share a communal meal [Sune Engel Rasmussen/Al Jazeera]

Source: Huff Post

On the verge of becoming confined to the pages of Afghan history.
23/09/2016 7:30 PM IST | Updated 24/09/2016 11:31 AM IST

An Afghan Sikh holds his child inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

The handful of Hindus and Sikhs left in Afghanistan received some good news this week. The Afghan government has approved reservation for these two minority communities in the country’s lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, something that they have been pleading with the powers that be to do for years.

But it is too early to celebrate. The government’s approval for seat reservation is only the first step. The Ashraf Ghani government as well as the leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities will have to lobby hard to get the move approved by members of the Wolesi Jirga. Otherwise, the effort will be reduced to an empty exercise, yet again.

Three years ago, the remaining few Sikhs and Hindus threatened to leave the country if they were not given a seat, but still the majority in the Afghan parliament turned down the Hamid Karzai government’s much touted decree granting reservation. Those against the reservation argued that the Afghan constitution prohibits any discrimination among its citizens.

Therein lies the irony. It is endemic discrimination against Hindu and Sikh minorities, who are usually clubbed together, which has driven out almost all members of these once thriving communities from their homeland to foreign countries such as India and Germany. Hindus and Sikhs have lived on this land for hundreds of years, but in a span of three decades, they are on the verge of becoming confined to the pages of Afghan history.

Until the Taliban overran Afghanistan, Hindus and Sikhs were a small but influential part of Afghan society. They were at the forefront of business and trade, engaged in money-lending and shop-keeping, selling everything from charms to herbs. Some had also joined the army and police in the last century and in the 19th century before that. President Mohammad Najibullah, who was hanged from a lamppost in Kabul by the Taliban, had also tried to involve them politically.

An investigation by TOLO News, a leading news channel in Afghanistan, revealed that 99 percent of Hindus and Sikhs have left Afghanistan in the last three decades. The report, published in June, said that there were 220,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the 1980s, but their population came down to 15,000 after the Taliban took over in the 1990s. Now, only 1,350 Hindus and Sikhs remain. Discrimination and government neglect are responsible for the exodus.

During the Taliban regime, Hindus wore yellow badges and non-Muslims were not allowed to hold government jobs. It was because of those horrifying yellow badges that much of the world first came to know about these religious minorities living in Afghanistan. Fifteen years after the fall of the Taliban, those Hindus and Sikhs who remain are contending with growing insecurity, loss of land and property to warlords, hostile neighbours who object to their practice of burning their dead, bullying in schools, and dwindling economic prospects. More than any other time in their history, they feel like outsiders now.

While it might not change a great deal in practical terms, a seat in the Wolesi Jirga symbolizes political inclusion for those who still remain in their homeland despite the odds. It would be a tremendous boost to their morale.

In the first parliamentary elections after the fall of Taliban, Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a young Sikh woman was elected to the Wolesi Jirga for a five-year-term. The same year, Ganga Ram, a Hindu, was appointed by Karzai to the Meshrano Jirga, the Upper House. When Honiyar, a trained dentist and women’s rights activist, who had survived the Taliban regime, failed to retain her seat in 2010, Karzai nominated her to the Upper House.

The only choice Hindus and Sikhs now have is reservation because their chances of getting elected to one of the 249 seats in the Lower House are virtually non-existent, as more and more of their fellow community members leave Afghanistan.”If we don’t give them this constitutional privilege, the minorities will never reach the parliament,” a lawmaker pointed out during the 2013 debate.

But while debating the reservation in 2013, Afghan lawmakers completely ignored the precipitous decline in the minority population, and stuck to a literal interpretation of the Constitution. Article 22 of the Afghan constitution states that, “All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law.” And, Article 83 states that, “Members of Wolesi Jirga are elected by the people through free, general, secret and direct elections.”

Excerpts the 2013 debate reveal two things — the lawmakers did not have data on the number of Hindus and Sikhs who were left in the country; and there was little discussion about their welfare.

While the tone of debate suggested that there was no sense of urgency to ongoing exodus of the religious minorities, there is cause for hope. Out of the 130 lawmakers who voted, the margin between those who rejected reservation and those who approved of it was only 22.

And a few members of parliament, such as Ramazan Bashardost, called out their fellow lawmakers for crouching behind constitutional provisions. Bashardost said that the “we’re all equal” approach reeked of hypocrisy because ethnic divisions pervaded within the government itself. He pointed out that the Afghan constitution did not enjoin that the president must be a Pashtun, the first deputy a Tajik and the second deputy a Hazara, but that is how things were at the highest level of the state.

The Ghani government has no choice but to take up the cause of the ebbing minorities, but this time around, things should move beyond formality.

Article by Anwesha Ghosh for The Diplomat – August 2016