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GURPREET KAUR | 20 DECEMBER, 2016

Afghan Minorities Face an Identity Crisis


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.

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