In early May, Sham Lal Bathija became Afghanistan's first Hindu ambassador. The 66-year-old former United Nations technocrat and senior aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai is proud to represent his Muslim-majority nation as Kabul's new envoy to Canada.
In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Malali Bashir, Kandahar-born Bathija said his appointment was a matter of pride for Afghanistan's tiny Hindu and Sikh minorities.
RFE/RL: For the minorities in your country, how big of an achievement is your appointment as Afghanistan's first non-Muslim ambassador?
Sham Lal Bathija: According to the Afghan constitution, every Afghan is eligible to serve the country. Secondly, Ahmad Shah Baba [the 18th-century founder of Afghanistan] based the concept of Afghanistan on inclusion. He rightly said that Afghanistan is the home to all Afghans and so there should not be any room for religious and caste-based differences. If such differences existed in the past, now times have changed. Afghanistan should continue this way.
RFE/RL: Why were members of Afghan religious minorities not appointed to such senior posts before? Was the government ignoring them or were there other reasons?
Bathija: The post of ambassador is considered a senior position. People aspiring to such posts need to be highly qualified in order to carry out their responsibilities. Throughout the history of Afghanistan members of minority communities have, undoubtedly, served in very senior government positions without being discriminated against. There were Hindu diplomats even during the reign of King Amanullah Khan in the early 1920's. During the wars and unrest of the past few decades Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were forced into exile like many Afghans, which prevented them from availing themselves of such opportunities.
RFE/RL: What are your expectations from the incoming Afghan government regarding the rights of minorities?
Bathija: Afghan Hindus have been part of our social fabric for centuries. My own family has lived in [the southern city] of Kandahar for more than 350 years. The new government should strive to provide equal opportunities and rights to all citizens of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Last year the Afghan parliament rejected a proposal calling for allocating one parliamentary seat to religious minorities. How do you view that decision?
Bathija: It was extremely unfortunate. I personally went to meet with the parliamentarians and asked them why they were being so conservative. I am not happy about this, and no one among the minority communities is happy. In fact, the whole nation is not happy about only a handful of people deciding to deny representation to the Afghan minorities. One seat is not a big deal. It would have just helped in representing the minorities and would have helped in knowing and addressing their grievances. I condemn this act.
RFE/RL: Turning to your new assignment, in which sectors are Canada and Afghanistan currently cooperating, and in which sectors would you like to expand this cooperation?
Bathija: Canada is a major donor and partner for Afghanistan. Although its military role will shrink with the withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan, there are many avenues for cooperation. I would like to focus more on social and economic sectors to benefit from Canadian expertise. They are great at exploring natural resources and can help in agriculture, health care, and in the social sector as well. Even though we already have close relations, they need to be further strengthened.
RFE/RL: What will be Canada’s role in Afghanistan after 2014, when most of its forces will leave the country?
Bathija: Since my appointment last month, I have talked with them over their future role. On the military side, Canada will be focused on training Afghan forces. They will not turn their backs on us. They have assured me that they are with us for the long haul.
Malalai Bashir tweets @malalibashir