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Bucking A Trend, Afghan Hindu and Sikh Families Return From India Exile

A family of Afghan Sikhs prepares to leave Kabul for India in July 2020.

Most members of Afghanistan’s tiny Hindu and Sikh minority fled to India after devastating terrorist attacks killed and maimed scores of community members in recent years.

But in a hopeful sign, some have returned to Kabul this month from exile in New Delhi, where many faced myriad problems amid a devastating wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were facing many problems. We didn’t had access to a doctor or medicines and had to pay our house rent,” Sandeep Singh, 25, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Finding work was difficult because as refugees we had to obtain visas and were required to register with the police.”

Singh left Afghanistan with four relatives after an attack claimed by the ultraradical Islamic State militants killed six members of their family. They were among the 25 Sikh civilians killed in an attack on their Gurdwara or temple in Kabul in March last year. The poorly guarded compound was the last refuge of many among the last few hundred Sikh families who sheltered there after being forced out of their houses across Afghanistan.

Singh has returned to the same temple complex, where the Afghan government is now providing him with security and aid to start a new life. For now, he lives off the $80 he can make each month as a shopkeeper.

Gulraj Singh, another young Sikh man, returned to Kabul three weeks ago after spending more than nine months in New Delhi, which became the epicenter of the second wave of coronavirus infections that has killed tens of thousands in the capital during the past two months.

“We were unable to live there [in New Delhi] because it was too expensive and we were repeatedly quarantined,” he said.

Last year, Canadian and U.S. officials voiced concerned over the plight of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. Some 200 families from the community moved to India last year.

Gulraj was among 40 Afghan Hindu and Sikh families who have returned in recent weeks.

One Afghan Sikh man still living in India told Radio Free Afghanistan that the remaining members of their community are likely to follow because of the challenges they face in India.

“I can speak some Hindi but have problems with the accent, so it is difficult to communicate,” he said while requesting anonymity over fears his critical remarks could create problems for him. “It is very difficult to invest here or set up a business while we are expected to pay for our children in private schools because we are not allowed into state schools,” he added. “In Afghanistan, I had my own business.”

Anarkali Hunaryar, Afghanistan’s lone Sikh senator, says members of her community returned once they were assured security, aid, and economic opportunities by the Afghan authorities.

“The Education and Religious Affairs ministries were ordered to help us in every possible way,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Afghan President [Ashraf Ghani] ordered the Public Works Ministry to add a national cultural day of Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan to the official calendar of the country.”

On May 25, Ghani met with a delegation of returning Hindu and Sikh community members. Ghani declared them the "pride of the nation" and an integral part of Afghan society. His deputy Amrullah Saleh has promised the community the government will work on swiftly returning the houses and businesses they lost during the past four decades of turmoil in Afghanistan.

Lawmaker Narender Singh Khalsa, a Sikh representative in the lower house of the Afghan parliament, is happy with the government’s current response.

“The government has provided security to all of our temples across the country,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while acknowledging that the returning members of his community have received cash grants and food aid. “We are grateful that the government has responded to our pleas for help,” he added.

Gornam Singh, another returning Sikh, is happy to be back but wants the Afghan government to be vigilant about addressing their problems. “We are grateful for all the aid the government has given us,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

At the peak of their presence in the 1980s, Afghanistan’s vibrant Afghan Sikh and Hindu community was estimated to number more than 80,000. But the onset of a fratricidal civil war in 1992 forced the mostly trading community to flee to India. The collapse of the hard-line Taliban in late 2001 -- which forced community members to wear badges -- encouraged some to return but most had lost their properties and restarting businesses also proved difficult.

Their return could be a good omen for the war-torn country, where the ongoing withdrawal of Western troops is feared to be precipitate a large-scale international exodus.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.