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Afghanistan’s Tiny Hindu And Sikh Minority Mull Leaving Their Country

FILE: Afghan Sikh men mourn during funeral for the victims who were killed during a March 25 attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul.
FILE: Afghan Sikh men mourn during funeral for the victims who were killed during a March 25 attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul.

Fari Kaur, a 12th grader, lives in perpetual fear of being targeted in a militant attack after she lost her father to one in eastern Afghanistan nearly two years ago.

She was devastated by a more recent attack when scores of Sikhs were killed inside a temple in March. The ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants claimed attack for the March 25 attack on a Gurdwara or Sikh temple in Kabul. The group also owned the July 2018 attack that killed 17 people in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

“Our lives have completely changed. We are so terrified that we have stopped going out because we fear another attack,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We cannot step outside our houses.”

Kaur is staying in Afghanistan to honor her late father Rahul Singh’s wish to graduate from an Afghan high school. She hopes to join her mother, brother, and sister in India soon after graduation. “My father wanted me to have an Afghan education so that wherever I live, I am remined that I am from Afghanistan,” she said.

Kaur says she is not the only one contemplating leaving Afghanistan. She says that most members of Afghanistan’s estimated 1,000-strong Hindu and Sikh minority are weighing leaving the country.

“Many Sikhs and Hindus have decided to leave Afghanistan once the travel restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic are over,” she said.

Harinder Singh lost his daughter, wife, and father in the March 25 attack on the Sikh temple called Gurdwara in Kabul. He used to persuade fellow Sikhs against leaving Afghanistan before the attack but is now eager to leave. “I tell everyone to leave the country, including my fellow Muslim Afghans, Hindus, Sikhs, everyone should flee,” he said in April. “There is no humanity here.”

Ishwar Das, the head of an Afghan Sikh and Hindu association in Germany, says that the March 25 attack has deeply disappointed his community in Afghanistan. “We had never imagined how someone can attack our Gurdwaras and Mandirs [Sinkh and Hindu temples], which are houses of peace,” he said. “Our hopes have been shattered. Now the Sikhs and Hindus are contemplating what to do.”

Diya Singh, an Afghan Sikh writer, lives in India like many of the tens of thousands of members of his community, who fled to the South Asian country since the early 1990s. He has not visited Afghanistan for more than five years but is eager to return.

“Many of use living in India want to visit Afghanistan, but the security conditions are not favorable,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Our hearts beat with our country despite living away from it.”

During the 1980s the Sikh and Hindu community was estimated to be more than 80,000. But most of them left the country after the collapse of the country’s socialist government in 1992. Those returning to Afghanistan after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001 found their properties captured and businesses ruined. Still many hoped that things would eventually improve if they stuck around.

The Afghan government has encouraged their return and participation in their country’s reconstruction and rehabilitation. But the community has faced vicious attacks claimed by IS during the past couple years.

Narender Singh Khalsa is Afghanistan’s only Sikh lawmaker. He says his community has endured unimaginable suffering because of the militant attacks.

“All Afghans live under threat,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Daesh has shown no mercy even for children and women,” he added while referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. “We hope for permanent peace to return to our homeland so we can live an emancipated life here.”

Since its emergence in eastern Afghanistan in 2015, IS has emerged as a lethal threat to religious minorities in particular and Afghans in general. Thousands of Afghans have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced because of the group’s attacks or efforts to control territory.

While Afghan, Western officials, and the Taliban claimed to have substantially diminished the group’s overall strength, it still appears capable of mounting devastating attacks in many parts of Afghanistan.