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'When Are You Going Back?' Afghanistan's Sikhs, Strangers In Their Own Land

Afghan Sikhs take part in their annual Vesak festival in Ningarhar, Afghanistan. The country once boasted a Sikh population of more than 150,000, but their number has declined rapidly in recent decades. (file photo)
Afghan Sikhs take part in their annual Vesak festival in Ningarhar, Afghanistan. The country once boasted a Sikh population of more than 150,000, but their number has declined rapidly in recent decades. (file photo)

"People often ask me, 'When are you going back to your home country?'" says Iqbal Singh.

"Many people don't understand we are Afghans too. They think we've come from India or somewhere."

Singh is a member of the dwindling Sikh minority in Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad.

Like many other Sikh communities in Afghanistan, Singh's ancestors settled in the country more than two centuries ago.

Singh, 35, keeps alive his family's centuries-old tradition, selling herbal medicine -- locally known as Yunani (Greek) remedies -- in a small shop in a dusty downtown backstreet.

But Singh says that times, people, and attitudes have changed drastically in Afghanistan since his ancestors' days, and that Sikhs of his generation have become increasingly isolated in the devoutly Muslim country.

Living in Afghanistan isn't easy for anyone, as people struggle with widespread poverty and a lack of security due to the ongoing insurgency.

"But on top of everything else, we face many other problems just for being 'different' because of our religious beliefs," Singh says.

Singh recalls a recent incident in a local bazaar, where he says a 12-year-old boy threw rotten vegetables at him as several men looked on.

"The men did nothing to stop the boy, they actually demanded I leave the bazaar," Singh says. "I was really hurt by this insult but I had no choice but leave, because I was alone."

Funeral Cremations

Such incidents are not isolated, says Anarkali Honaryar, a Sikh lawmaker and activist who campaigns for her community's rights.

A main source of disputes between Sikhs and Muslims in Afghanistan is the minority group's religious custom of holding funeral cremations, a practice forbidden in Islam.

According to Honaryar, there have been incidents where people threw stones at Sikh funeral processions and verbally attacked them.

The community had to surround its main temple in east Kabul with high walls to perform cremations in peace.

Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, Afghanistan's minister of information and culture, says that authorities have taken measures to address Sikh grievances over cremations and other issues including parliamentary representation and education.

Authorities have provided several different locations for the community to hold cremations after a dispute arose between Sikhs and local residents over cremations on Kabul's outskirts.

While Honaryar has made it into the Afghan parliament in her own right, Afghanistan last year allocated a parliamentary seat for Sikhs, which will be shared with a Hindu representative.

President Hamid Karzai issued a decree guaranteeing a reserved seat in the Wolesi Jirga for the next parliamentary elections in 2015.

The Ministry of Education has opened two primary schools -- exclusively for Sikh and Hindu children -- in Kabul and Jalalabad after complaints of harassment and bullying targeting the minorities.

The opening of the school near a Jalalabad Sikh temple two years ago has been a welcome relief for Singh, whose daughter will go to school next year.

"In the past, we all used to go the same schools, children would play together," Singh says. "No one would insult us, or tell us to go home."

Extremist Elements

Sikhs and Muslims for centuries lived peacefully side by side in Afghanistan.

Some blame the increasing intolerance toward Sikhs and Hindus on "extremist elements" who have moved from the provinces to Kabul and other cities in recent years.

Ahmad Saeedi, a former professor of political science at Kabul University, says the original city dwellers have always been tolerant as they grew up in an ethnically diverse place.

In the 1970s there were estimated to have been more than 150,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan. Many were engaged in successful businesses, owned shops, and their children studied in universities.

However, more than three decades of military conflict have prompted many to leave.

Thousands of Sikhs and Hindus migrated to India in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

A second wave of migration followed in the 1990s, prompted by infighting between various jihadi groups after the collapse of the communist regime.

There are now only around 4,000 Sikhs and Hindus living in the country of more than 30 million.

The majority of Sikhs who have remained in Afghanistan are impoverished people, who struggle to make ends meet.

Singh lives with his wife and their daughter in a two-room apartment in an old, two-story building, not far from one of Jalalabad's two Sikh temples.

The city is home to a nearly 700-strong Sikh community.

"Out of Jalalabad's nearly 160 Sikh families, only five live in a relative comfort," Singh says.

Singh has heard about the group of Afghan Sikh asylum seekers who were discovered inside a metal shipping container in Britain on August 16.

The migrants' dangerous journey, which left one of them dead inside the metal box, doesn't surprise Singh.

Nor does he believe the death of the man will stop other potential asylum seekers from taking the same risks.

"In our community, only those who have no money have remained in Jalalabad," Singh says. "Anyone who can afford to leave wouldn't stay here."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.