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Afghanistan’s Dwindling Sikh, Hindu Communities Flee New Abuses

Once a thriving minority, only a handful of Sikh and Hindu families remain

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Afghan Hindu and Sikh families wait for lunch inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016. Image source: Reuters
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  • Once a thriving minority, now only a handful of Sikh and Hindu families remain in Afghanistan
  • The Communities are now concentrated only in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Ghazni and the capital Kabul
  • Maximum people belonging to Sikh and Hindu community have moved to India

On a bright day in downtown Kabul, Jagtar Singh Laghmani was in his traditional herb shop when a man turned up, drew a knife and told him to convert to Islam or he would cut his throat. Bystanders and other shopkeepers saved his life.

The incident earlier this month was the latest attack on a dwindling community of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, a deeply conservative Muslim country struggling with growing insecurity caused by an Islamist insurgency and economic challenges.

Once a thriving minority, only a handful of Sikh and Hindu families remain. Many have chosen to flee the country of their birth, blaming growing discrimination and intolerance.

“This is how we begin our day — with fear and isolation. If you are not a Muslim, you are not a human in their eyes,” said Jagtar Singh, speaking in his tiny shop in the bustling center of Kabul. “I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Afghan Sikh Jagtar Singh Laghmani, 50, sits at his traditional herb shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 19, 2016. Image source: Reuters
Afghan Sikh Jagtar Singh Laghmani, 50, sits at his traditional herb shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 19, 2016. Image source: Reuters

Afghan Sikh Jagtar Singh Laghmani, 50, sits at his traditional herb shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 19, 2016.

For centuries, Hindu and Sikh communities played a prominent role in merchant trade and money lending in Afghanistan, although today they are known more for medicinal herb shops.

According to Avtar Singh, chairman of the national council of Hindus and Sikhs, the community now numbers fewer than 220 families, compared with around 220,000 members before the collapse of the Kabul government in 1992.

Once spread across the country, the community is now mainly concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Ghazni and the capital Kabul.

Although Afghanistan is almost entirely Muslim, its constitution, drawn up after U.S.-led forces drove out the Taliban government in 2001, theoretically guarantees the right of minority religions to worship freely.

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But as the conflict drags on, Avtar Singh said conditions were worse than under the Taliban, which imposed strict Islamic laws, staged public executions and banned girls from schools.

Hindus and Sikhs had to wear yellow patches that identified them in public, but were otherwise seldom bothered.

“The good old days have long gone when we were treated as Afghans, not as outsiders,” Avtar Singh said from a temple in Kabul, all the while keeping an eye on visitors using monitors linked to security cameras.

An Afghan Sikh woman prays inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016. Image source: Reuters
An Afghan Sikh woman prays inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016. Image source: Reuters

An Afghan Sikh woman prays inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016.

“Our lands have been taken by powerful figures in the government, especially by the warlords. We are facing threats, and this small community is getting smaller and smaller every day,” he added.

Last week, dozens of Hindu and Sikh families left Helmand, where Taliban insurgents, who have a presence in much of the southern province, sent a letter demanding 200,000 Afghani ($2,800) a month from the community.

Hostility

Tensions have surfaced in Qalacha, an area on the outskirts of Kabul where the Sikh and Hindu community owns a high-walled crematorium.

An Afghan Sikh (R) receives karah prasad, a sweet pudding offering given out to a congregation at the end of prayer, inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016. Image source: Reuters
An Afghan Sikh (R) receives karah prasad, a sweet pudding offering given out to a congregation at the end of prayer, inside a Gurdwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016. Image source: Reuters

As the capital has expanded in recent years, the neighborhood has become densely populated and some newer residents oppose Hindu and Sikh cremations, a practice foreign to Muslims, who bury their dead.

“When they burn the body the smell makes our family sick and we don’t want this to happen here,” said Ahmad Timor, a Muslim resident in Qalacha.

The Sikhs say local Muslim hardliners have stirred up hostility against them, and the community now requires police protection for their funeral rituals.

“They throw stones and bricks at us, at the bodies of the dead, whenever there is a funeral,” said Avtar Singh, pointing to a newly built house next to the crematorium.

An Afghan Sikh (R) receives karah prasad, a sweet pudding offering given out to a congregation at the end of prayer, inside a Gurudwara, or a Sikh temple, during a religious ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 8, 2016.

Dahi-ul Haq Abid, deputy minister for Haj and religious affairs, said the government had done what it could to improve the livelihood of Hindus and Sikhs.

“We agree that conflicts pushed them out of the country, but their condition is not as bad as they claim,” Abid added.

“We have allocated them a place to burn their bodies because inside the city people complained about the smell, but they did not agree,” he told Reuters.

Harassment is also common.

Jasmeet Singh, 8 years old, stopped going to school because of what he said was daily harassment. He and other children from the community now either go to private schools or study inside the temple.

“While I was at school, other students were making fun of me. They were removing my turban, hitting me and calling me Hindu and kaffir [infidel],” said Jasmeet Singh, as other boys nodded their heads in agreement.

Increasing numbers of Sikhs and Hindus have moved to India, their spiritual homeland, but some say they remain foreigners wherever they go.

“When we go to India, we are known as Afghans, but when we are here, we are seen as outsiders even if we are native Afghan,” said Baljit Singh, a shopkeeper in Kabul. “We are lost between both worlds.” (VOA)

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All You Need To Know About India’s Strategic Chabahar Port

The Chabahar Port is a seaport in Chabahar, which is on the Gulf of Oman, near Iran-Pakistan border.

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Chabahar Port is of great international significance in terms of trade, especially for India. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port is of great international significance in terms of trade, especially for India. Wikimedia Commons

By Ruchika Verma

  • The Chabahar Port is of great strategic importance for India
  • It is in Iran and is being built and operated by India
  • This port will increase India’s trade with Central Asia and Europe

The Chabahar Port is a seaport in Chabahar, which is on the Gulf of Oman, near Iran-Pakistan border. Chabahar is the trans-shipment and logistics hub for the Makran Coast and Baluchistan province of Iran.

Chabahar Port is built and operated by India. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port is built and operated by India. Wikimedia Commons

The tension between India and Pakistan is nothing new. There are several instances where both the countries have tried to obstruct each other’s political or economic agendas. This obstruction, along with other strategic reasons, resulted in the India and Iran’s deal on the Chabahar Port, which is crucial because of several reasons.

Here are few things about it you may not have known before :

  • Under the Trilateral Transit and Transport Agreement of 2016, the Chabahar port is the gateway to the Transport Corridor between India, Iran and Afghanistan, which allows multi-modal goods’ and passengers’ transport.

Also Read: India and Iran sign agreement to develop Chabahar Port

  • The agreement also states that India will develop and operate two berths in the first phase of the port. The contract is for 10 years and extendable. This time period excludes the first two years as they will be used for construction.
Chabahar Port will make India's trade with Afghanistan easier. Wikimedia Commons
Chabahar Port will make India’s trade with Afghanistan easier. Wikimedia Commons
  • The Chabahar Port’s first phase, which was developed by India, and inaugurated by Iran on 4th December 2017, is of great strategic importance as it makes it easier for India to conduct trade with Central Asia and Europe.
  • Iran’s Chabahar port is also important for India’s trade because of Pakistan’s reluctance in allowing India to send goods to Iran and Afghanistan through its land territory.

Also Read: Gwadar Port: China Turning Pakistan Port Into Regional Giant 

  • The development of Chabahar Port will increase the momentum of the International North-South Transport Corridor whose signatories include India, Afghanistan and Russia. Iran is the key gateway in this project. It will improve India’s trade with Central Asia as well as Europe.
    The Chabahar Port has also reduced Afghanistan’s dependence on the transit road, which went through Karachi. Now, trade can be conducted via Chabahar Port too. Islamabad has accused India of trying to use this development as a means to destabilise Pakistan.

    The Chabar Port is the said to be the counter to the Gwadar Port. Wikimedia Commons
    The Chabar Port is the said to be the counter to the Gwadar Port. Wikimedia Commons
  • The Chabahar Port also acts as a counter to the barely 100 km away, Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is developed by China. However, Iran has defended that Chabahar is not a rival to Gwadar and Pakistan is invited to join in its development.
  • In October 2017, India sent its first shipment of wheat to through Chabahar to Afghanistan, in order to test the viability of the route.
  • India will also construct a 900-km Chabahar-Zahedan-hajigak railway line that will connect Port of Chabahar to Hajigak in Afghanistan. It will also connect Mashad in the north, providing access to Turkmenistan as well as northern Afghanistan.This project is worth $1.6 billion.

    India will supply $400 million worth of steel rails to Tehrain. Wikimedia Commons
    India will supply $400 million worth of steel rails to Tehran. Wikimedia Commons
  • It is being said that India will supply $400 million of steel rails to Tehran. There are also possibilities of setting up a fertilizer plant through a joint venture with the Iranian government.