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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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India Can Really Take An Ostrich Approach To The Condition Of Women?

A total of 548 global experts on women’s issues , 43 of them from India

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BJP Leader Asks Parents Of A Rape Victim To Express Gratitude To Them
Can India Really Take An Ostrich Approach To The Condition Of Women?. Flickr

-By Deepa Gahlot

You read with a mixture of alarm and scepticism, the poll report by the London-based Thomson Reuters Foundation that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women, beating Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

According to reports, a total of 548 global experts on women’s issues — 43 of them from India — were asked about risks faced by women in six areas: healthcare, access to economic resources and discrimination, customary practices, sexual violence, nonsexual violence, and human trafficking. And shockingly, India comes out as the worst!

We see women progressing in every field in India, but, there is also the increasing violence against women and young girls reported every day; not long ago, female tourists felt safe in India; but now, women travelling solo are constantly targeted. Everyday there are reports of the rapes and murders of minor girls, often accompanied by unimaginable torture and mutilation.

There has been outrage in India, and also holes punctured in the survey that has such a small number of respondents, but can we really take an ostrich approach to the condition of women? Even as education and healthcare improve for women — at least in metro cities — the contempt for women is socially and culturally ingrained in the Indian psyche. In a city like Mumbai considered progressive and relatively safe for women, the girl child is unwanted even by many educated and wealthy families. In spite of laws being in place, female foeticide and infanticide is rampant, to the extent that there are large territories where there are no girl children and brides for the men have to be ‘imported’ from other states.  As dowry murders and rapes rise, the more unwanted the girl child becomes.  The fact is that India’s gender ratio is deplorable.

And if the male child is valued over the girl child, he grows up believing that he is special and if he is thwarted in any way, he can resort to violence. In spite of education and exposure to progressive ideas, in the case of rape or sexual violence, the tendency to blame and shame the victim persists.

To give just one small example, in the West, accusations of sexual harassment resulted in united shunning of a man as powerful as Harvey Weinstein and many others in the wake of the #MeToo movement, that helped many women speak out about their experiences.

In India, Malayalam actor Dileep, who has been accused in the abduction and rape of an actress, and was boycotted by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), was recently reinstated. This caused shock and dismay among women in the film industry.

A statement by a group of over 150 women film practitioners says it like it is, “A body that is meant to represent artistes of the Malayalam movie industry showed complete disregard for its own member who is the victim of this gross crime. Even before the case has reached its conclusion, AMMA has chosen to validate a person accused of a very serious crime against a colleague. We condemn this cavalier attitude by artistes against women artistes who are working alongside them. There is misogyny and gender discrimination embedded in this action.

“We admired and supported the Women in Cinema Collective that was formed by women film artistes in Kerala in the aftermath of the abduction and molestation of a colleague, a top star in the industry. We applaud the WCC members who have walked out of AMMA to protest the chairman’s invitation to reinstate the accused. We pledge our continued support to the Women in Cinema Collective who are blazing a trail to battle sexism in the film industry.

“Cinema is an art form that can challenge deeply entrenched violence and discrimination in society. It is distressing to see an industry that stands amongst the best in the country and has even made a mark in world cinema choose to shy away from using their position and their medium responsibly at this important moment. Today, women form a significant part of the film and media industries, we reject any attempt at silencing us and making us invisible.”

The Gujarat elections have brought the BJP and the Congress in close contest with each other.
Indian women. VOA

The preference for male children has had some unexpected ramifications. In a working paper published by the American non-profit, National Bureau of Economic Research, by Northwestern University’s Seema Jayachandran and Harvard University’s Rohini Pande (quoted in Quartz Media), finds that stunting in Indian children could also be blamed on the cultural preference for sons.

“In India, on average, the first child — if he is a son — doesn’t suffer from stunting. But, if the first — and so the eldest — child of the family is a girl, she suffers from a height deficit. And, then, if the second child is a boy, and hence the eldest son of the family, he will not be stunted. This happens because of an unequal allocation of resources to the first child”.

According to the report, “When Jayachandran and Pande compared India and Africa results through this lens, they found that the Indian first and eldest son tends to be taller than an African firstborn. If the eldest child of the family is a girl, and a son is born next, the son will still be taller in India than Africa. For girls, however, the India-Africa height deficit is large. It is the largest for daughters with no older brothers, probably because repeated attempts to have a son takes a beating on the growth of the girls.”

Also read: Has Legal Framework Turned a Blind Eye towards Under-representation of Women in Indian Politics?

In spite of all the Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao rhetoric, the required shift in the male-centric attitude towards a more egalitarian one is simply not happening; or, it is a case of one step forward, two steps backward. The Thomson Reuters Foundation report may be unfair and skewed, but being known as the rape capital of the world does nothing to improve the image of India in the world or even in its own eyes. (IANS)