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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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Afghan Orchestra Flourishes Despite Social Issues

Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border.

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Afghanistan
Negin Khpolwak, leader of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, practices on a piano at Afghanistan's National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA

The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.

But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.

The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.

Hope and music

Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.

The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.

Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.

Afghanistan
Members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, attend a rehearsal at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, in Kabul. VOA

Advances for women

Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.

“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.

But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.

“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.

Afghanistan
Ahmad Naser Sarmast, head of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, speaks to members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, in Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA

Ethnic groups help each other

Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed.

“It’s hope for the future,” he said.

Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.

“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.

Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.

Afghanistan
Members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, bring instruments to a class before a rehearsal at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA

“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.

Also Read: OrchKids- Bringing Jot to Underprivileged Kids Through Music

The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.

The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan. (VOA)