Afghanistan’s Sikhs feel alienated, pressured to leave

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (TIP): Afghanistan’s once-thriving Sikh community is dwindling fast as many choose to leave the country of their birth to escape what they say is growing intolerance and discrimination. Once boasting as many as 1,00,000 members in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s Sikh population, according to community leaders, has fallen to an estimated 2,500.

The reason for the exodus: endemic societal discrimination in the majority Muslim country and an inability to reclaim Sikh homes, businesses and houses of worship that were illegally seized years ago.

“I’m worried that if things don’t change and we are no longer able to stay, then the only people left will be those who cannot afford to leave,” said 23-year-old pharmacist Charn Singh. His family traces its roots back more than 400 years to Gardez, the capital of Paktya province bordering Pakistan, where his ancestors were wealthy traders and landowners and his grandfather was an oral historian and keeper of Sikh legends.

These days, the family has little of its former wealth, having lost much of its land to what Afghan Hindu lawmaker Anarklai Kaur Honaryar called a series of illegal land grabs.

Hindus in Afghanistan have faced similar persecution. Sikhism and Hinduism are distinct religions, but many Afghans view both communities as non-Muslim foreigners.

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“In all provinces they (Sikh and Hindus) owned lands, but unfortunately their lands were taken over by powerful individuals during the fighting,” said Honaryar, who is also a human rights activist.

The persecution of Afghan Sikhs has remained a constant through decades of upheaval in this war-torn country.

After the Russians ended their occupation in February 1989 and Afghanistan collapsed into civil war, various mujahedeen splinter groups fought each other for territory and power. In the ensuing chaos, many Sikh houses of worship, known as gurdwaras, were destroyed — along with many Hindu temples. A United Nations report in 2005 said that most of Kabul’s eight Sikh and four Hindu temples had been destroyed in the fighting.

In the chaos of the civil war, Afghans’ tolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities hardened. That intolerance became official policy when the Islamic extremist Taliban took over in 1996.

Under the Taliban, Sikhs and Hindus were pressured to convert to Islam and forced to pay a special tax and publicly identify themselves with yellow patches on their clothing. Muslims were encouraged to avoid doing business with them.

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