August 5, 2020
You would be forgiven for assuming Pritpal Singh was just another Sikh residing in West London’s Southall district, known colloquially as “Little Punjab” and home to the largest community of Punjabis outside India.
Only he is not Punjabi, but Afghan.
With Dari and Pashto as their native tongues, Afghan Sikhs differ in several ways from their Punjabi-speaking peers. Singh’s journey, like that of many diasporic Afghan Sikhs, is one of painful uprooting from a homeland he’s known for centuries. He counts himself among the fortunate ones from a once-thriving community of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, who collectively numbered 150,000 at their peak in the 1970s. But a 40-year-long exodus has reduced the community to a historical footnote.
“When I visited Afghanistan back in 2012, there were about 3,000 left in the community. Today, there are less than 650 Sikhs and an even smaller amount of Hindus, no more than 50,” Pritpal Singh explained. The Afghan Sikh and Hindu diaspora is estimated at around 80,000, according to surveys conducted within the communities.
Fresh bouts of violence have sparked cries for another exodus. On March 25, a congregation of around 150 Sikhs gathered at the 400-year-old Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul’s Shorbazar district to pray for the world in the wake of a pandemic that had gripped the globe. But in the early morning, Islamic State (IS) militants stormed the gurdwara complex, spraying gunfire and tossing grenades — killing 25 worshippers.
When people think of Afghanistan, where over 99% of inhabitants are Muslim, it’s unlikely that many envision a nation with a rich history of Sikhism and Hinduism.
Geographically and culturally at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, pre-Islamic Afghanistan was home to several religious groups, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. From the third to ninth centuries, a Hindu dynasty, the Kabul Shahis, governed eastern Afghanistan, ruling the provinces of Gandhara, the Kabul valley, and areas of modern-day Pakistan that bordered those provinces. Conversion to Islam took place over centuries after the Islamic conquests in the year 870. While many Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities remained, Islam was institutionalized under the Ghaznavid dynasty in the 11th century.