The Last Gasp of Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus
The Last Gasp of Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus

After decades of persecution, the once-thriving communities are now on the verge of disappearing.

The late Anoop Singh (left) and Mansa Singh, pictured in October 2012. (Pritpal Singh)

The late Anoop Singh (left) and Mansa Singh, pictured in October 2012. (Pritpal Singh)

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.

Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar in Jalalabad City. (Pritpal Singh)

Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar in Jalalabad City. (Pritpal Singh)

Sikhism, founded in 1469, made its way to Afghanistan in the early 16th century, when Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, passed through Afghanistan from Iran. Oral traditions suggest that the Guru’s teachings inspired many Hindus and Buddhists, who had resisted conversion to Islam, to join the Sikh faith.

Primarily urban dwellers concentrated in Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni, Hindus and Sikhs controlled a vast number of trade routes along the border with Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan. They accrued significant economic wealth after the Afghan state was founded in 1747. By the turn of the 20th century and leading up to the 1970s under the reign of King Zahir Shah, both communities enjoyed relative stability, prosperity, and interfaith harmony.

However, their fortunes would irreparably wane after the Soviet invasion in 1979 — the political turmoil that has plagued Afghanistan ever since triggered a prolonged exodus. The vast majority fled after the fall of the secular Najibullah government in 1992 and subsequent Mujahideen rule, as civil war engulfed the country. The forced migration of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, the lifeblood of the country’s commerce, also signaled the breakdown of social functioning in the urban centers.

Recently, the coronavirus pandemic — which has infected more than 36,000 Afghans and killed almost 1,300 — has made a difficult situation worse, forcing Afghan Sikhs into a state of limbo. On July 26, the Indian government expedited 11 Sikhs’ short-term visas — part of India’s larger effort to offer the community refuge and paths to long-term residency.

“COVID-19 has caused a major setback in relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement efforts,” said Gurvinder Singh, international humanitarian aid director for United Sikhs, a United Nations-affiliated charity. “We have provided assistance within days of the horrific massacre to the families of those who were killed and injured. We are also assisting with the immigration paperwork and passport documentation.” Gurvinder Singh added that the organization has offered financial assistance to Sikhs and Hindus in Ghazni, Jalalabad, and Kabul to help offset the burden.

Sardar Avtar Singh in Shorbazar, Kabul, pictured in 2012. He, along with other Sikh men, women, and children were killed in March 2020. (Pritpal Singh)

Sardar Avtar Singh in Shorbazar, Kabul, pictured in 2012. He, along with other Sikh men, women, and children were killed in March 2020. (Pritpal Singh)

The Kabul terrorist attack was the latest catastrophe to befall Afghan Sikhs — and might well be the final nail in the coffin.

For Pritpal Singh, it is a watershed moment for the community and its future in Afghanistan. “This latest attack has really shaken the community to its core, because women and children were also targeted. As soon as the lockdown is lifted, the majority of those who remain will leave.”

Born in Kabul, Pritpal Singh fled civil war-ridden Afghanistan at 18 and sought asylum in the Netherlands. Soon, he realized how fraught his identity was: he was marginalized at home and invisibilized abroad. “When I arrived in the mid-90s, the Dutch had no idea about the existence of Afghan Sikhs. Seeing my turban, they thought I was a Muslim coming from Afghanistan,” he recalled.

Pritpal Singh had planned to go to Germany to join an uncle who emigrated before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “But, according to the Dublin Treaty, the first country that gives you asylum is responsible for you, so I had to stay in the Netherlands,” he said. After living in Leiden for five years, Pritpal Singh got Dutch citizenship before moving to the U.K. in 2001 to join his parents, and he’s been there ever since.

“The community was targeted by extreme violence,” said Asha Kaur, a researcher at SikhRI, a charitable organization that aims to connect people with the teachings of Sikhism, “because they were the backbone of urban life and oversaw the central functions of bazaars, domestic trade, international trade, and moneylending.”

“From a cultural aspect, Afghan Sikhs and Hindus show the world that Afghan identity is multifaceted and does not have to be tied to being Muslim,” said Kaur.

Kaur, who is part of the Iranian Sikh diaspora, has been researching and working with the Afghan Sikh community since 2017. She laments how people give the plight of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus considerably less attention than that of the iconic Bamiyan Buddhas, 1,500-year-old statues that the Taliban destroyed in 2001.

“I find it disappointing that the world is more quick to speak on the need to protect objects that represent religious diversity in Afghan cultural history than people themselves and their spaces, which are living community spaces,” Kaur said.

Afghan Sikhs, Kaur emphasizes, are “a rare historic, indigenous, non-Punjabi Sikh community from beyond what is now India and Pakistan. There is no other community like this.”

“The places that this community has convened in, studied in, and guarded for centuries are of utmost historic importance.” She highlighted gurdwaras such as those that Guru Nanak visited. Guru Har Rai, the seventh Nanak of Sikhism, gave Afghans copies of his book, Adi Granth. The revered Persian-speaking poet Bhai Nand Lal was born in Ghazni.

A Hindu temple, Darga Mathara Dass Ji, which is over 920 years old, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (Pritpal Singh)

A Hindu temple, Darga Mathara Dass Ji, which is over 920 years old, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (Pritpal Singh)

At the same time, Afghan Sikhs and Hindus share a kinship with the broader Afghan diaspora. “When you visit an Afghan restaurant and speak in Dari or Pashto, there is a cultural pride among Afghans no matter your religious background,” Pritpal Singh said. “There is a brotherly feeling, since we all left a war-ravaged country, that we’re all in the same boat.”

During the Afghan civil war after 1992, murders, kidnappings, extortions, seizure of land and property, and forced conversions were pervasive. Afghan warlords usurped several of Kabul’s gurdwaras, which were either destroyed or suffered heavy shelling as the civil war raged. By 1996, over 90% of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus had emigrated. Most first alighted in India via Pakistan, as it was the closest refuge with an open-border policy. From India, many moved on to Europe and North America as refugees.

The Taliban era that commenced in 1996, while marked by extreme social and economic isolation, was a period when a semblance of peace endured for Sikhs and Hindus as the country attempted to move on from the bloodshed of the Mujahideen years. Most notoriously during this time, the Taliban forced Sikhs and Hindus to wear yellow patches to socially identify themselves — reminiscent of the Jews under Nazi rule — and fly yellow flags over their homes and shops.

Following the U.S. invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban, the new Afghan government attempted to build a more inclusive system with protections for religious minorities. A handful of Hindus and Sikhs returned to Afghanistan during this period with the renewed hope of rebuilding their communities. But they struggled to do so, since socioeconomic conditions had deteriorated. Security concerns mounted, bribery was rampant, their children dropped out of schools, and cremation became impossible.

Pritpal Singh, Chhabol Singh Soni, Awtar Singh Khalsa (former senator assassinated on July 1, 2018), Ravi Singh, and Raghbeer Singh — pictured in October 2012. (Pritpal Singh)

Pritpal Singh, Chhabol Singh Soni, Awtar Singh Khalsa (former senator assassinated on July 1, 2018), Ravi Singh, and Raghbeer Singh — pictured in October 2012. (Pritpal Singh)

Political representation for Afghan Sikhs and Hindus has also been spotty. Under then-President Hamid Karzai, one seat in the upper house of the Afghan parliament was to be allocated to Sikhs and Hindus. However, despite Karzai’s best efforts, parliamentarians ultimately blocked the move. In 2016, President Ashraf Ghani, through presidential decree, made it feasible for the Afghan Sikh and Hindu community to elect a representative to the upcoming parliamentary elections.

But in 2018, IS targeted Sikh and Hindu representatives. A suicide bombing in Jalalabad killed 19 people, including the sole parliamentary candidate for the two communities, Awtar Singh. The incident was devastating — most of the community’s political infrastructure was effectively wiped out in a blink of an eye.

Now, after the March massacre in Kabul, any sliver of hope is all but gone. Despondently, Pritpal Singh hinted at what a final exodus would signify: “This is the end of Hindu and Sikh civilization in Afghanistan.” Kaur, who has written an English-language study on Afghan Sikhs, notes that amid decades of war and exclusion from higher education, the community has struggled to document itself.

But that has begun to change. “Now more than ever, we are seeing Afghan Sikhs writing their own stories, the vast majority of the community has gone through a process of resettlement so there are greater opportunities for free expression,” Kaur said.

Pritpal Singh has done exactly that. He produced two documentaries — Mission Afghanistan (2013), which has close to a million views on YouTube, and Hindu Kush to Thames (2017) — that cataloged the Sikh community in Afghanistan and its diaspora in the U.K.

“It was a way for me to tell my story, and in the process, spread awareness of the community to a general audience.”

View from inside a cloth merchant shop, in old town of Kabul. (Pritpal Singh)

View from inside a cloth merchant shop, in old town of Kabul. (Pritpal Singh)

“I noticed there was a lot of misinformation about our community. It was said that we were Indians that came to trade in Afghanistan and just stayed,” Pritpal Singh said. “My great-great-grandfather was from Jalalabad, we had a property there. We can trace our family back a couple centuries at least.”

For Hindu Kush to Thames, Pritpal Singh focused on the diaspora in the U.K., and London in particular, where the largest number of Afghan Sikhs reside — around 12,000. He depicted how the community has integrated, all while retaining its unique and often misunderstood identity.

“We’ve been quite fortunate,” he said. “Coming from a war-torn country and being a religious minority, many had their asylum cases accepted pretty quickly. So they’ve been able to set up businesses and children have had access to a good education.”

“If someone in 50 or 100 years decides to search up on our community, they will now be able to find so much documented information. They won’t be able to deny that Hindus and Sikhs lived in Afghanistan. Our historical heritage is preserved forever online,” he affirmed with a shimmer of pride.

As the chapter of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan draws to a close, the stakes are in no uncertain terms, existential: either exodus or extinction. Pritpal Singh evoked a parallel with the last Afghan Jew — Zablon Simintov — who manages Afghanistan’s only operating synagogue after the mass emigration of a once-vibrant Jewish population by the 1990s.

In the face of extinction, preserving memories becomes ever more crucial.

Update, 8/6/20: This story was updated to clarify when Pritpal Singh moved to the U.K.

Amar Diwakar is an independent writer and researcher. He has written for Al Jazeera, the Boston Globe, The Baffler, In These Times, and other publications. He blogs at Splintered Eye.

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