The Afghan Sikhs face new threats

The recent beheading of Sikhs in Pakistan, purpotedly by the Taliban is a reminder of the tenuous lives that the depleting community of Sikhs on either side of the Pakistan-Afghan border face today. Two Sikh men were believed to have been beheaded by the Taliban in the FATA region of Pakistan and their heads sent to a gurudwara in Peshawar even as unconfirmed reports suggest that others were being held hostage.
Last year, Pak Taliban militants had taken over shops and homes of local Sikh families in the Orakzai Agency against demands of a ransom. This attack is believed to be connected to repeated threats to the Sikh community to convert if they wanted to stay on.

The Sikhs have a long history of living in this region. They call India their ancestral homeland as their ancestors settled in Afghanistan over different phases of its history and in the early nineteenth century when Afghans lost Peshawar to the Sikhs.
Besides, over the last few centuries descendants of Sikh traders on the route passing through Afghanistan – starting in Sindh and Punjab through Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul - eventually settled here. These trade routes then went across the Hindu Kush to Samarkand, Merv and onwards into Europe.
 A later flood of migration occurred during the partition of India when many Sikh families living in Pakistan, near the Afghan border, found a safer and faster refuge into Afghanistan rather than moving across the country to come into India.

Critical component
That is when another generation of this minority from Afghanistan made the country their home. These groups of Sikhs are referred to as the Afghan Sikhs and looked upon as a small albeit critical component of the ethnically diverse fabric of Afghanistan.
Like most Afghans, against the background of the ceaseless three decade long conflict, this minority group also left at different times in history just as they had gone to Afghanistan at different times in history.

 Some left as the Soviet war and its incessant bombing destroyed the lives of many. Even as ethnic Afghans joined the war these groups came to India or other countries where relatives had already settled. Again like most Afghans they too had hoped for this displacement to be temporary.

 But the short return to their homes was as traumatic, their homes occupied by warlords, their businesses destroyed. The relative prosperity of this group, once, can be gauged from the fact that despite being barely two percent of the population in Jalalabad, they controlled a large part of the economy. Over time they even enjoyed a reasonable level of religious freedom.

Strong community
The Afghan Hindus and Sikhs were an over 50,000 strong community before 1992 in areas like Ghazni, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Khost, Kabul and Laghman. Today there are about 1,500 Sikhs mostly living in Kabul. The ones who remained are either those who had no relatives abroad or lacked resources to migrate.
Post-2001, many had sought refuge in India after clashes with some hostile local communities over cultural practices and rituals. The attempt to cremate a body in 2007 in Kabul had led to tensions between the Sikhs and sections of the local community as it was seen as blasphemous ritual.

Amidst the Afghan diaspora spread across the globe the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are remembered fondly by many Afghans themselves displaced by conflict. In India it is this group of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs that constitute nearly 90 per cent of the Afghan diaspora unlike their more ethnically mixed composition elsewhere.
However, many who moved to India have subsequently also returned, mostly without their women. They run small businesses to support themselves and their families. These are men – fathers and brothers – who conduct trade between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India where their daughters (or sisters) have been married to local Sikh families in India. With their homes lost to the violence it is the local gurudwaras in Kabul that provide them shelter.

And yet for this community their identity as Afghan Sikhs remains an emotive one. A meeting with an Afghan Sikh in Germany quite poignantly reflects upon their sense of exclusion and statelessness - “In the entire world we don’t even have an inch of space that we can claim as ours…we have been abandoned by both India and Afghanistan,” he said.

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