A blow to the last vestiges of pluralism

Updated - July 14, 2018 07:49 pm IST

Published - July 14, 2018 07:47 pm IST

Afghan Sikh men carry the coffin of one of the victims of the July 1 blast in Jalalabad.

Afghan Sikh men carry the coffin of one of the victims of the July 1 blast in Jalalabad.

For many within Afghanistan’s once-thriving Sikh and Hindu communities, the attack in Jalalabad city on July 1, claimed by the Islamic State (IS), came as a final blow to the plurality of the Afghan society. Fourteen of their compatriots were killed; among them was Avtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh nominee for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

A sense of gloom and hopelessness has fallen over the community since and the tragedy has left them rethinking on their place in the country. “Seeing this incident has broken all of our hearts and spirits. We do not know how to move forward,” said Shyam Singh, an Afghan Sikh from Kabul, at a mass funeral at a local gurdwara in Kabul. Mr. Singh, a tailor, is among the many who have decided to leave Afghanistan. “I cannot afford to leave, most of us can’t afford it, but if we don’t leave, this is how we will end,” he said.


Reduced to 150 families

A refusal on the part of the Taliban to negotiate peace, alongside a steadily strengthening Islamic State (IS) insurgency, has resulted in an increasing number of civilian casualties over the last two years. However, for the minorities, the threat to civilian life isn’t the only concern. The Sikh and Hindu communities have seen a steady decline in numbers owing to religious persecution, especially during the years of civil war and Taliban rule.

And despite the fall of the Taliban and the efforts of the following governments to introduce reforms, the two communities remain marginalised, which has forced them to leave Afghanistan in several thousands. “There used to be several hundred thousands of us at the start of the war, but now there are no more than 150 families left, roughly about 1,300-1,400 Sikhs and Hindus,” said Nirmal Singh, a Sikh merchant from Jalalabad, who was in Kabul to help relatives of the deceased people.

Sikhs and Hindus here have faced a number of issues like land-grab; the absence of an inclusive justice system; and an absence of spaces to practise their faith. “Our children are not in school, because they get harassed and abused,” said Shyam Singh. “We can’t even cremate our dead without the help of the Afghan government and security forces,” added Omprakash Sachdeva, an Afghan Hindu from Khost, who came to the mass funeral to pay respects to Avtar Singh. There have been reports in past of incidents of stone-pelting on Hindu and Sikh funeral processions by locals. “This land belonged to our ancestors for over 300 years, but today we have no claim over it,” he added.

However, many refused to place the blame on their fellow Afghans, instead accusing Pakistan. “Pakistan is our enemy, the enemy of all Afghans. It doesn’t matter if the Afghan government works to improve our lives, Pakistan will not let us thrive,” said Mr. Sachdeva, indicating that Pakistan’s intelligence agency might have had a role in the attack.

The Afghan Sikhs and Hindus who spoke to this writer appealed to the Indian government to intervene and support the community. “At least, help our children get education in India,” requested Shyam Singh. Others like Nirmal Singh and Mr. Sachdeva wanted India’s help in migration, though they were not too hopeful that help would arrive in time. “We will end up in India eventually,” Mr. Sachdeva said. “If not now as the living, then surely after we die; our ashes will be taken to Haridwar,” he said. The others nodded in resigned agreement. “But it would be helpful if we can leave while we are still alive,” said Mr. Singh.

Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul

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