While at one point in the 1970s the population of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus was estimated to be over 2,00000, today the number of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan is in 100’s. The exodus of Sikhs and Hindus from Afghanistan had begun in the early 1990s, after the emergence of the Mujahideen. With the Taliban taking over in 1996-2001, Sikhs were asked to wear distinctive turbans and hoist flags on Gurudwaras, while Hindus were also asked to distinguish themselves from Muslim citizens, than neither complained of facing any major problems.
While many of the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus have been provided asylum by India (according to estimates there are 18,000 Afghan Sikhs in India since 2021), the preferred destination for them is the US, the UK, and Canada due to better economic opportunities. The Manmeet Bhullar Foundation set up in memory of the late Manmeet Singh Bhullar, a Canadian politician who died in 2015, has provided asylum to a number of Afghan Sikh and Hindu families.
The feeling of insecurity and repeated attacks
After the recent attack on Gurudwara (Sikh shrine) Karta-E-Parwan, Kabul, in which two people were killed, numerous questions have arisen over the safety of the remaining Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan (India has decided to provide over 100 e-visas to Sikhs and Hindus after the dastardly attack). This is not the first such attack on the Afghan Sikh community. In March 2020, members of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) assaulted the Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib killing 25 people. In 2018, in a suicide attack by IS, senior politician and head of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu council, Awatar Singh Khalsa was killed (20 people were killed in this attack, and many Hindu and Sikh families had moved out from Afghanistan). In 2021, after the takeover by the Taliban, 15 to 20 men had entered a Gurudwara in the Kart-e-Parwan District of Kabul and tied up the guards.
One of the reasons why a large number of Sikhs refused to leave Afghanistan was that they do not want to leave the Sikh heritage in that country — specifically historic Gurudwaras in Afghanistan (Sikh linkages with Afghanistan can be traced to the fourth Udaasi/travel of the founder of the Sikh faith Guru Nanak Dev ji). The 7th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Har Rai ji sent preachers to present-day Afghanistan, who also established a dharamsaal (earlier name for Gurudwara). It would also be pertinent to point out, that in spite of facing numerous hardships and challenges Afghan Sikhs have been firm in their adherence to Sikh tenets.
Economic reasons and safety
The recent meeting between officials of the Ministry of Interior in the Taliban government, and members of the Sikh community is important because they provided them not just with financial compensation, but assured them about the reconstruction of the Gurudwara and also assured them that the government would ensure their security.
While tweeting about the meeting with Afghan Sikhs, the MOI said that its dispensation “are committed to protecting the lives and property of every citizen of this land. This cowardly attack by the enemies of peace and security of the Afghanistan people shows that they fear the unity of the people and we will spare no effort to support you.”
Afghan Sikhs are often viewed from the prism of Indian nationalism, the electoral politics of both Panjab and India, and the complex geopolitics of South Asia all these dimensions ignore the fact that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are sui generis, and cannot be placed in any one box.
Not only have they excelled in business, in Afghanistan, and later in different parts of the world, but at one time were very influential even in Afghanistan (they thrived especially during the rule of Zakir Shah) and occupied important positions in government. Inderjeet Singh’s book ‘Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a thousand years (2019) is important since it provides a detailed account of the history of Afghan Sikhs and also provides important information with regard to their economic, social, and political position in Afghanistan in the early and mid-twentieth century, as well as the reasons for their exodus in recent decades.
At a time when the Taliban has assured them about their security and well-being, it remains to be seen as to what decision the last of the remaining families in Afghanistan arrive at.
The Afghan Sikhs are a fascinating group who have faced numerous upheavals as a result of the instability and conflict in Afghanistan, yet have excelled whenever given an opportunity. The meeting between senior officials of the MOI, and Afghan Sikhs and Hindus is an encouraging development — given the increasing uncertainties and insecurity. Many Afghan Sikhs and Hindus who moved to India have expressed a desire to return to Afghanistan due to a lack of sufficient economic opportunities. Here it would be pertinent to point out, that many of those settled in the west who have been able to resurrect themselves economically, still feel the pain of leaving their homeland – something analysts and commentators are unable to comprehend. Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are thus faced with serious dilemmas which do not receive the attention which they should be. While asylum may provide them a sense of security, and even economic progress, it cannot compensate for the numerous trials and tribulations – especially emotional — they have to deal with.
Header image: Gurdwara Karte Parwan
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based analyst interested in Punjab-Punjab linkages as well as Partition Studies. Maini co-authored ‘Humanity Amidst Insanity: Hope During and After the Indo-Pak Partition’ (New Delhi: UBSPD, 2008) with Tahir Malik and Ali Farooq Malik. He can be reached at [email protected].