London: British born writer Bobby Singh Bansal, who just recently returned from a fact finding mission to Afghanistan, has spent several days visiting the local Sikh and Hindu community which he discovered had dwindled from 60,000 to a mere 1000. This is a war-ravaged country where the ubiquitous American and foreign troops are very much present in protecting major government ministries and NGO installations. This is a place that is heavily fortified where barbed wire is common around every major building where private security personnel are seen manning the entry gates with their Russian made Kalashnikov rifles. Bobby notes, “Having arrived in Kabul which is surrounded by stunning snow-capped mountains the following day I headed off to the Sikh temple located in the Karte Parwan area of Kabul accompanied with a local Afghan Sikh – Rawail Singh and his crew.” Bobby Singh, who has done much work to throw light on Sikh history and culture, was in Kabul to film a special television documentary to highlight the plight of the Sikhs of Afghanistan.
The Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan had been an integral part of Afghan culture and history since the early part of the 19th century. Most of them arrived in Kabul during the 1820’s as part of missions sent by Maharajah Ranjeet Singh of Punjab during the Sikh reign to promote trade in the region. Several caravans were plied between Kabul and Lahore and the communities on this route had prospered during the period when numerous Sikhs started to settle in Kabul. With the influx of Sikh traders to Kabul, other cities such as Jalalabad and Ghazni also witnessed a large number of Sikhs and Hindus settling in these provincial towns. The founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Devji had visited Afghanistan on his return from Baghdad and Mecca during the early part of the 16th century. Not far from the city of Jalalabad, Guru Nanak Devji had stayed nearly 40 days in the village of Sultanpur where later a huge temple Gurdwara Chisma Sahib was erected to commemorate his visit. Not only Sikhs but local Afghans also paid their respect to this sacred site where now a few Sikh families reside today.
Here are some facts, prior to 1991 during the reign of President Najibullah there were approximately 160,000 Sikhs living in Afghanistan although this figure has not been verified but it is estimated that just in Kabul alone there was 60,000 Sikhs. They became very successful entrepreneurs who prospered and contributed to the local economy that most of the money exchanges were in the hands of the Sikhs. Transport, clothing, commodities, finance and other key markets were run by very successful Sikh traders that they blended themselves into the culture of Afghan life by adopting their local customs and language. Truly this was a golden period but the horror that was imminent post 1991 would shatter the unique existence and livelihood. In 1991 the sudden arrival of the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime overthrew the government of President Najibullah who himself took refuge in the UN compound for 4 years until he was captured by the Taliban army and hanged in 1996. Between this period most of the Sikhs and Hindus decided to sell or simply abandoned their possessions and flee overseas mainly to neighbouring Pakistan and India as refugees, a large number of Sikh refugees had started to make the arduous journey to Peshawar via the notorious Khyber Pass. Most Afghan Sikhs have migrated in large numbers to England where in Southall they have become successful market traders. Afghan Sikhs have also settled in Canada, Australia and other parts of the world. But what was not known was just how many Sikhs or Hindus remained in Afghanistan and what was their current situation.
Most of the Sikhs who had fled had no information or contact with friends or colleagues back in Kabul leading to a number of rumours. Despite the killing and kidnapping of Sikhs by the Taliban regime some years back in Pakistan, no government officials in Pakistan or Afghanistan had raised the issue to protect the minority Sikhs from being targeted. Although the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi did raise their concern of the killing of a Sikh in the Orakzai region of Pakistan, nothing was further investigated nor implemented by the Indian government in the matter.
Bobby says, “Today after making a visit to Afghanistan much to everyone’s surprise I was fortunate enough to ascertain certain facts regarding the Sikh and Hindu communities of Kabul. Of the eleven Sikh temples (Gurdwaras) and 3 Hindu temples that existed prior to 1991 in Kabul, only 4 Gurdwaras remain today where only 2 function as religious centres. Most of the temples have been forcibly seized by the local authorities that were abandoned by the Sikh community as ammunition warehouses due to their vast sizes. In 1991 it was stated that in Afghanistan there was at some point over 65 Sikh and 21 Hindu temples that existed. Today after visiting Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib which is over 400 years old lying in the Shore Bazaar area of Kabul, there are about 40 Sikh families that reside here. This Gurdwara has been entirely destroyed since civil war broke out in the early 1990s and the outer façade barely resembles that of a historical Sikh shrine. The outer walls have been completely shelled with bullet holes and mortar attacks still visible today. I had interviewed several Sikh men and women who gave graphic accounts of their shattered lives within the temple. A young Afghan Sikh, Narinder Singh who was born in Kabul gave a brief account of life in Kabul. “I am 26 years old and live in Kabul, I run a dispensary store where I sell medicines. Life is not the same as it was decades back, most of the rich Sikh families have fled and today only the poor Sikhs remain within the Gurdwara complex as they are unable to afford their own properties. There are no schools for the children nor any teachers here, children spend most of their times doing virtually nothing and so are void of any education. We are unable to teach or educate our children with the knowledge they require to acquire a future as there is no future in Afghanistan. If I had a chance to leave, I would leave right now.” When I asked Narinder Singh where he would travel to, he remarked “I would like to go to India where we can blend in with our fellow Sikh brothers and have a better chance of a viable future.”
A Sikh woman told Bobby, “The government here does no help us we have been abandoned and do not have the means to leave for Pakistan or India. Our children are discriminated on a daily basis and when we go outside the local Afghans abuse and molest us who compel us to convert to Islam.”
Bobby Singh Bansal’s visit to Kabul has been quite informative for several government institutions and organisations. He gave a short speech during his visit on the current dire situation of the Sikh community and witnessed at close hand the realisation for urgent need of financial and moral support for this dwindling community. For the Sikhs that fled decades back only 1% have returned as others feel that the current Karzai Government is unable to protect and guarantee them any genuine future and stability. Bobby adds, “On one hand I was quite eager to meet the proud Sikhs of Kabul but on the other I was literally disheartened to hear their sordid stories. I hope that the documentary we have produced which will be shown at various film festivals will highlight and create awareness of this abandoned community’s dire situation to the world’s media. It is imperative that we listen to their problems and take drastic action before it’s too late. I am hoping that once we show our documentary we can set up an appeal to restore the historical shrine and provide some sort of support with setting up a Sikh school in Kabul. For that day is not far that if the current situation continues the few remaining desperate Sikh families will also flee Afghanistan and the Sikh population ceases to exist in this stunning Asian crossroads.”