For hundreds of years, Sikhs have lived in Afghanistan. But even after the fall of the Islamist Taliban regime, they face growing discrimination, forcing many to leave.
Kabul, Afghanistan: Sometimes you can recognize them on the streets, usually because of their black or wine-red turbans and opulent beards. Others look no different from the rest of the pedestrians, aside from the fact that they may be homeless.
Sikhs are a religious minority in Afghanistan. But, despite being there for centuries, they are discriminated against for their beliefs. The war years forced many people belonging to Sikh community to leave the country.
Some, however, returned after the Taliban were overthrown. Arandar Singh is one such person. The 50-year-old Sikh was born in Kunduz. He owns a shop and wears a black turban and a long, black beard. Other than that, he wears typical Afghan clothing. Singh sees himself as a part of Afghan society and calls the local residents his brothers.
“We are treated well by the government and the locals. Work and daily life are satisfactory. We also pursue our religious obligations,” says Singh.
People of a different faith, he says, are welcomed as neighbors by the Muslim majority. In Afghanistan, Muslims make up 99 percent of the population. Most people see Sikhs as Afghans and appreciate that they stay out of all the political machinations.
According to Ahmad Farid, a resident of Kunduz, the Sikhs are “very simple people who do their work and don’t cause trouble.” He says they are very open and friendly and that he has never experienced bad behavior on their part. “We have to respect that they have a different religion because that is an Afghan tradition – and they respect ours,” Farid points out.
Singh says that he has friendly relations with his neighbors and, despite religious differences, no problems have cropped up. But the actual problem for both minorities is that they have no property and no houses, he says quietly. For this reason, they have to live in temples, the so-called daramsaal. This is also where their children go to school.
“Even today, no one in Kunduz has offered us a house or property. We have complained about that often and still demand that people who live in temples get land, but we have no private property,” says Singh.
Hindus do not belon to Sikhs religion, but due to their small numbers, they visit the same Gurdwara and belong to the same community. They are also viewed as one and the same group by other Afghans. And one problem unites them: the fact that they own no property. Mid November, they organized a protest march to demand a piece of property to build a crematorium. They chanted “Down with the government. Aren’t we also Afghans?”
“When you don’t even get a cemetery, that means you’re not welcome in your own country,” says Darniwar Singh, a Sikh.
“We have no crematorium to cremate our dead and perform our rituals. When someone dies, we have to burn them in a temple,” he explains. “But then, our Muslim neighbors complain about the smell and the smoke.
“The mayor of Kabul has promised to make land available for rituals and a park and build homes. Something that is urgently needed.”
‘Over our dead bodies’
The property, which the government has promised, however, already belongs to the Afghan Karokhail clan, and they have reacted sharply to the government’s concession. A visibly outraged clan leader said he possessed the official title to the property and had no intention of giving it up.
“We do not accept this. Ten thousand families live here and you can only get the land over our dead bodies, even if we have to fight to the death. The president personally decreed that we may live here,” he said.
The clan leader refers to rights granted to himself and to clan members.
As long as Hindus and Sikhs are guaranteed the right to shelter and to practice their religion on the one hand, and the residents of Kabul refuse to sacrifice their property on the other, it seems unlikely the row can be resolved.
Many of the country’s minorities feel singled out as the number of Hindus Sikhs continues to drop. Arandar Singh says there were once 120 minority families living in Kunduz before the war started and they fled the country. And while many have returned since the Afghan War, many of those people are leaving again as they face poverty and homelessness.
Singh is one of the lucky ones. He spends most of his days at his store. He says that means a lot for someone who has no roof over their head.