‘Exodus or extinction’: Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs are hanging by a thread
Illustration: Simone Zhao

Over the past 50 years, a change in Afghanistan’s socio-political landscape has propelled the mass exodus of the country’s Hindus and Sikhs. Ongoing persecution has made their survival difficult, with many being forced to migrate out of their homeland, in search for safety.

Early on the morning of 25th March 2020, the Sikh community of Kabul were praying in their holy place of worship, Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib. Minutes later, their prayers were cut short by a militant attack that left 25 dead. Unfortunately, this terror is now a reality for the last remaining Sikh and Hindu communities of Afghanistan, whose population has been decimated since the turn of the century. Following a mass exodus in the past few decades, there are estimates that only around 700 Hindus and Sikhs remain in Afghanistan, although numbers remain uncertain and fluctuating.

A brief history

Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have an enduring presence that is interwoven into the fabric of the country’s history. The arrival of these communities predates the Mughal Empire, and had been marked by many traditional relics and artefacts dispersed around the country, which have now been destroyed. The history of Hinduism in Afghanistan is said to be dated back to the Indus Valley Civilisation (5500-2000 BC.), followed by the advent of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. The region is also home to the mountain Asmayi, which had been a prominent Hindu pilgrimage site. However, despite their established settlement in the region, the Hindu community has now dwindled to merely occupy parts of Kabul and Jalalabad.

Sikhism, as a comparatively modern religion, had a more latent arrival in Afghanistan; nevertheless, it is reported that some Sikhs had established trading connections with Afghanistan following Guru Nanak’s visit in the 15th century. This was an increased trend at the end of the 18th century, during which many Sikh settlers from India relocated to Afghanistan to establish trade links. After 1947, the Partition of India also compelled many Sikhs to find refuge in Afghanistan.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Hindu and Sikh communities had once numbered over 200,000. A spike in Taliban-operated extremism – that aggravated Afghanistan’s tumultuous socio-political landscape – also transformed the country into a precarious environment for its religious minorities. As such, the declining population of Hindus and Sikhs is a direct result of years of persecution.

The post-Soviet era – and its challenges for Afghanistan

Speaking to a Hindu priest who was born and raised predominantly in Afghanistan, I ask him about his experience growing up in an era which witnessed the social fragmentation of Afghanistan. With religious factions governing the societal divide, Mr Shukla* saw first-hand the metamorphoses that was instigated as a result of the Soviet and US invasions in the 1980s, as well as the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s.

“My nana (grandfather) was a Dewan (minister) in Kabul, and my grand-nana was a Dewan in Jalalabad”, he says. His family have an entrenched history in Afghanistan, as both his father and grandfather were also Hindu priests, when he recalls, “Times were easier”. He emphasises that, “Before the Taliban came, the situation was easier”. However, despite his lineage tracing back generations in Afghanistan, their family, like many others, had been forced to relocate out of the country.

This is a common problem for many Hindus and Sikhs, whose very existence in Afghanistan is marked by ostracization. As such, they are clearly distinguished from their Muslim counterparts, by measures such as paying a ‘jizya’ (a special tax for non-Muslims). Beyond this, they are also required to wear a yellow badge in public, to identify themselves as separate from the majority population. This is underlined by a ‘constant pressure [for them] to convert their religion to Islam’; such measures serve to demonstrate their ‘outsider’ status, in the very country which they consider their home.

The seizure of land has also been an impediment to their survival in their cities; many Sikhs have to live in gurdwaras, as they cannot afford housing. However, speaking up means that they will be placed under a spotlight. The prospect of attention is one they avoid, out of fear of retaliation.

Enforced segregation also limits their activities in the public sphere. Article 62 of Afghanistan’s constitution serves to restrict their political participation as non-Muslim citizens, further cementing their status as second-class citizens. This has, in part, contributed to a decline in employment rates, which in turn has increased poverty rates within the communities.

According to the Survey of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, conducted by Porsesh Research & Studies Organisation (PRSO), when questioned about problems facing Hindu and Sikh communities, 36.6% respondents regarded unemployment as the most important issue. Despite being concentrated in the cities, they face greater limitations when applying for jobs. The majority work in family-owned shops, and rely on salaried jobs as opposed to wage labour.

Mr Shukla descends from a family of priests and Dewans, who had comparatively greater liberty to work in more diverse sectors. Nevertheless, he recalls a notable shift in society over time.

“Compared to 50 years ago, many have migrated out. Seven Hindu families that I know are living in Germany, the USA, India, Holland, Belgium. Everywhere in the world. They have migrated because they have no option.

“The situation started changing around 1980. It was still bad, but it is becoming worse”, he says.

The rise of the Taliban saw a consequent spike in violence against minority communities such as Buddhists and Jews, who have now been erased from Afghanistan’s demographic landscape. The Hazaras of Afghanistan, who are predominantly Shia Muslim, also faced intense persecution at the hands of the Taliban. Nonetheless, the decline of Taliban-led despotism has not yet carved a safe environment for minorities. While the country’s constitution has claimed to allow freedom of religion for non-Muslims, this liberty has not been translated into practice.

The ceaseless instances of prejudice and discrimination have made it difficult for Hindu and Sikh citizens to follow Dharmic customs and conventions, such as the cremation of the dead. Following the terror attack on the gurdwara on 25th March, there was a subsequent attack on the Sikh crematorium the next day. The attack on these communities is just as much an attack on their values and traditions.

Even aspects of citizens’ appearances have been policed, with many Sikhs having their hair forcefully cut. Additionally, while the government provides mosques with free electricity, Hindus and Sikhs have to pay commercial sums for the electricity needed for their mandirs and gurdwaras. These discrepancies point to the larger, systemic oppression that these groups have to endure. Pushed to the margins of society, survival itself has been made difficult.

The search for safety

It is therefore unsurprising that many have fled the country, in search for solace elsewhere. When questioned by PRSO about staying in Afghanistan, 60.7% of Hindus and Sikhs suggested that they would take the opportunity to leave, whereas 37.9% expressed a desire to stay. Younger respondents were also amongst the highest to express a desire to migrate; this generational divide points to a split between generational attachment to their land, and a desire to seek prospects for their future. This divide in perspective also alludes to the predicament that many Hindus and Sikhs face; although their safety is compromised, their persistence to stay is underlined by a tenacious loyalty to the place they consider their homeland.

The Hindus and Sikhs now remaining in Afghanistan are a lingering shadow of their predecessors. Following the exodus, around 99% of the community has migrated across the world, predominantly to India, the U.K, or the US.

When I ask if Mr Shukla’s family had preferred living in Afghanistan, there is a clear repudiation against the idea. “No no no”, he says, “– everyone has now come back”.

Many refugees settled in India, and he himself visits India from time to time. When I ask if he thinks the current Hindu population should leave Afghanistan, he agrees, “Yes. Because they are not safe”.

His statement is underlined by a solemn pessimism for the future. “I do not think conditions will get better. It is becoming worse and worse.”

“The situation cannot be better. Never.”

This fear is not unfounded, as April 2020 witnessed the third consecutive attack on gurdwaras in the region. This follows a string of IS attacks against these targeted minorities. Just in 2018, IS militants murdered 17 Afghan Sikh and Hindu leaders in Jalalabad, who were on their way to meet President Ashraf Ghani.

Following this attack, many Sikh activists in the US pursued the matter by sending a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, urging them to grant these persecuted communities refugee status. They encourage their movement to safe zones outside of Afghanistan, where they would be protected. This idea was supported by 19 groups, which included Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. They emphasised that this assistance was needed amidst a ‘horrific choice of exodus and extinction’.

Although the vast majority have fled the country, many Hindus and Sikhs still hold a connection to their Afghan heritage. Mr Shukla is considered a ‘British-Afghan’ on his passport; although he has had to leave his country, it is an indelible part of his identity.

The advent of Taliban rule diminished any hope for social harmony between Afghanistan’s diverse cultures and communities. Their imposed sectarianism has mutilated the country into a ghost of its former self, eroding the cultural heritage stemming from civilisations in the Indus Valley and Central Asia.

Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs are hanging by a thread. Forced to choose between the two aspects of their identity, many are burdened with choosing between their loyalty to their homeland, and fighting for survival.

Pushed to the periphery of existence, these communities need institutional protection. We must ensure that their cultural legacy is not extinguished from the very place they call home.

* Name of my interviewee has been changed at their request to maintain anonymity.