Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindu communities are leaving their birthplace with the growing threats from the local Islamic State affiliate. Many are choosing to leave the country to escape the insecurity. The once-thriving community of as many as 250,000 members is now shrinking to its lowest level of fewer than 700.
The community’s numbers have been declining for years because of deep-rooted discrimination in the majority Muslim country. But, without adequate protection from the government, the attacks by the Islamic State group may complete the exodus.
“We are no longer able to stay here,” said a member of the tiny community. He asked to be identified as Hamdard, out of fear that he may be targeted for speaking out. Hamdard said seven of his relatives, including his sister, nephews, and son-in-law were killed by Islamic State gunmen in an attack on the community’s temple in March, which killed 25 Sikhs.
Hamdard said that fleeing his homeland is as difficult as leaving a mother behind. Still, he joined a group of Sikhs and Hindus who left Afghanistan last month for India. From India they eventually want to move on to a third country.
Although Sikhism and Hinduism are two distinct religions with their own holy books and temples, in Afghanistan, the communities are interwoven. And, they both gather under one roof or a single temple to worship, each following their own faith.
The community has suffered widespread discrimination in the conservative Muslim country. Each government “threatening us their own way,” said Hamdard. After the US invasion in 2001, warlords seized his home. And that incident forced him to live in one of two Sikh temples in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Under the Taliban rule in the late 1990s, Sikhs and Hindus were asked to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands. But after a global outcry, the rule was not enforced. Also driving the exodus is the inability to reclaim Sikh homes, businesses and houses of worship.
Hindu temples in Kabul’s old city were destroyed during the brutal fighting between rival warlords from 1992-96. The fighting drove out scores of Hindu and Sikh Afghans.
A 2018 Islamic State suicide attack in the city of Jalalabad had killed 19 people, most of them Sikhs, including a longtime leader who had nominated himself for the Afghan parliament.
“For a small community, suffering big fatalities was not tolerable,” said Charan Singh Khalsa, a leader of the Sikh community. Khalsa, who is living abroad, however, declined to reveal where he was living, out of fear for his safety. He left Afghanistan after gunmen in Kabul kidnapped and killed his brother two years ago. He said last three years have been the worst period for all Afghans, but especially so for Sikhs and Hindus.
Government fails to step up security
Community leaders have slammed recent governments for failing to step up security in the face of the IS threat.
Afghanistan’s government in 2010 decided to dedicate a chair in the national assembly to religious minorities. And there have since been two Sikh representatives. But Khalsa called these posts “symbolic”.
A senior Sikh community leader told The Associated Press that the group is in negotiations with the government over its security needs and the repairing of the temple after it was destroyed in March’s attack. The community leader spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media.
In August, a group of 176 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus went to India on special visas. They were the second batch since March, with the first 11 members arriving in India in July.
Khalsa said that a group of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in Canada and European countries has volunteered to sponsor the exodus of those remaining in Kabul who cannot afford air tickets and temporary accommodation in a transit country.
Several Canadian legislators have asked the country’s immigration ministry for a special program for Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees, requesting that they be brought to safety in Canada amid the increasing security threat.
For Afghan Sikhs, the thought of being uprooted is painful, despite the circumstances.
“It’s hard to leave our birthplace but we have no other option,” said Hamdard. “Afghanistan does not want us anymore.”