‘We don’t want to leave’: Sikhs consider future in Afghanistan

Gajandar Singh Bashardost, left, talks to fellow community members in Karte Parwan, the Sikh neighborhood of Kabul. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
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Updated 28 February 2020

‘We don’t want to leave’: Sikhs consider future in Afghanistan

  • Decades of violence has seen them flee to India, Canada and Germany

KABUL: When Sikh community leader Hakam Cha Cha Singh leaves his Kabul home for work each day, he says goodbye to his family as if it is for the last time, unsure he will make it back home safely in a country where embattled minorities face daily prejudice, harassment and violence from militant groups.

“We used to travel in the middle of the night from one province to another,” a white-bearded Singh told Arab News. “Now when I leave home, I say goodbye to my family, telling them there is a chance I might not return home because of insecurity.”

Then he paused and added: “But still we love Afghanistan.”

Singh is part of a fast-shrinking minority in Afghanistan, thousands of members of which have fled conflict and moved to countries like India, their spiritual homeland, or Canada and Germany over the last four decades.

Although almost an entirely Muslim country, Afghanistan was home to as many as 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before a devastating civil war in the 1990s. For centuries, Hindu and Sikh communities played a prominent role in merchant trade and moneylending in Afghanistan, although today they mostly run medicinal herb shops.

Once spread across the country, the Sikh community is now concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Ghazni and the capital Kabul.

FASTFACT

Afghanistan was home to 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before 1990s civil war.

Afghan Sikhs boast no more than 300 families. It has only two gurdwaras, or places of worship, one each in Jalalabad and Kabul.

In 2018, an explosion in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad killed at least 20 people, including several members of the small Sikh minority, pushing hundreds to flee the country. Among those killed was Avtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate running in Afghanistan’s then-upcoming parliamentary election.

Many Sikhs say local Muslim hard-liners have stirred up hostility against them, and the community now requires police protection for their funeral rituals.

But while most of the Sikhs who remain in Afghanistan are wary of religious discrimination and the absence of economic opportunities, some Sikhs, especially those with land or businesses and no ties to India, say they do not plan to leave and Afghanistan remains their “motherland.”

“We have suffered a lot. Our honor, property and life have been in danger, but still, we call Afghanistan our mother, our home,” said 31 year-old Gajandar Singh Bashardost at his traditional medicinal herb shop in the once-bustling Sikh neighborhood of Karte Parwan.

“It is bad for us Sikhs, Afghanistan ... if we leave and seek asylum in India or any other place,” Bashardost said. “I do not want to give my country a bad name.”

Earlier this month, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance allocated $650,000 to renovate Hindu and Sikh temples communities across the country.

“Hindus and Sikhs love their country and despite the prejudice and discrimination do not want to leave,” said Anar Kali Honaryar, the only Sikh member of the Afghan Senate.

Zabihullah Farhang, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said the level of discrimination and prejudice shown towards the Hindus and Sikhs compared to the past has come down.

However, he added that the government needs to do more to “protect their rights, help them with building schools, providing them health facilities, finding job opportunities and giving them opportunities in the government.”

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UK government tries to advance coronavirus response, Boris Johnson ‘stable’ in ICU

  • Britain’s leader was in "good spirits,” his spokesman said on Wednesday
  • The UK was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections

LONDON: Britain’s government sought Wednesday to keep a grip on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as Prime Minister Boris Johnson started a third day in the intensive care unit of a London hospital being treated for COVID-19.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a meeting of the government’s COVID-19 crisis committee while the number of virus-related deaths reported in the UK approached the levels seen in the worst-hit European nations, Italy and Spain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is responding to treatment in intensive care at a central London hospital, his spokesman said on Wednesday, adding the British leader was in "good spirits".
"The prime minister remains clinically stable and is responding to treatment. He continues to be cared for in the intensive care unit at St Thomas' hospital. He is in good spirits," the spokesman told reporters.
The country’s confirmed death toll reached 6,159 as of Tuesday, an increase of 786 from 24 hours earlier. That was the biggest daily leap to date, although the deaths reported Tuesday occurred over several days.
The virus has hit people from all walks of life — including Johnson, the first world leader known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The 55-year-old prime minister was admitted to St. Thomas’ Hospital late Sunday with a fever and cough that persisted 10 days after he tested positive for the virus.
He was moved to the ICU on Monday night after his condition deteriorated. 
Johnson’s illness has unleashed a wave of sympathy for the prime minister, including from his political opponents. It has also heightened public unease about the government’s response to the outbreak, which faced criticism even with the energetic Johnson at the helm.
Britain was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections, and the government has struggled to meet its goal of dramatically the number of individuals tested for the virus.
Britain has no official post of deputy or acting prime minister, but Johnson has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to temporarily take over many of the prime minister’s duties to lead the country’s response to the pandemic.
But Raab’s authority is limited. He can’t fire Cabinet ministers or senior officials, and he won’t hold the prime minister’s weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
In the British political system, the prime minister’s power lies less in the role’s specific responsibilities — which are relatively few — than in the leader’s political capital and authority as “first among equals” in the Cabinet.
That’s especially true in Johnson’s government, which is made up of relatively inexperienced ministers appointed by a prime minister with a big personality and a hefty personal mandate from a resounding election victory in December.
In Johnson’s absence, it’s unclear who would decide whether to ease nationwide lockdown measures the British government imposed on March 23 in response the worldwide pandemic. The initial three-week period set for the restrictions expires next week, but with cases and deaths still growing, officials say it is too soon to change course.
“We need to start seeing the numbers coming down,” Argar told the BBC. “That’s when you have a sense, when that’s sustained over a period of time, that you can see it coming out of that.
“We’re not there yet and I don’t exactly know when we will be. The scientists will tell us that they are constantly modelling the data and they’re constantly looking at those stats.”
Meanwhile, officials are watching anxiously to see whether Britain’s hospitals can cope when the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients reaches its peak. Before the outbreak, the UK had about 5,000 intensive care beds, and the government has been scrambling to increase that capacity.
The Nightingale Hospital — a temporary facility for coronavirus patients built in nine days at London’s vast ExCel conference center — admitted its first patients on Wednesday. It can accommodate 4,000 beds, if needed. even other temporary hospitals are being built around the country.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city, which is the epicenter of Britain’s outbreak, had one-quarter of its existing hospital beds still available, as well as the new Nightingale hospital.
“It demonstrates the can-do attitude of not just Londoners but those around the country who have helped us get ready for the peak of this virus,” he said.