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.
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.”