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Sikhs strive for recognition in new Afghanistan

Decades of fighting has almost wiped out the Sikh and Hindu communities in Afghanistan. Most of them fled the country, and those who are left are struggling to find a place in Afghan society.

Sikhs and Hindus have been in Afghanistan for generations, but whereas once they thrived as a community, three decades of fighting has seen their numbers and influence diminish.

Many of them were killed during the civil war of the 1990s, when their houses, shops and properties were seized by powerful warlords.

Later, under the Taliban, they were forced to wear patches, turbans, or yellow veils to identify themselves. Now, President Karzai’s promises to them are also delivering precious little.

For Sikh children, who cannot attend schools because of the prejudice of their peers, spend their time on the streets of Kabul, where there are plenty of children, and their future looks bleak.

“Every day when I was walking home from school, the children would start hitting me and ask why I put a potato on my head and how much I was selling it for,” says Sikh Kolwinder Singh. “I want to go to school, I want to study, but I cannot. There is too much bullying. It is impossible for me to attend class.”

Kolwinder’s parents took him and his cousins out of school more than a decade ago. They now teach them at home, but it is not easy and most of the children are illiterate.

“For fifteen years our children have not gone to school. We do not have money to send them to private schools and we cannot afford to pay teachers,” says Sikh Dahrmanider Singh. “After the Soviet Union collapsed we had lots of difficulties. We are not rich and we cannot leave the country, otherwise we would have done so a long time ago.”

Today, one hundred Sikh families live in Kabul, whereas before the civil war there were some 3,000 families. Most left for India, Canada, Belgium, the United Kingdom and even Russia, but aside from problems in education, there are problems with religion.

Community life revolves around the Dharamsal temple, but the authorities insist they hold cremation ceremonies for their dead beyond the city gates.

Awtar Singh, who represents Sikhs and Hindus in government, is frustrated with the lack of support they are given. For instance, the Afghan national anthem mentions all the country’s ethnic groups – except Sikhs.

“The government announced many times it would give us a place to burn our bodies, but so far, nothing,” complains representative of religious minorities Awtar Singh. “Sometimes we have to drive six, seven hours to get to a place where we can do it. We have also been asking for the past six, seven years for land where we can build houses for the homeless in our community.”

Deputy Mayor of Kabul Abdul Ahad insists the authorities are doing their best given the circumstances.

“To the best of our abilities we have responded to this,” says Abdul Ahad, adding “We have assigned an area as per the master plan and the development plan of this part of Kabul city for Hindus to do the burning of their dead and all that. But, when they wanted to use the area, it was blocked, I should say, by other sects.”

President Karzai has delayed meeting with the community leaders, but now, with the world’s attention on him and on his efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, they are hoping their voice will finally be heard.

Read also: A new look into United States strategy for Afghanistan