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Why the native Hindu and Sikh communities are leaving Afghanistan?

By Amina Zurmati & Qudratullah Zurmati, Political Science students at American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).

The first group of 11 members of the Hindu and Sikh minority community of Afghanistan, including Nidan Singh Sachdeva who was abducted and recently released from captivity reached to India in the late July.

The spokesperson for Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India, Anurag Srivastava said, in a tweet, that the Indian government was “facilitating the return of Hindu and Sikh community members seeking permanent residency and citizenship in India.”

In early July, the Indian government announced that the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs will be given visas and their Indian citizenship requests will be examined. Anurag Srivastavasa said that the Hindu and Sikh communities have been sending requests to Indian government that “they want to move to India and settle down here” and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, “we are facilitating the requests.”

While no details have been given on the rules, Afghan religious minorities could be given citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019— the Act that gives citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from December 31, 2014.

The development comes following a host of terror attacks—terror attack in Kabul’s Hari Rai Sahib Gurudwara—against these minorities and the abduction of a Delhi-based Afghan Sikh Nidan Singh in the Paktika province.

But there is more than just the ghastly targeted attacks and kidnapping that forces Hindu and Sikh minorities seeking asylum in India.

Historically, Afghanistan has been home to ethnically diverse array of groups and multifarious religious populations specifically Hindus and Sikhs were the most prominent religiously divers groups residing in Afghanistan and had made a thriving portion of the Afghan society with a population of 220,000 individuals prior to 1992.

Today, the numbers of Hindu and Sikh minorities have been declined drastically to only the most persistent and determined which make up around 3,000 individuals concentrated in Ghazni, Nangarhar and Kabul provinces.

Hindu and Sikh minorities face an unlivable and difficult situation in Afghanistan and complex obstacles have constrained their life that hamper their ability to thrive and thus, drastic decline has been seen in their population.

Gauging the real situation of Hindus and Sikhs and the reasons behind their drastic flee over the recent decades poses challenges in itself.

Among the reasons behind the drastic decline of the Hindu and Sikh population is religious prosecution. Hindus and Sikhs face religious violence, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination although the 2004 Constitution establishes freedom of religion provision and allows the citizens to exercise and perform their religious rituals.

“Religious persecution remains the strongest motivator for Afghan Hindus leaving the country,” said Ruchi Kumar.

Hindus and Sikhs have been prosecuted since the fall of the Communist regime and the periods of mujahideen and later Taliban were the worst of all for these religious minorities.

An Afghan Sikh civil rights activist, Rawail Singh, recalls, “[w]e were harassed…., we were persecuted and even killed for even slightest display of our faith. Kidnappings of Hindus and Sikhs were rampant.”

Funeral rites remain a serious problem. Because they cremate their dead, and due to not having a dedicated place, Muslim neighbors show animosity and often cause friction.

“There is only so much a community can tolerate. We can’t practice our faith openly…, we can’t even cremate our dead without being stoned by the public,” said Singh.

These minority groups are sometimes treated to death due to their religion. Jagtar Singh Laghmani, a shopkeeper, was threatened to death in 2016 in his shop in Kabul and he was told to convert to Islam or his throat would be cut by knife.

“This is how we begin our day – with fear and isolation. If you are not a Muslim, you are not a human in their eyes,” said Jagtar Singh Laghmani.

Besides, the institutionalized discrimination promotes Hindu and Sikh flees. Afghanistan has socially and politically been fractured by decades of conflict, its population violently and profoundly has been affected and its future seems precarious. Also, Hindu and Sikh populations have fallen through cracks, which the Afghan State often fails to recognize and notice the plight of these minorities.

Kamal Sadat, the former minister of culture and information, asserts that Hindus and Sikhs haven’t been treated fairly, but he says the matter will be addressed by the necessary steps taken by the government.

However, Ehsan Shayegan claims that the real problem lies within the inappropriate institutions and systems that were put in place after 2001.

“Our new constitution was drafted to imitate some of the best model constitutions of the world, but they are still inadequate when it comes to supporting a pluralistic system of democracy,” Shayegan says. He points, for instance, to Article 62 of the Constitution that proscribe non-Muslim Afghans from becoming the president of the State.

“The constitution guarantees equal rights to all Afghan citizens in Article 22 and then contradicts itself in Article 62 by excluding a section of the population,” pointed Shayegan

Courts that function under the provisions of Islamic laws and emulate them are sometimes unsuited to Hindus and Sikhs and to their needs.

“When we go to the courts, at times they ask us if we are even really Afghan. Can’t a non-Muslim be an Afghan?” the minorities are asked.

However, these minorities fiercely assert their national identity.

“Of course, I am an Afghan first,” Ramnath, a Hindu, answered when asked about his nationality. “But if our life is under threat, if our families are faced with risks, we have to leave.”

Harassment and attitude of the State also promote the decline of non-Muslim minorities. Hindus and Sikhs are the minority groups that historically been discriminated systematically and harassed violently. For example, they were required to wear yellow patches or a yellow armband that identified them in public during the Taliban rule. Today, Hindus and Sikhs are irresolute to leave their homes due to the physical and verbal abuses in public spheres. For instance, hairs of Sikhs are forcefully cut as an act of religious violence by Muslim people.

The Afghan government fails continuously to cope and curb violence and incitement against Hindu and Sikh minorities.

According to the 2014 US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report, “[m]embers of minority religious groups continued to suffer discrimination, and the [Afghan] government often did not protect minorities from societal harassment. The government enforced existing legal restrictions on religious freedom selectively and in a discriminatory manner.”

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting states that these minorities say they face physical violence, insults and threats from their neighbors.

“Our women can’t go out, “said Bajan Sing, a shopkeeper in Kabul. Another Sikh from Helmand says, “[w]e can’t visit our gurdwara [temple] and often, locals spit on our faces. They humiliate us for our joora (hair bun), taunt us by saying kafir (infidel).”

Satnam Singh from Helmand states that he sent his wife and daughter to India due to the harassment by the people.

Being a minority group Hindu and Sikh cannot demand the same protection as the majority Muslim which is visible in the distribution of resources. These minorities must pay the rates for the used electricity in Gurdwaras and Mandirs while Muslim Mosques are provided by free electricity by the government.

As the Hindu and Sikh minority continue to shrink, such issues continue to be major problems that further reduce the Hindu and Sikh communities’ population and hinder their ability to thrive in the country.

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