AFGHAN SIKHS AND HINDUS
–THEIR EXODUS FROM AFGHANISTAN Since 1992-94–
Sikhs & Hindus - 1950s onwards
Emperor Zahir Shah ascended the throne of Afghanistan in 1933, as a 19-year-old lad. Till 1953, the power was vested with the Prime Ministers who were his paternal uncles namely Mohd Hashim Khan and Shah Mahmud Khan. The former served until 1946 and the latter succeeded him and held the post of Prime Minister till 1953. Shah Mahmud Khan was replaced by Mohd Daoud Khan, a cousin of Zahir Shah who remained the Prime Minister for 10 years till 1963. This was the beginning of several reforms and modernisation of the Afghanistan and its society which also benefitted the Sikhs and Hindus as well. Around 1954-55, the Sikhs and the Hindus were given Tazkira, the national identity card akin to citizenship. The Jiazya tax imposed on them earlier was removed, and they were officially allowed to serve in the Afghan National Army. Military service of two years was made compulsory for every Afghan male from the age of 22. For those who were postgraduates, the compulsory service was only one year. In the early 1970s, after completing military service, every postgraduate was granted permission to wear military uniform on some special occasions. The Afghan Sikhs would wear it very proudly especially on Vaisakhi Nagar Keertan (Sikh religious procession). By the late 1970s, every hospital in major Afghan cities had its fair share of Sikh and Hindu doctors. Their old and existing places of worship were repaired, rebuilt, and renovated. In the mid-1960s, the Gurdwara Guru Singh Sabha at KarteParwan area of Kabul was built which became the hub for the Sikh activities in Kabul. The Sikhs and Hindus were one of the richest groups in Afghanistan and yet very much part and parcel of Afghan society.
Afghanistan becomes Republic
The last Emperor of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by his cousin Mohd Daoud Khan (who had previously served as Prime Minister from 1953-63) who abolished the monarchy and declared Afghanistan a Republic. This was a bloodless coup and a seamless transition of power. There is little indication that there was any protest from any section of the society in Afghanistan. Daoud Khan became its first President and the country moved on with the same relative peace and stability as under the past ruler. Daoud Khan and his family were assassinated in April 1978 by the members of the People Democratic Party, the communist party of Afghanistan. In the inter-party tussle, the next President Nur Muhammad Taraki was also assassinated which plunged the country into chaos. Later in December 1979, the Soviet Union sent their forces to support the communist regime in Kabul and called it ‘Soviet intervention’. This plunged the country into civil war as Afghans saw this as an invasion and illegal occupation of the country. Afghanistan became a battleground for the Cold War between two major world powers. The USA and its allies started providing weapons to the Mujahideen (literal meaning freedom fighters) to fight a ‘proxy war’ against Soviet occupation.1
Civil War & Afghan Hindus & Sikhs
The movement against the Soviet occupation started in Kandahar in early 1980. In the words of Afghan Hindus who lived in Kandahar in that era, a wave of patriotism engulfed the country. All and sundry including the educated and intellectual joined the ‘freedom movement’. The Afghan Hindus (and Sikhs) supported them in kind. However, as it happens with most of the political movements, anti-social elements crept into the movement slowly and steadily. Any individual, whosoever was on the wrong side of the law in Pakistan, came to Afghanistan to join Mujahideen and those in Afghanistan went to Pakistan. Despite living in the country for a time immemorial, Afghan Hindus (and Sikhs) were considered Hindki, people from Hindustan/India. In the cold war era, India had very friendly relations with the Soviet Union as Pakistan had similar relations with the USA. To motivate their ranks, Mujahideen used religion, and Afghan Hindus and Sikhs were dubbed as Indian ‘kafirs’ or infidels who could not be trusted along with the Soviet Russians. Also, during this period, a large number of radicalised young men from Pakistan, Arab nations, Chechnya province of Russia including others had joined the ranks of Mujahideen who had little knowledge about Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. By early 1980s, Afghan Hindus and Sahajdhari Sikhs of Tarinkot & Deh Rawood (known as Saraayee Hindus, which mean village dwellers) came to Kandahar city due to deteriorating security situation. Eventually the Hindus and Sikhs of Kandahar area came to Ghazni, Jalalabad, and Kabul. A few of them left the country for good.2The United Nations estimates that 3 million Afghans (Muslims) became refugees each in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran.3
Attack on Afghan Sikhs at Jalalabad 1988/89
The Afghan Sikh community was directly targeted in 1988 which devasted the community. On 13th April 1988, on the first day of the Vaisakhi Samagham at Jalalabad, the Sangat was moving towards to Langar (community kitchen) when suddenly a man with an AK-47 rifle entered the Gurdwara complex and started firing at the devotees. Then as he tried to enter the Gurdwara Hall, Daler Singh, a Sikh soldier stood in front of him and shot all his bullets killing the assailant. However, in the process, Singh received several bullet injuries and died as well. In total, thirteen Sikhs and four Afghan Muslim soldiers were killed.
The next day was an Election Day for the Parliament in Afghanistan. In Jalalabad, Bhai Darbari Singh was contesting the election. In Kabul, Gajinder Singh Rangila and Lala Tek Chand Sarin were in the fray. However, the above mentioned incident left a deep impact on the minds of the Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan and many did not come out to vote. Only Gajinder Singh Rangila was able to win his seat.
It was also the first time that Afghan TV made a broadcast of Gurbani for half an hour where Bhai Amarjeet Singh Taan sang two shabads: Awal Allah Noor Upaya and Khalsa Mero Roop Hai Khas. On Vaisakhi, Radio Kabul and Nangarhar would broadcast a special programme where people were informed about the Sikh religion and Guru Nanak.4
From March to October 1989, the Mujahideen attacked Jalalabad intending to capture the city. The local tribal chief impressed upon Mujahideen for peace, but they informed that they had to attack, and the chief gave them the map of the old township and marked that area where Mujahideen could bomb. And this was the area where the Sikhs lived in Jalalabad. For the next 6 months the Stinger (surface to air) missiles kept firing on the area and 102 Afghan Sikhs died and over 500 were injured in these attacks.5
Dr. Joginder Singh Tej Khurana, former Member of the Afghan Grand Assembly 1990-92, was based at Jalalabad at that time informs that the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were not allowed to leave the city go to Kabul lest that create panic and destroy the illusion created by the Afghan government that they are very much in control of the security situation in the country. The agricultural land and orchards of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs were forcibly occupied. The Mujahideen told Muslim landlords that leasing the shops to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus was not allowed. Hence these landlords took away the shops, cancelled the lease, and did not pay back the hefty down payment made by the Sikhs and the Hindus. Around the end of 1989, Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were allowed to leave and they went to Kabul.
Afghan Sikhs & Hindus in Kabul
Eminent Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta went to Kabul in May 1988, a month after the Sikh killings in Jalalabad, and wrote his observations about Kabul currency market for the India Today magazine. The city’s money market was described as Kabul’s stock exchange, national reserve bank and social hub all rolled into one. In this unique market, he saw currency notes piled high on shop counters and people walking in, accompanied by labourers carrying gunny bags full of cash on their backs! The officials estimated that seven to eight million dollars worth cash exchanged hands in the market every day. The majority of the thousand-odd businessmen and jobbers were the Afghan Sikhs and the Hindus. Shekhar Gupta notes that their financial acumen and honesty had made these people the richest community of Afghanistan.6
However, eleven months later in April 1989, India Today reported that the 50,000 odd Sikhs and Hindus who dominated the foreign trade and the money exchange business, were living in fear in Afghanistan as most of them were in Kabul. The community was unhappy that the Indian Embassy in Kabul was ‘much too stingy in issuing visas’ allegedly at the behest of the Afghan government as any large-scale departure of the community from Afghanistan would burst the official bubble that there was no panic in Kabul. The Indian Embassy had not replaced the six top diplomats, including the ambassador, who had earlier left in the recent past. The Embassy was operating with a skeletal staff led by four diplomats.7
En-mass Exodus in 1992-94
The war between the Soviets and Mujahideen quickly turned into a stalemate, with about 100,000 Soviet troops controlling the cities, larger towns, and major garrisons and the Mujahideen moving with relative freedom throughout the rural areas.8 Following an agreement with USA & allies, the last of the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989 and handed over the defence to Afghan forces. Dr Najibullah Ahmadzai, the President of Afghanistan resigned in early 1992 as Mujahideen were at the doorsteps of the capital Kabul. Although some Afghan Sikhs and Hindus had left the country in the late 1970s and 1980s, the vast majority of them were still in the country especially in Kabul.
The relations between Afghanistan and India had been cordial. Najibullah felt that under the fundamentalist Mujahideen (who were supported by Pakistan and the USA) life would become very difficult for the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. These fears proved right which will be discussed further.
Dr Tej Khurana, currently is living in London and writing a book on the community specifically focusing on the past 100-150 years. He and other Sikh fellow Parliamentarian, Gajinder Singh had played a pivotal role in 1992, working with Najibullah Ahmadzai to get a safe passage for the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. He was in midst of the plans with the Afghan government in 1992 for their exodus when lists were made, speedy passports and visas were given to Sikhs and Hindus.
The Indian embassy set up an on-the-go visa department at Gurdwara Guru Singh Sabha in the Karte Parwan area of Kabul to issue visas rapidly without any checks so that the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs could escape the civil war. It was too dangerous for people living in the old town to travel to the Indian embassy in the centre of the town because of the dangers of bombardment all over Kabul. The Indian embassy did not have enough staff to put the visa stamps, so some Afghan Sikh volunteers at the Gurdwara had to put visa stamps on people’s passports.
The Mujahideen entered the city of Kabul in April 1992 unopposed, the Army General of the then Afghan Government had a deal with the Mujahideen. Everyone was happy as it was felt that peace had been achieved and Mujahideen were in the government. However, an incident alarmed the Afghan Sikh and Hindu population. The Mujahideen entered and searched the Gurdwara Guru Singh Sabha Karte Parwan for the elusive transmitter. According to them, they suspected the presence of a transmitter which Afghan Sikhs and Hindus (dubbed Indians) would have used for espionage. It was untrue, and they ended up desecrating and ransacking the Gurdwara Sahib much to the disappointment of the Sikhs.9
The peace in the city of Kabul did not last more than two months. The city was divided into Mujahideen groups who were controlling different parts of the city. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, and Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik appeared to be in a strong position. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, ethnic Pashtun (the largest group with 45% Pushtoons in Afghanistan) did not join the government. Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik became the President in end of June 1992. He was unable to reach an agreement with Gulbuddan Hekmatyar, who had been offered the position of a Prime Minister which led to the latter attacking the Kabul city with rockets and stinger missiles.
The Human Rights Watch Report: Blood-Stained Hands focuses on April 1992 to March 1993 and calls it ‘The Battle for Kabul’ and states that “by May 30, 1992, Jamiat (Rabbani group) and Junbish forces (Dostum group) were fighting with Hetmatyar’s forces in the south of the city. Hekmatyar began shelling and rocketing Kabul in early June, hitting all areas of the city, and Junbish and Jamiat forces shelled areas to the south of the city. Meanwhile, Sunni Ittihad and Shia Wahdat factions in Kabul began fighting with one another in west Kabul.” The report further adds that this civil war led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths and injuries and caused hundreds of thousands to flee Kabul for safer areas.10
Ahmad Shah Massoud took control of Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib which was the strongest and the biggest structure in Shore Bazaar and made it his resistance centre to attack Hekmatyar. A major part of Kabul was destroyed during this period and during the chaos, the houses of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were looted. A prominent Sikh was kidnapped and was released after a $50,000 was paid in ransom. Left with little option, the Sikhs and Hindus were forced to sell their houses at half or one-third price. In one case, a payment was made and the same evening the seller Sikh was robbed and killed.
Babri Masjid Demolition – Dec 1992
On 6th December 1992, the Babri Masjid, built in the 16th century allegedly on the site of a famous Hindu Temple was demolished in India. Its after effects gave a body blow to the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. This gave the fundamentalists an excuse to loot, harass, and in few cases kill Sikhs and Hindus who were ‘Indians’ in their eyes.
In Jalalabad, a timely action from Sikhs who contacted the local Mujahideen government saved the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar. However, Gurdwara Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib was looted and damaged. The Dargah Mathura Das Mandir in the city was attacked and the idols of the deities were smashed, and the place was wrecked.
In Khost, the Gurdwara Sahib in Prem Nagar was fired by a rocket and then the miscreants brought a bulldozer and demolished a major part of the building. In Kabul, the Gurdwara Guru Singh Sabha at KarteParwan was plundered, and Guru Granth Sahib was desecrated as it happened in other places. In Ghazni, the Guru Granth Sahib was brought to a Sikh home in anticipation of the trouble and the fundamentalists stormed the Gurdwara Sahib and caused much damage.
The Gurdwara Nanak Nirankari at Lashkargah (Helmand) was attacked by a rocket. A Sikh travelling from Helmand to Kandahar by bus was killed and he was buried alive with his hands tied. In Kandahar, the Sikhs & Hindus were called for a meeting, 65 of them attended and they were ‘found guilty’ and a death sentence by hanging was pronounced for them. An Afghan Sikh who had friendly relations with a senior official working in the provincial ministry of religious affairs, pleaded their case that the Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan were ethnically Afghan and had nothing to do with what had happened in India. As a result, the lives of these poor souls were finally saved. It took full 3-4 months for this hostile atmosphere to subside largely due to the Mujahideen government’s announcement on the radio across the country were the Hindus and Sikhs in the country had Afghan and they are nothing to do with India.11
During this period the houses of Hindus in Kandahar were looted, and they migrated to northern cities and eventually to Kabul. This added fuel to the already volatile situation for other Hindus and Sikhs.
The Indian Embassy in Kabul informs that between 1992-94, almost 75,000 Indian visas were issued. Dr Tej Khurana adds that around 50,000 people out of a total population of 60,000 to 65,000 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus left Afghanistan. Some men left their families in India and came back to sell their houses or continued to work in Afghanistan for a few months of the year. Almost 10,000, mostly Afghan Sikhs decided to remain in the country. However, by the end of 2001, this number had dropped to 3000 only.12
Louise Dupree in his famous book, Afghanistan first published in 1973 wrote that there were 30,000 Hindus & Sikhs in the country.13 Later in the book, he gives a combined figure of 25,000 including 15,000 Sikhs.14 This number is on the low side but by not a huge margin. The World Bank data based on UN reports state that for Afghanistan, the life expectancy at birth in 1970 was 37.4 years which had increased to 51.6 years in 1992. And this has surged to almost 65 years in 2019.15
Khajinder Singh Khurana in the preface of his book mentions that there were about 40,000 to 50,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan in 1990. The author spoke to him before his death on 13th September 2020 and he revised his estimate and said there were about 60,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country before their exodus in 1992 in the ratio of 3:2 which corresponds with Dupree’s proportion.16
As mentioned earlier, India Today in 1989 reported that there were 50,000 odd Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan. Dr TejKhurana is also of the opinion that there were about 60,000 to 65,000 Sikhs and Hindus in 1992.
The Sikh population overtook Hindus only in the 1970s when Sahajdharis (those who believe in Sikh Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib but do not keep unshaven hair) in Kabul region became Khalsa Sikh. Then from the 1980s onwards few Sahajdharis from Kandahar, Helmand & Uruzgan provinces also followed their brethren in Kabul and became Khalsa Sikhs. The majority of the community from Khost and some from greater Kandahar are still Sahajdharis while others have mixed Sikh-Hindu beliefs (to a varying degree), hence the proportion of Sikhs to Hindus seems right. There are many Sahajdharis and mixed Sikh-Hindu belief communities in KPK province, Balochistan& Sindh in Pakistan.17
Relations with Muslims
Many local Muslims have been friendly with Sikhs & Hindus. A local Afghan Muslim from Jalalabad told the author that as a child his father would advise him to buy groceries & other stuff from Sikh shopkeepers as they were honest. Traditionally Afghans would deposit their money with Sikhs and Hindus for safety reasons as the community was reputed for their high personal integrity.
Following the attack on Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib, the author received messages from Afghan Muslims apologising that they could not protect their Sikh brothers but also said it is not a handiwork of any Afghan. Frequently on social media, the author gets asked by Afghan Muslims if their Sikh brothers (Afghan Sikhs) will return to Afghanistan if peace returns to the country?
Unfortunately, except for a few Afghan intellectuals, Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are not considered native, even by friendly neighbours, they are asked if they are going back or when did they come from India? The radicals among them abuse Sikhs when they are on the road just because they happen to be visibly non-Muslims and outsiders. Over four decades of civil war have made many in Afghanistans bitter and more fundamentalist. Sikh students get bullied in schools, for being a visibly non-Muslims and hardly any Sikh student who had studied beyond primary education after 1994. Without education, there is no future for the Sikh kids in Afghanistan and sadly this problem persists.
The Sikhs and Hindus have traditionally lived in Pashtun majority areas of Afghanistan with reasonably good relations with them. The capital Kabul and Ghazni had a substantial population of Tajiks and Hazaras as well. Sikhs and Hindus had a good rapport with them as well. However, by the mid-1980s the Sikhs from Kabul recall that the friendly chats with Afghan Muslims had almost stopped (except where they were personal friendships). There was heavy propaganda against the Sikhs and Hindus, who were dubbed Indians, traitors, and infidels.
The Mujahideen civil war in the 1990s gave the Taliban an opportunity and by 1996 they were in power, controlling 90% of the country except for the northern parts which were with the ‘Northern Alliance’ led by Ahmad Shah Masood. The Taliban were defeated in October 2001 and since then Afghanistan had had a fragile democracy for almost 20 years. The Sikhs in Afghanistan were about 3000 in 2001 and during these twenty years of democracy, their number dwindled to under 300. The community lost its leadership including 13 members (12 Sikhs & 1 Hindu) in the bomb blast at Jalalabad on July 1, 2018. The attack at Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib in Kabul on 25th March 2020 in which at least 26 Sikhs including women and children were killed shook the community. By end of August 2020, 400 Afghan Sikhs had left Afghanistan and sought refuge in India. During this period (2002 - 21) the Afghan government failed to provide them adequate housing or reinstate their homes which have been illegally occupied by their powerful neighbours or warlords during the 1990s. Sikh boys were continuously bullied in schools and the teachers and school management did not intervene. There is hardly anyone in the community who has studied beyond primary school after the 1990s.
The lastAfghan government under Ashraf Ghani was sympathetic towards the Sikhs. Primary schools for Sikhs were opened in Kabul, Ghazni, and Jalalabad. Narinder Pal Singh Khalsa was nominated as minority representative in the Parliament, his brother Sandpal Singh Khalsa was made Adviser to the President to give the minority participation in Government. Last year, 50 lakh Afghani rupees were allotted for the renovation of Sikh and Hindu places of worship. Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar in Jalalabad and Dargah Peer Rattan Nath Mandir in Ghazni were refurbished last year. In the past six years, more than 3500 civilians have been killed each year, due to bomb blasts and sometimes caught in attacks between the government and Taliban forces.19Even the majority community has suffered in this turmoil. The Taliban have again gained control of Afghanistan and Sikhs have requested that they may be evacuated from Afghanistan. The Sikhs are worried about the Taliban’s ability to manage terrorist organisations like Daesh/ISIS who never come to a negotiating table. Many see it as the beginning of the tragic end of Afghan Sikh history and their rich heritage. The only silver lining in this darkest scenario is the refuge being provided to them by India and shelter and food by the Sikh religious Institutions in India.
1. Inderjeet Singh (2019) Afghan Hindus & Sikhs History of a Thousand Years. Delhi: Readomania p. 192
2. The author spoke to several Afghan Hindus from Kandahar. The latter felt that due to the security situation in Afghanistan their names should not be mentioned.
3. Accessed on 26 August 2021 (https://www.unhcr.org/uk/research/working/4868daad2/afghan-refugees-pakistan-during-1980s-cold-war-politics-registration-practice.html)
4. Khajinder Singh Khurana (2001). Kabul de Sangat tee Afghanistan da SankhepIthas (in Punjabi). New Delhi.p117
5. Inderjeet Singh (2020) Afghan Sikhs – Tracing their Origins & History. Abstracts of Sikhs Studies. Vol XXII, Issue 4, p72
6. Accessed on 3 February 2019 (https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/international/story/19880531-men-of-indian-origin-dominatecurrency-trade-in-afghanistan-797277-1988-05-31)
7. Accessed on 3 February 2019 (https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/special-report/story/19890415-hindu-and-sikh-community-inafghanistan-live-under-constant-fear-today-815961-1989-04-15)
8. Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed on 3rd September 2021 (https://www.britannica.com/event/Afghan-War#ref341368)
9. Dr. Joginder Singh Tej Khurana’s upcoming book, BhulianVisrianYaadan De Charokhe (in Punjabi)
10. Human Rights Watch, accessed on 3September 2021 (https://www.hrw.org/report/2005/07/06/blood-stained-hands/past-atrocities-kabul-and-afghanistans-legacy-impunity)
11. Dr. Joginder Singh Tej Khurana’s upcoming book, BhulianVisrianYaadan De Charokhe (in Punjabi)
12. The UK-based Guardian newspaper dated 24 May 2001 gave the number of Hindus at 500 and Sikhs at 2500. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/may/24/lukeharding) Accessed on 28 August 2021
13. Louise Dupree (1973) Afghanistan. New Jersey: Princeton University Press p66
14. Ibid p110
15. Accessed on 5 September 2021 (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=AF)
16. Khajinder Singh Khurana (2001). Kabul de Sangat tee Afghanistan da SankhepIthas (in Punjabi). New Delhi.
17. Inderjeet Singh (2019) Afghan Hindus & Sikhs History of a Thousand Years. Delhi: Readomania.
18. Accessed on 5 September 2021 (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=AF)
19. United Nations, accessed on 29 August 2021 (https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/02/1057921)