Avtar Singh, 32, an Afghan Sikh, narrates his persecution in Afghanistan and why he left Ghazni, where his family lived for five generations. Singh sees the Citizenship Law as a blessing for people like him
forefathers settled in Afghanistan five generations ago. We lived in Ghazni,
about 170 kilometres from Kabul, the Afghan Capital. We owned multiple garment
shops and nearly 40 acres of land. Why we had to leave everything behind and
took refuge in Delhi is a tragic story, one of religious persecution and plight
of minorities in Afghanistan.
since I was born, I remember being discriminated against in Afghanistan. It
started with being made fun of for our attires, our pagris. They would call us kafir, be-iman and by other derogatory
terms. Every time we went out we would be taunted with: “Aaj pagri me aloo rakha hai ya pyaz?” (What have you hidden in your
turban today – potatoes or onions?).They would tell us to get rid of our hair
and look like them. We were constantly asked to convert to Islam.
took a more sinister turn with people spitting at us in public for following
Sikhism, at times throwing stones at us randomly. I couldn’t send my children out,
or my younger brother to school. Afghanistan was the only home we had known and
we were heartbroken by the way things were happening. My mother who had seen
better times before 1979 (before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) lamented
at what we had come to.
father, Shaheed Harbans Singh Khalsa, a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan,
was killed in an accident in 2003. We later got to know it was all pre-planned.
Mysterious papers would be thrown at our house with threats to life and ransom
money. Over the years, I paid nearly ₹80-90 lakh to keep my family safe.
After a decade of living in uncertainty, constant suffering and blackmailing, we reached the breaking point and decided to flee to India. We were helped by a few people to buy tickets amounting to ₹90, 000 for seven people for the Kabul-Delhi flight.
That was in 2014. I lived a lifetime on that flight. I had only ₹20,000 to start a new life in India and a family of seven to feed. However, we were happy that at least we came out of Afghanistan alive.
We live on meagre resources in India. I work as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in Delhi. My brother who is in his teens also has to work to support the family. I am greatly surprised how well-behaved Indian Muslims are. They always address us as Bhaijaan and Sardar Ji and make us feel welcome in every aspect of life.
have to extend our visas every two to three years. I have heard of the new Citizenship
Law that would give refugees like us permanent citizenship of India, and we are
glad about the same. Even though I understand the sentiments of several people
who have been protesting against CAA, I feel they should know why citizenship
in India is so important, no less than a blessing for people like us. We can finally
call India our home.
being on the receiving end of persecution, I have become a better person, not
bitter and feel no one should be persecuted on the basis of religion. Our Guru
Granth Sahib teaches us: Koi Bole Ram Ram, Koi Khudaye, Koi Sewe Gosaiya, Koi Alahe (God is one,
people know it by different names).
Last Sunday’s arrival in New Delhi of 11 Sikhs from Afghanistan
marks the beginning of the end of a centuries-old historic process of Hindus
and Sikhs moving to and from this India’s extended neighbourhood.
It may be a matter of time – perhaps a few months – before all of
them, estimated at between 600 and 1,000, a microscopic minority in an
overwhelmingly Islamic nation, may leave Afghanistan for good and seek new
lives in India that one of them on arrival gratefully called “our motherland.”
This small but epochal event sadly reduces to a mere debate what is
steeped in history. Can an Afghan
be a Hindu or a Sikh? History says yes, asserts Inderjeet Singh in his book Afghan
Hindus and Sikhs: History of A Thousand Years published in April last
There is no reliable
information on when Hinduism began in Afghanistan that once had Hindu rulers,
and when Buddhism thrived. But historians suggest that the territory south of
the Hindu Kush was culturally connected with the Indus Valley Civilization
(5500–2000 BC) in ancient times.
As for the Sikh, records show
that its founder Guru Nanak Dev had visited Kabul in the early 16th
century and laid the faith’s foundation.
Islam arrived in Afghanistan
only in the seventh century. “The Hindu Shahi rulers of Kabulistan were
replaced only by the end of the 10th century by the Ghaznavides, who maintained
Hindu forces,” Inderjeet Singh asserts in his book.
Contemporary records show that Maharaja Ranjit Singh also ruled parts of Afghanistan. About 250,000 Hindus and Sikhs had thriving trade and lived in relative peace and harmony and travelled to and from British India. Father of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used to trade with Afghanistan, carrying consignments of asafoetida (heeng).
Recorded or otherwise, this
account must make a grim present-day note of the end of the presence of
religious minorities – at least the Hindus and the Sikhs – in Afghanistan. A
small minority in an overwhelmingly Islamic nation, they survived the violent
civil war conditions that have prevailed since last King Zahir Shah was deposed
in 1973. Last 47 years have seen a decade of communist rule backed by the
erstwhile Soviet Union, a “jihad” supported by the Western nations,
faction-ridden and violent rule by the Mujahideen five years of Taliban and
since the US-led “global war against terrorism” that followed 9/11, eighteen
years of the present government backed by the United States.
The US is keen to quit its
longest war, whether or not President Trump gets re-elected. Its iffy pact with
the Taliban is not working and the way is opened for the Taliban, with their
sordid record of suppressing women and minorities, backed by Pakistan that has
its own sordid record, returning to power. That makes the status of Afghan religious minorities more uncertain than ever. That
makes India’s move, with American blessings, timely.
The Afghan minorities have already felt the heat.
Twenty-five Sikhs were killed at a Gurdwara in Paktia province in March this
year. They were targeted by an Afghan group owing allegiance to the Islamic
State (IS). Indeed, the IS’ spread has been the reason for the US, Russia, Iran
and China coming on the same page, leaving Pakistan as a key factor and India,
an ‘outsider’, yet again. History is repeating itself.
The 11 Afghan Sikhs have been granted short-term Indian visas. They include Nidan Singh Sachdeva, who was abducted from Paktia’s gurudwara in June. The rest are families of those who were killed in the Kabul Gurudwara terror attack earlier this year. Twenty-five Afghan Sikhs and one Indian Sikh were killed on the March 25 terror attack in Kabul by a heavily armed ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) suicide bomber. The group includes Salmeet Kaur who was reportedly kidnapped in Kabul but later came back.
This Sikh group hopes that India would give them long-term visas and eventually grant
citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed last year. It
gives citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious
minorities from three countries –Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan with a
cut-off date of 31st December 2014.
While that may happen, for the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, the decision
to come to India poses an agonizing dilemma. In Afghanistan, they have
livelihoods — shops and businesses passed down through generations — but spend
their days dreading the next attack. Making a new start in India would most
likely mean living in poverty, they said, particularly during an economic slump
exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lala Sher Singh, 63, who was attacked in March,
told The New York Times that the community had shrunk so much that his thoughts
were occupied “day and night” by a fear that “the next assault might not leave
enough people who can perform the final rituals for the dead.”
“I may get killed here because of these threats to
Hindus and Sikhs, but in India I will die from poverty. I have spent my whole
life in Afghanistan. In this neighbourhood close to the temple, if I run out of
money and stand in front of a shop and ask for two eggs and some bread, they
will give it to me for free. But who will help me in India?”
The New York Times reported that there was no
official reaction from the Afghan government to India’s offer. “A senior Afghan
official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the
matter with the news media, said that ‘violence affected all Afghans’,” and
that an offer of safety only to Hindus and Sikhs put religious diversity in
Afghanistan in doubt.
The Afghan official, ostensibly making no excuse
about the poor security available to the religious minorities in his country,
attributed the Indian government’s move to being “aimed at a domestic audience
in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to move the country away
from its secular, multicultural foundations and give it a more overtly Hindu
identity, while projecting itself as a champion of persecuted Hindu minorities
elsewhere.” The beleaguered Afghan authorities fighting
for their own survival amidst civil war of their own, would likely stay silent
and not mind the minorities leaving.
Truth be told, the Tibetan refugees took years to settle in India
and thousands of Hindus from Pakistan have yet to get their citizenship
documents, leave alone facilities and opportunities to settle, earn livelihood
and send their children to school. By contrast, those who come in illegally, do
manage to get their ration cards, citizenship certificates and even voter’s
cards from the grey market on payment. Despite the sentiments of those who
support this “ghar wapasi”, this is the harsh reality.
Even if necessary, this is a thankless, unending task. “Mother
India” must pay a price for embracing back its sons and daughters troubled in
their chosen homes.
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