By 1996, the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group had captured most of Afghanistan and when they captured Kabul in September that year, 90 percent of the country was under them except for the parts of Northern Afghanistan. There is a remarkable anecdote of courage and determination displayed by Afghan Sikhs during this period in Jalalabad5.
The original Taliban were from the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. However, they were people from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia within their ranks as well. These Taliban (not the Afghan ones) would spit on the road at the sight of the Sikhs. The Sikhs wore a distinct style of turban and most of them would tie their beard, unlike the natives. The untrimmed moustaches of Sikh men were another distinction. The Sikhs were disgusted at this behaviour but tolerated it as they were the minuscule minority and the Taliban had guns with them.
SEE PART ONE: Afghan Sikhs’ turbulent years
One fine day in late 1996/97 at Tanda Bazaar in Jalalabad, the Sikhs were running their shops (cloth, grocery, Greco-Arabic medicine clinics) when a group of Taliban guards entered the bazaar and as usual one of them spit at a Sikh who was standing outside his cloth shop. Rather than spitting on the ground which was the norm, this Taliban spat on the face of the Sikh shopkeeper. This infuriated the Sikh as this act had crossed all limits of decency. He pulled his metre rod (used to measure cloth) which is made of steel and hit the Taliban on his head. The guard was not expecting such a reaction and after recovering from the shock he and the other guards pulled up their automatic rifles at the Sikh shopkeeper. By this time, the other Sikh traders from nearby shops gathered at the site and they scuffled with the Taliban guards and grabbed their rifles. The Taliban ran away and the Sikhs started shouting the Sikh slogan (known as Jaikara) ‘Jo Bole So Nihal Sat Shri Akaal’6.
The matter was reported to the local Taliban chief who was an Afghan. He was aware of the Sikh religion and listened to both sides of the story. The Sikhs told him that they just wanted to run their shops but could not tolerate the humiliations meted out by the Talibanis. They added that though the rifles are the property of the Taliban, they were snatched in self-defence by the Sikhs during the scuffle. The chief disapproved of the spitting and it was decided that the Taliban initiated the fight and the Sikhs defended themselves. The Taliban guard who had spat expressed his ignorance about the Sikh religion.
Although it was not said in so many words, the Hanafi School of Islam allowed non-Muslims to live as Dhimmis (protected status) subject to the payment of Jizya. The Taliban chief asked how his men could differentiate the Sikhs from others. The chief was told about the Sikh religion and the turban but he was only interested to find a way for his men to differentiate between local Muslims and non-Muslims (Sikhs and Hindus). The Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were told that they need to have a Khanda (symbol of Sikh faith) outside their houses. There were about fifty to sixty Afghan Sikh-Hindu families in Jalalabad and they felt that this would lead to ‘target attacks’. This was not taken forward. The Afghan Hindus were asked to wear caps and yellow tilak (mark on the forehead) While the Afghan Hindu and Sikh women were asked to put a bindi (coloured dot in the centre of the forehead) and wear a chador (a cloak which covered the upper part of the body).
The Afghan Sikhs were not asked to wear a tilak, however they were often asked to convert. The logic was given that they were monotheistic, do not indulge in idol worship and have beards and wore turbans like Muslims. In such situations, the Afghan Sikhs would explain about their faith and tell the Taliban that they were happy and as God is one and all will go to Him after death. When asked why they kept on asking them to convert, the usual answer would be that their Prophet had told them to bring people to the ‘true faith’.
All shopkeepers including Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were strictly told that they should not serve any woman who was not accompanied by an adult male from the family (husband, father or son only). If a woman was seen on the road alone then the Taliban would whip her. The Taliban and their strict and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam meant that local Muslims too were sometimes flogged in public but after this incident, the Taliban guards stopped spitting and largely left the Sikhs and Hindus alone. This identification was also implemented in Kabul and the rest of the country. The Afghan Sikhs and Hindus paid Jizya and were mostly left alone by the Taliban.
The Taliban continued to rule Afghanistan till October 2001. The American Air Force provided strategic support to the Northern Alliance on the ground in October 2001 and they managed to defeat the Taliban in a couple of months.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996 they banned televisions and transmission was stopped. Televisions were publicly smashed and declared un-Islamic. Radio transmission was allowed but for religious programmes and Koranic verses only.
Five years later when the Taliban was defeated in October 2001, television transmission was resumed. The first broadcast after over five years was music and the news was co-presented by two Afghan women. It was a symbolic gesture as women and music were both shunned out of public life in the country under the Taliban. The first lines of the broadcast were, ‘Greetings, viewers, we hope you are all well! We’re glad to have destroyed terrorism and the Taliban and to be able to present this programme to you’7.
With international support, Afghanistan started rebuilding its infrastructure and within a few years a number of private channels began airing.
Hamid Karzai was elected as Interim Head of the Administration in December 2001 and later the President in 2002 by the grand assembly (Loya Jirga). He won the first Presidential election in 2004 and the second one in 2009. His second term ended in September 2014.
The initial few years of the Karzai administration was peaceful and there was a lot of hope and goodwill among people. About twenty-five Afghan Sikh and Hindu men and five families came back to Afghanistan from India. An Afghan Sikh informs that in 2002/03 he tried selling his house to the illegal occupier who offered him a price which was two-third of the prevailing market price. Ten years later he was still offered only half of the price quoted in 2002/03. A number of ex-warlords had joined the government and the goodwill had evaporated by then. The chance of the government enacting a law to restore the properties of the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus is very remote, hence, the illegal occupiers do not feel the need to pay anything but peanuts.
Pritpal Singh of the Mission Afghanistan documentary fame informed that his Greco-Arabic physician father’s clinic (known as Unani Dawakhana) in Jade Maiwand Bazaar of Kabul is illegally occupied. Another Afghan Sikh told that his orchards and agricultural land outside Kabul city has been occupied by the caretakers themselves and they all belong to the majority community. Almost all the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus now live in Gurdwaras in Afghanistan in the absence of houses.
The Afghan Sikhs who left the country in 2015 and 2016, opine that life under the Taliban regime was ‘not that bad’. The Afghan Sikhs and Hindus paid Jizya and were not bothered. However, under the present government, the locals keep on pestering them about conversion to the ‘true faith’ and their children get bullied in schools too. In every walk of life, they are discriminated against. Law and order has now (2018) deteriorated and cities frequently face suicide attacks and bomb blasts.
At present, there are about 1,000 Sikhs and 100 Hindus in Afghanistan and the majority of them live in and around Kabul and Jalalabad. A few Sikhs also live in Ghazni. There are very few Hindus in Ghazni and only a handful in Jalalabad. The majority of Hindus in Kabul are from the Khost province6.
- A major festival in Sikh religion, in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs administered Khande di Pahul (similar to baptism) and made Nanakpanthi community into Khalsa. Vaisakhi is celebrated on 13th April.
- Khajinder S. Khurana. (2001). Kabul de Sangat tee Afghanistan da Sankhep Ithas.New Delhi.
- Khajinder S. Khurana. (2001). Kabul de Sangat tee Afghanistan da Sankhep Ithas. New Delhi.
- Pritpal Singh spoke to the son of Gajinder Singh and confirmed this information. All three are based in London.
- Afghan Sikhs who now live in the UK related this incident to the author. They also informed that the very rich Afghan Hindus and Sikhs left the country in the 1980s, from 1983 onwards.
- ‘Jo Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal’is the Sikh slogan or Jaikara (it is a shout of victory, triumph or exultation) which means one will be blessed eternally who says that God is the ultimate truth. It is an integral part of the Sikh religious service and is shouted at the end of Ardas, Sikh prayers and said in Sangat or holy congregation. This is also the war cry of the Sikh regiment (and the Sikh Light Infantry) in the Indian Army.
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1663414.stm. Accessed on 20 August 2018.
- Ram Saran Basin from Kabul updated the author during the first week of August 2018. The majority of the Khost community is Pashto-speaking SahajdhariSikhs.
Second of a two-part series of excerpts from Chapter 15 (Turbulent Years, Exodus and the Taliban) of Afghan Hindus and Sikh by Inderjeet Singh. The 233-page book was published in April 2019
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Sikhs are finished in Afghanistan (Asia Samachar, 29 March 2020)
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