Gurnam Singh and his Sikh community recently held a religious gathering to pray for those overcoming the coronavirus in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. Children, women, and men of the minority religious group in the Muslim-dominated country were praying for health and wellbeing for others in their small temple on Wednesday, March 26 when tragedy struck.
Six-Hour Siege of Sikh Temple in Afghanistan’s Capital
When the ceremony reached its momentum, an Islamic State militant dressed in a local police uniform killed a Muslim guard and entered the temple brandishing a weapon. The militant began shooting at civilians trapped inside the temple complex and also tossed grenades into the crowd of worshipers. He took Afghan Sikhs hostage while exchanging fire with the Afghan security forces.
The six-hour-long siege killed 25 members of Afghanistan’s Sikh community. Gurnam Singh lost five family members in the vicious massacre.
“It is possible that this attack leads us all [Sikhs and Hindus] to leave Afghanistan,” said Gurnam Singh, the head of temples of Sikhs and Hindus in the country. Singh added that since last year’s attack, 150 members of these communities had left the country.
The Islamic State in Afghanistan — known as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province — is a violently extremist Sunni Salafist Islamic group that has repeatedly attacked minority groups in Afghanistan including Shiite Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.
In a recent example from July of 2018, Hindus and Sikhs were traveling to a gathering attended by President Ashraf Ghani in the eastern city of Jalalabad, the capital of the Nangahar province. An Islamic State bomber struck a vehicle belonging to Hindus and Sikhs, killing 17 of them, including their candidate for the Afghan parliamentary election.
Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus Have Now Been Reduced to Mere Hundreds
The recent Islamic State attacks in Kabul were a major blow to Afghanistan’s small community of Sikhs and Hindus. The community reached a peak of 200,000 members in the 1980s, but has been reduced to thousands and eventually hundreds because of internecine war.
The Sikh and Hindu communities were in Afghanistan long before the majority of Afghans converted to Islam during the 7th to 10th centuries, although the narratives on how Hindus and Sikhs survived in the intervening time vary.
One narrative says that indigenous Afghans pushed back against converting to Islam and followed Hinduism for centuries. Many Afghans converted to Sikhism around 1520 when its founder Guru Nanak traveled to Kabul.
Sikhs and Hindus were a significant part of the trading community in Afghanistan for years until war broke out in the 1980s and 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet-backed Afghan communist government in 1992, civil war broke out and pushed many Sikhs and Hindus out of the country due to discrimination.
Under Taliban governance from 1996 to 2001, Hindus and Sikhs were required to wear yellow armbands and mark their homes and businesses in a bid to publicly identify them and separate them from Muslims.
Growing Discrimination and Intolerance
In 2001, U.S.-led coalition forces toppled the Taliban government, but the situation for Sikhs and Hindus did not improve significantly. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan approved a decree to grant one seat for a representative of the Hindu and Sikh communities in the Afghan parliament. But instead the country’s Sikhs and Hindus were mostly reduced to running small herbal medicine shops.
“Life in this land is very hard,” said 28-year Sardar Emrik Singh who was born in Kabul. “We don’t have only two or one problems, but we face every kind of problem. We don’t have another choice but to leave.”
The discrimination against the Sikh and Hindu communities has been deeply rooted in Afghanistan’s war-torn society. As of 2020, not a single member of the community attends Afghan universities. A survey published by the Porsesh Research & Studies Organization (PRSO), a Kabul-based think tank, said that 34.9% of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities face discrimination and bullying at schools.
A large number of Hindus and Sikhs attend school in their own temples where they largely learn about their religious practices, not the Afghan educational curriculum.
“Even ordinary people do not let us live in peace,” said Singh, who is a herbal medicine shopper in Kabul. “They come to our shops and beat us.” Singh explained that many Sikhs and Hindus used to live in their own homes in different neighborhoods of the capital, but now four to six families live in one home.
The Ongoing Plunder of Sikh and Hindu Communities
“Now we live in only two neighborhoods,” said Singh, who is a Sikh. “[Sikhs and Hindus] don’t have their independent houses. We used to have our own homes, but we have lost them. People [Afghan Muslims] took them by force.”
Since Afghanistan’s civil war broke out in 1992, Sikhs and Hindus have lost many of their properties, money, and treasure. The state stole their safety. The PRSO survey said that 96.8% of Sikhs and Hindus expressed fear over the safety of their families who live in urban areas of the country.
With their different dresses and lifestyles, Sikhs and Hindus have been victim to widespread kidnapping, extortion, and banditry in Afghanistan. As many as 50% of Afghans overall have had their money or property stolen in 2018, according to a survey by Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company based in Washington, D.C.
Atrocities Against Sikhs and Hindus: ‘We Have Been Torn Apart’
In February 2020, unknown people entered the house of a Sikh woman in the Karte-Parwan neighborhood of Kabul at midnight. The body of the woman was torn apart, her head was cut off, and her money and jewelry were stolen.
In March 2019, a young Sikh shopkeeper in Kabul disappeared. His family found his torn-apart corpse buried in a Muslim graveyard. The police failed to identify him and buried him, claiming they had already arrested the alleged murderers.
In December 2016, Nirmohan Singh, the head of the Sikh community in the northern Kunduz province, was on his way to a shop in Kunduz that came under gunfire and lost his life. It is believed that many other killings remain unreported. The killings shocked the tiny community as did the brazen attack recently in Kabul.
“We are innocent people,” said Tejinder Singh, an Afghan Sikh. “We suffer. This community has been torn apart. How long will this situation drag on? We have been torn apart.”
Aber Shayagan contributed reporting to this article.