KABUL – Afghanistan’s dwindling community of Sikhs and Hindus is shrinking to its lowest levels. With growing threats from the local Islamic State affiliate, many are choosing to leave the country of their birth to escape the insecurity and a once-thriving community of as many as 250,000 members now counts fewer than 700.
The community’s numbers have been declining for years because of deep-rooted discrimination in the majority Muslim country. But, without what they say is adequate protection from the government, the attacks by the Islamic State group may complete the exodus.
“We are no longer able to stay here,” said a member of the tiny community, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Hamdard, out of fear he may be targeted for speaking out. Hamdard said seven relatives of his, including his sister, nephews, and son-in-law were killed by Islamic State gunmen in an attack on the community's temple in March, which killed 25 Sikhs.
Hamdard said that fleeing his homeland is as difficult as leaving a mother behind. Still, he joined a group of Sikhs and Hindus who left Afghanistan last month for India, from where they will eventually move on to a third country.
Although Sikhism and Hinduism are two distinct religions with their own holy books and temples, in Afghanistan the communities are interwoven, having been driven into a kinship by their tiny size, and they both gather under one roof or a single temple to worship, each following their own faith.
The community has suffered widespread discrimination in the conservative Muslim country, with each government “threatening us their own way,” said Hamdard, whose home was seized by warlords after the U.S. invasion in 2001, forcing him to live in one of two Sikh temples in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, Sikhs and Hindus were asked to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands, but after a global outcry, the rule was not enforced. Also driving the exodus is the inability to reclaim Sikh homes, businesses and houses of worship that were illegally seized years ago.
Hindu temples in Kabul’s old city were destroyed during brutal fighting between rival warlords from 1992-96. The fighting drove out scores of Hindu and Sikh Afghans.
Aside from the March attack by IS gunmen, a 2018 Islamic State suicide attack in the city of Jalalabad killed 19 people, most of them Sikhs, including a longtime leader who had nominated himself for the Afghan parliament.
“Suffering big fatalities for a small community is not tolerable,” said Charan Singh Khalsa, a leader of the Sikh community living abroad, who declined to say where he was living out of fear for his safety. He left Afghanistan after his brother was kidnapped and killed in an attack by gunmen in Kabul two years ago. He said the last three years have been the worst period for all Afghans, but especially so for Sikhs and Hindus.
Community leaders have slammed recent governments for failing to step up security in the face of the IS threat.
Afghanistan’s government in 2010 decided to dedicate a chair in the national assembly to religious minorities, and there have since been two Sikh representatives.
But Khalsa called these posts “symbolic”. He criticized the government for taking too long to grant political representation powers to the community and for failing to “provide security to our places of worship.”
A senior Sikh community leader told The Associated Press that the group is in negotiations with the government over its security needs and the repairing of the temple after it was destroyed in March's attack. The community leader spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media.
At a press conference last month, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said that members of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu community will return once peace is restored. The president's office did not respond to a request for comment from the AP, but other Afghan officials have pledged to assist the community.
“We will use all our facilities to provide security to the people,” Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said, without elaborating. “We are committed and responsible for their (Sikhs and Hindus) mental and personal security.”
It is not clear what kind of security measures are being discussed, nor when they might be seen on the ground.
Until then, the community’s flight is accelerating, with large numbers of Sikhs and Hindus continuing a recent trend of seeking asylum in India, which has a Hindu majority and a large Sikh population.
In August, a group of 176 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus went to India on special visas. They were the second batch since March, with the first 11 members arriving in India in July.
Khalsa said that a group of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in Canada and European countries has volunteered to sponsor the exodus of those remaining in Kabul who cannot afford air tickets and temporary accommodation in a transit country.
Several Canadian legislators have asked the country’s immigration ministry for a special program for Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees, requesting that they be brought to safety in Canada amid the increasing security threat.
For Afghan Sikhs, the thought of being uprooted is painful, despite the circumstances.
“It’s hard to leave our birthplace but we have no other option,” said Hamdard. “Afghanistan does not want us anymore.”