After the fall of the Soviet Regime in 1989, Afghanistan was ploughed into anarchy and chaos. Nine years of invasion left behind a withered land, costing the lives of roughly 15,000 red army soldiers and two million Afghans. The war also sowed the seeds of the subsequent takeover of Afghanistan by the Mujahedeen, followed by the Taliban. Both brought with them a new wave of persecution and terror, under the Mujahedeen rule alcohol was banned and women were pressured to cover their heads in public and adopt the traditional Muslim dress.
Under the Taliban era who came to rule in 1992, TV sets and other forms of entertainment was banned, men who failed to grow beards and leave it untrimmed were fined and jailed. Women were forced to give up employment and had to leave the house with a male relative and the right to education was denied. For the Sikhs and Hindus who were a minority, they endured a perilous journey of decades of religious persecution and discrimination at the hands of those with extremist views – views that do not align with the teachings of Islam.
Numbering at 80,000 in the 1980s the Sikh and Hindu population is now estimated to be less than 1,000 – their existence in Afghanistan is almost at near extinction. Once an economically thriving community they played a prominent role in finance and trade, its community members were mainly business owners. But years of religious persecution, targeted violence, social prejudice, harassment and the illegal occupation of their properties forced many Hindus and Sikhs to flee, with a large number seeking refugee in the West, mainly Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the US.
A significant number of the population have built new lives in Southall. Those from the Hindu faith, have gone onto found the Asami community centre. It is a place of worship, as well as where religious and community events are held. The people here are extremely warm and forthcoming, one can feel the warmth of kindness and serenity in the air. But many here carry with them untold stories of years of brutality and religious persecution. Sharing their stories with Asian Voice are Dr. Kakkar, Ashok, Komal and Sachdeva.
Dr. Kakkar who lived in Kabul Afghanistan, spoke on the extent of the religious discrimination minorities faced “they would call the Sikhs kachalo it means potato and they would beat us if we didn’t chant Islamic verses”. Funeral rites remain a significant issue, police protection is required to cremate their dead due to the harassment received by those who oppose of their customs. In Qabal, an area situated on the South West of Kabul, a cremation place that had been in use for over 25 years, can now no longer be used “the residents surrounding the crematorium place become violent when a dead body is taken there. They throw stones and hurdle abusive language. It is impossible to use that place”, says Dr Karrkar.
Those who take the painstaking decision to leave Afghanistan, leave not just behind fond memories, their home, family and businesses but also their cultural and religious history. “We have lived in Afghanistan for centuries, we didn’t move from Pakistan or India, our ancestors and grandparents have lived here, our history dates back 700 centuries ago and even more than that. We were here when the religion change came, we saved our religion in Afghanistan and we moved from Afghanistan to save our religion”, says Dr Kakkar.
Under the Taliban, to identify their faith Sikhs and Hindus were forced to wear yellow bands around their wrists or tie a yellow or orange flag to their house. And the exclusion continues on today. Whilst Dr Kakkar believes there has been a little change, not all agree. Sachdeva believes the changes are temporary he says “nobody knows what government is coming and what they are going to do tomorrow morning. There is no law and order, which is why the situation is getting worse day by day”.
Komal, was 15 when she left Afghanistan for a new life in Britain, speaks about the harsh realities for females “there was no right to education, as an ethnic minority we were mostly expected to stay at home. Women didn’t have no rights, let alone children. My Mum couldn’t take me out of the house. We were in a close-knit society, the only places we would go to is our relative’s house and that to covered in a Burka. If there were females in a Hindu or Sikh family, the Taliban expected them to get married to a Muslim family, the girls would have to convert, if not they were persecuted, threatened with rape and in some cases killed – it is actually dreadful living in that place and things haven’t changed”.
The men from the Hindu faith faced a different reality to women, whilst they were free to leave their house alone it meant hiding their identity by growing a moustache and having a turban. If their identity was discovered, they were expected to convert. Ashok has lived in the UK for 20 years, says there is no protection “warlords would promise us protection and safety, in return we gave them our money and businesses, but it became a vicious circle of asking for more and more, at the present moment there aren’t many properties left, those living there seek shelter and sanctuary in the few remaining temples and gurdwaras”. Sachdeva recalls how his cousin brother living in India, moved back to Afghanistan in order to get his belongings and property back, but was unable to.
As peace talks take place between the US and Taliban, it is unclear what the future holds for the Hindus and Sikhs. In an interview with WION’s diplomatic correspondent, Sidhant Sibal, the Taliban’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujhadid referred to the Sikhs and Hindus are their countrymen further adding all Afghans would have rights and the rights of Hindu and Sikh countrymen would be guaranteed. But after years of seeing no change, and having witnessed the brutality of the Taliban, Dr. Kakkar, Ashok, Sachdeva and Komal, are not convinced by his promises. “Things will only get worse” says Dr Karrkar.