Sikh refugees from Afghanistan hold placards as they demand security of their families and religious places in Pakistan and Afghanistan during a demonstration in the northern Indian state of Amritsar on August 27, 2020. Photo courtesy of Narinder Nanu/AFP
Since he was a child, 60-year-old Nidan Singh Sachdeva has never missed a single Saavan mela, an annual religious gathering celebrated by the Sikh community in Afghanistan’s Paktya province to mark the monsoon season.
The dry mountainous terrains of Afghanistan do not experience monsoons, but these celebrations are a reminder of the minority community’s faith.
On June 22 this year, Sachdeva was at Gurudwara Tala Sahib, a 400-year-old temple in Paktya for the Saavan mela festivities when local Taliban insurgents kidnapped him.
Sachdeva’s cousin, Charan Singh, believes that a land dispute led to the abduction.
“The land surrounding the temple belonged to the Sikhs for centuries, but was illegally captured by some local strongmen. We have been fighting this case for a few years,” Singh told VICE News.
Sachdeva, born and raised Sikh in Afghanistan’s Khost province, returned to his family on July 19, but the ordeal made them leave the country. Afghanistan is predominantly a Muslim country.
Sachdeva belongs to the quickly disappearing minority that was 200,000-strong before the start of the Afghan conflict in 1979.
“Afghanistan’s had a vibrant diversity including Sikhs, Hindus and Jews, before the start of the conflict,” Inderjeet Singh, author of the book Afghan Hindus and Sikhs told VICE News. “These are Afghans who speak local languages and share cultural similarities with their Muslim counterparts.”
Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were known to have largely worked in trade and financial sector. Many were involved in money-lending, informal banking and trading of spices, herbs and medicines.
After decades of war and targeted persecution from the extremist Taliban regime, they have been leaving their homeland searching for asylums.
As of 2017, rights activists estimated that there were about 3,000 Hindus and Sikhs left in Afghanistan. As violence against the minority group increased, these figures further dwindled. “Last year, I was informed that there were about 800 to 900 remaining, but those who have seen the most recent list [population break-up] say that there are only 650 [Sikh and Hindus] left,” said Simranjeet Singh.
The Sachdevas, a family of five, relocated to New Delhi, the capital of India last month, where they now live in a Sikh temple. They sold the family shop to a local in Afghanistan.
“We have no idea what the future will be like. We are in the process of figuring out,” Charan Singh told VICE News from New Delhi over the phone.
A brutal attack, claimed by the Islamic State insurgency earlier this year on a 400-year-old Gurudwara in Kabul claimed nearly 25 lives, triggered a fresh exodus of minorities. “Every Hindu and Sikh family has had at least one casualty of violence in the past five years,” said Tanweer Singh Khalsa, who left Afghanistan in 2019 .
With the help of the Indian government and several Sikh associations and donors, Khalsa has been facilitating the exit of the last remaining Sikhs and Hindus. “A country is like a mother, but having faced so much violence and hate, we are left with no other option,” he said.
Khalsa’s brother was murdered by the gunmen last year. Khalsa’s family could trace the corpse of his brother two months after police buried him in the communal graveyard. The body was exhumed so the family could identify him.
“We couldn’t give him a proper funeral for two months, until we were able to trace his body. It was the most traumatic and hurtful experience of my life,” said Khalsa.
Around 200 people have left for Delhi in the last three weeks. Khalsa expects another 300 to make the journey in September.
Meanwhile, the absence of an entire community can be strongly felt in Kabul’s markets. Hundreds of familiar faces with large, colorful turbans have gradually disappeared from the shops selling herbal medicines and spices in the Asmayee area of Kabul, believed to be named after a Hindu temple.
“After the last attack, the majority of the sardars [sikh men] who owned businesses here left the country. I am also taking care of this spices and herbs shop for Jaktar Singh who may be leaving soon,” said 32-year-old Hamid.
When Hamid was seven, Jaktar Singh started mentoring him and eventually, they became business partners.
“Jatkar Singh treated me like his son. It didn’t matter to him that I was a Muslim and he a Sikh. It pains me to see them leaving,” he said.
As they depart, the community also worries about the upkeep and care of their historical structures. “There are over 60 temples and Gurudwaras in Afghanistan, apart from historical sites that need to be preserved,” Khalsa said.
Some community leaders are in discussions with international organisations and the Afghan government to safeguard these religious sites.
“In the end, we just hope our Afghan brothers will keep our history and heritage safe till we can return,” Khalsa said.
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