The recent threats of kidnapping and killing in the Swat Valley of minority Sikh community members by the Taliban was a throwback to various periods in history when Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have, like the rest of the population of Afghanistan, had to face displacement brought on by violence. With the ransom demand, or “Taliban Protection Tax” as it was called, agreed at Rs.20 million the Sikh leader was released and the Sikh families were allowed to return to their homes and businesses. But for the Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan the issue remains an emotive one bringing back memories of their own flight into India from Afghanistan in the 1990s against the backdrop of the internecine civil war followed by Taliban threats. Today in India Afghan Hindus and Sikhs constitute nearly 90 percent of the Afghan refugee population.
The partition of India in 1947 defined the lives of not just those who made the tumultuous passage to India and Pakistan but also those who sought refuge in Afghanistan. These were the Sikhs and Hindus for whom the journey from the western fringes of Pakistan to India would have been far too arduous and dangerous, and Afghanistan provided what they perceived as a temporary safe haven. That is when another generation of this minority from Afghanistan made the country their home. Others had settled in Afghanistan centuries earlier. They call India their ancestral homeland as their ancestors first went to Afghanistan in the nineteenth century during the time of King Ranjit Singh.
This minority group left at different times in history just as they had gone to Afghanistan at different times in history. Many left Afghanistan just before or during the Soviet war when incessant bombing destroyed the lives of many. Even as ethnic Afghans joined the war with their livelihood destroyed, these groups came to India. The hope was that when things quieted down, they would return to their homes and small businesses. But the short return to their homes was as traumatic as leaving it the first time. Many found their homes occupied by warlords. Ninety five percent of their property was lost during the war years.
In eastern Afghanistan, some members of the community owned large houses and farm lands and were a thriving business community. The relative prosperity of this group can be gauged from the fact that despite being barely two percent of the population in Jalalabad, they controlled a large part of the economy. Over time they were also accorded a reasonable level of religious freedom. But now, post 2001, many have sought refuge in India after clashes with some hostile local communities over cultural practices and rituals. The attempt to cremate a body in 2007 in Kabul led to major tension between the Sikhs and the local community as the ritual of cremation was considered blasphemous.
Sikh refugees from Afghanistan who have come to India are granted a stay visa, which needs to be renewed every 18 months. In the absence of citizenship, these refugees find it hard to secure employment and the absence of relevant documentation gets in the way of admissions to educational institutions. The jobs they find are in the huge informal sector in India. With few avenues for earning many male members do make the journey back to Afghanistan. This means that they leave behind their women who often are ill-equipped to deal with the alien environment in the absence of formal education and language skills. A provision available for this group of refugees from the Indian government is that after 12 years of continuous residency in the country they can apply for an Indian citizenship. Over 500 Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have so far been naturalized through this process even as another 4,000 wait for their turn.
Afghanistan is believed to have had a population of over 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs before 1992 in areas like Jalalabad, Kandahar, Khost, Kabul, Ghazni and Laghman. Today there are just about 1,500 Sikhs in Afghanistan. The ones who remained are either those who had no relatives in India or lacked resources to migrate.
For those in India, while dreams of their homes in Afghanistan are yet to desert them, hopes of returning have. Everything has been lost to the war and the rest snatched by warlords. Besides, many see their return as a huge price to pay as it would mean sacrificing the freedom their children, especially daughters, enjoy in India, many of whom were even born there. And as they reminisce about the lives they left behind in Afghanistan for these ‘kabulis’ of India – as they are locally referred to - the hopes for peace in the country they remember as home are still alive.