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Shrinking Numbers and Growing Persecution Threaten Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan

on 2013/11/13 2:30:00 ( 2091 reads )


KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, November 6, 2013 (New York Times): Community leaders of this country's two religious minorities--Hindus and Sikhs--estimate that 35 years ago around 100,000 of them lived in Afghanistan. After three decades of fleeing from conflict to countries like India, Canada and Germany, only 3,000 are left. The majority of the 300 families remaining are Sikhs.

Most of the Hindus and Sikhs who remain in Afghanistan are weary of religious discrimination and absence of economic opportunities, and they are hoping to leave their country as anxieties grow about their prospects after American troops withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. In September, for instance, President Hamid Karzai had to issue a legislative decree to reserve a single seat for Sikh and Hindu Afghan nationals in the lower house of Parliament after lawmakers refused to do so.

Among those trying to get out of Afghanistan is Ram Prakash, who owns the oldest photography shop in Kabul established in 1955. With most of his family already in India, the elderly Mr. Prakash is only waiting for a good offer to sell his business, but none has come so far. "There is no point being emotional about it. Our shop is a famous institution and that also makes us targets," he said.

Under the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, Hindus had to identify themselves by yellow markings on their forehead or wearing a red cloth. On a late afternoon in August, a few people lazing around the Asamai temple grounds in Kabul shared different memories of the time.

One man recalled that Hindus with a yellow dot could get away without a beard but that terrible retribution was unleashed on a Muslim who shaved. Another said that he was forced to convert to Islam by the Taliban and marry a Muslim woman because he was seen speaking to her in a shop.

In recent years, some Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have made their way back home, at least temporarily because of financial pressures. Most of those who returned to find work left their families behind.

But a few like Balram Dhameja, the caretaker of a Hindu temple in Kabul, came back with their daughters and wives. Mr. Dhameja returned to Afghanistan with his family after 14 years because he couldn't make a living in India.

Mr. Dhameja said that he served in the Afghan police force when the country was led by the Moscow-backed President Mohammad Najibullah, who was toppled in 1992 by the America-backed mujahedeen, and hanged from a lamp post by the Taliban four years later.

The former police officer recalled fleeing to India in 1992 along with at least 15,000 other Hindu families. "It was easy to get refugee status then because the Indian government responded to it like an emergency," he said. "The hard part was finding jobs to stay on and make a good life."

Refugees say that India is slow to grant them citizenship, and without it, they have a difficult time finding work. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of January 2013, there were 10,046 Afghan refugees and 958 Afghan asylum seekers living in India.

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