Afghan Sikhs Worry About Their Future

Tying his turban at the dormitory attached to the historic Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib near the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, Savinder Singh’s eyes sparkle when he mentions home and friends that he left behind in Afghanistan.

A Sikh born and brought up in Jalalabad, he landed in India on August 12, with the plan to return on September 5. But for the past one week, he was running helter-skelter to seek the rescue of his brother and his family, who finally landed in India boarding a special flight.

More comfortable in Pashto than Punjabi, Singh received his brother from a distance, as they were taken straight to the quarantine facility set up inside the gurudwara premises. Originally from Jalalabad, Singh had moved to Kabul some years ago, while many of his relatives had migrated to India.

“As uncertainty loomed and attacks on minorities increased, we moved to Kabul, thinking we will be closer to the community,” he told The Friday Times.

After news came that Taliban were taking province after province so fast and in swift operations, Singh said he feared for his life and the safety of two daughters and wife.

“So, I sent them here last month. I had just come to see them and was planning to fly back to Kabul. But I did not know that Kabul would fall so soon” he adds.

He is still watching the next government takeover in Kabul and depending on security and stability, he wants to return to his home and restart his business.

Along with Singh’s brothers who landed here, three copies of the Guru Granth Sahib -- holy religious scripture of Sikhism – were also flown to India. With no government still in sight in Afghanistan, there was none to assure the minuscule community on the ground, other than the public pronouncements by Taliban Spokesman Mulla Zabihullah Mujahid, promising security to citizens.

The copies of Granth Sahib were taken to Gurudwara Singh Sabha at Mahavir Nagar in West Delhi because most of the Afghan Sikh migrants live around this gurudwara.

New Environment

As Singh opens up, it sounds as if Afghanistan lives in his heart. Still, to negotiate with the sultry Delhi heat, he speaks about the weather, his spacious house and a shop that he left behind in Kabul. His forefathers were cloth merchants. But he switched over to sell spices and herbs. With a wry smile on his face, he says Afghan herb Shilajit is in great demand in India and elsewhere for its aphrodisiacal qualities.

He had a good business and was content with life. Hoping that new rulers will bring much-needed peace and stability to war-torn Afghanistan, Singh is eager to return and sell herbs and spices in Kabul.

Due to the absence of a government and an unpredictable situation on the ground, Sikhs are trying every means possible to exit from Afghanistan. It looks that over the next few weeks no Sikhs will be left in the country, which has rich historical linkages with Afghanistan.

Baba Nanak, the first Guru of Sikhs visited Kabul in 1521 while returning from Makkah after performing Hajj. Gurudwara Guru Nanak, at Jad Mewan in Kabul, stood tall to testify this journey till the 1950s, when it was demolished to widen the road. It is believed that a large number of Afghan Hindus, inspired by the teachings of Baba Nanak had converted to Sikhism.

Next to Gurudwara Har Rai Sahib at Shor Bazar, which was attacked last year, stands the gurudwara of Baba Sri Chand, named after the elder son of Baba Nanak and founder of Udasi Sect, who also visited Afghanistan. Har Rai Sahib Gurudwara is also dedicated to the seventh Sikh Guru.

Renowned Persian poet and Sikh scholar Bhai Nand Lal was a native of Ghazni. There are two gurudwaras in Ghazni dedicated to him. He served as a poet in the court of the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Besides these historic shrines, writings of several Sikh scholars bear witness to Sikh gurus having disciples in Afghanistan cutting across religious beliefs. They used to receive horses and silken cloth from Afghanistan. When the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan was building a capital at Taran Taran on the outskirts of Amritsar, several hundred Sikhs from Afghanistan came to participate in the service. These Afghan Sikhs were then put up at the site which is now known as Gurudwara Pipali Sahib situated some miles away from the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

No Place Like Home

“That is our watan (country). No place is better for us than our own land. We will go back soon,” said Manmohan Singh, who had come to India last year after the attack on a gurudwara at Kabul. He came along with his younger son, hoping to find a home in India. But after having spent a year and trying to pick up all kinds of odd jobs, he wants to go back home as soon as possible, despite the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi offering citizenship to non-Muslim minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh under the controversial Citizens Amendment Act (CAA).

Manmohan had a rented house in Karte Parwan locality. He recalls that he had a shop and a cordial neighborhood, where he would share joys and sorrows with local Muslims.

“Till a few years ago, we never felt we were different. But then slowly this whole narrative of Sikhs and Hindus being Kafirs started spreading. The young boys got dissuaded and the unrest in the system began,” he said.

He hastily added that many Muslims helped him and many of his neighbors were still in touch with him and hoped for his return. “We will meet again, if not in this life, then in the next,” he said while remembering his Muslim friends.

Sitting inside the spacious langar hall of Mahavir Nagar gurudwara, a fair, tall and well-built Sikh Dalbir Singh said he lost his mother and four-year-old daughter in the gurdwara attack last year in Kabul. He is planning to migrate to Canada soon. “We have lost everything, from family to home to business. We can’t afford to lose anymore. If things don’t work here, we will move to Canada,” he said.

Many Afghan Sikh families are trying hard to save enough to be able to move to Canada for a better future.

Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, there were about 60,000 Sikhs in Afghanistan. While Kabul remained untouched till 1989, the Sikhs in the countryside started migrating to India, Europe and Canada. In 2021, the question of existence looms before the Afghan Sikh community. But at the same time, they said still believe that Sikhism cannot be wiped out from Afghanistan. Some may return physically if new rulers ensure safety, but others have left their hearts in Afghanistan.

The writer is a journalist based in India.