Asia - Pacific

Little reason to migrate to India, say Afghan Sikhs

Despite India offering citizenship, Afghan Sikhs prefer migration to Canada, UK for safer, greener pastures

Shadi Khan Saif   | 17.12.2019
Little reason to migrate to India, say Afghan Sikhs

KABUL, Afghanistan

Despite a new Indian law offering them citizenship, most of the Sikh minority community members in Afghanistan would prefer to migrate to Canada or the U.K. or any western nation, if they have to leave their country at all. 

Under the new Indian law recently passed by parliament, Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship.

With a population of nearly 2,000 people living in the capital Kabul, Jalalabad, Ghazni and Kandahar, Sikhs say they have survived all the severe political vagaries in the war-torn country, leaving now little reason for them to migrate.

“We have nowhere to go. Where can we poor people go?" asked Arijit Singh, an elderly Sikh in Kabul’s Shor Bazar locality.

“Afghanistan was and shall remain my country. I was born here and have lived through the 'Shahi' [monarchy] and the Khalqis [communist] the Mujahideen and the Taliban. I will die here as well,” he said.

Singh’s family has migrated from the central restive Ghazni province to the relatively safer Kabul. That is the case with many of the community members, as lawlessness coupled with the raging insurgency has forced them to take refuge in the capital city.

“Under the Taliban regime [1996 - 2001], we were asked to wear distinctive turbans and armbands and hoist a flag on our gurdwaras [Sikh houses of worship] to differentiate from Muslims. Sikhs also support long beards like many Afghans. Other than that, there was not much trouble,” he said.

However, he added that over the years when the economy and security situation has turned worse, properties of the minority community have been encroached upon.

Kuldeep Singh, a young Sikh living near Madawi market in the capital Kabul, said he would ideally like to migrate to Canada, the U.K., with his family to escape from the harsh realities of life in Afghanistan. “Most of our community members have left either for Canada, Europe, America, the U.K. and India,” he said.

“There was a time when we had thousands of families living here. But now only few hundreds are left”, he said. Over the years, due to migration to the west, neighboring Pakistan and India, their population has been reduced to few hundred families.

- Indian law to accelerate process of citizenship

Kuldeep added that those who went to India in the past had to camp inside gurdwaras for years, to get their documents processed.

“Even after that, they continued to struggle to start a new life from the scratch with no or little support,” he said. The new Indian law is expected to make the process faster to process their citizenship, in case they opt to migrate to India.

Once a prosperous trading community in Afghanistan, Sikhs have now been reduced to trade in herbal medicine and spices only. They are Afghan nationals who speak Pashto but know Dari, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi as well.

Despite their marginalization, they were never targeted, until Daesh/ISIS terrorists blew-up their community leaders in a suicide attack in Jalalabad city in July last year. Among 19 people killed, was Avtar Singh, the community’s cherished leader.

His son Narendra Singh, a young herbal medicine expert, is now member of the Afghan parliament. The Afghan government has reserved one seat each for the Sikh and the Hindu minority in 2016.

“We have given many sacrifices. We are determined to fight and safeguard our rights within our country,” he said.

The Afghan Sikhs and Hindus generally reside in communal compounds, in an apparently secluded environment to protect and preserve their cultural and religious identity. Hindus gather in temples on Fridays -- a holiday in the country when markets generally remain closed -- to cook vegetarian food, eat and pray together for peace, prosperity.

Jamal Khan, Arijit Singh’s neighbor said the current situation in Afghanistan is difficult for all. “There is particularly no enmity towards them [Sikhs and Hindus]. We have been living together and we suffer from the war and poverty together”, said Khan, a dry fruit vender from mountainous Kunar province.

He added that leaving the motherland can be a difficult decision. But the current situation in Afghanistan and persistent terrorist attacks, everyone including the majority Muslim population wants to escape to find a safe place.

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