The Heart-rending Story of Afghani Sikhs

Rupali Ghosh with Gajinder Singh.

Taranjeet Kaur doesn’t know how old she is, but her mother thinks she must be around 10 years old. She was born, says Jaan Kaur, her mother, soon after the Soviet-backed Najibullah government in Afghanistan was overthrown in 1992. "Those were days of great trouble," recalls Jaan Kaur in her hesitant, broken Hindi. In the violence that followed, the family’s comfortable house in Hilmand, in eastern Afghanistan, became the target of an anti-Hindu attack. The casualty of that attack was her 13-year-old elder daughter Paranjeet. Almost a decade later, the only memory of that daughter is a discoloured photograph stuck on the cracked, yellow wall of her present home in Delhi’s Old Mahavir Nagar. Today, Jaan Kaur has more pressing worries – like the safety of her husband who, if he is still alive, should be somewhere in Kandahar.

The labyrinthine bylines of Old Mahavir Nagar are crowded with little incomplete families like Jaan Kaur’s. Most of the cubby-hole dwellings here are populated by Afghan Sikh women and children, who had been sent out of Afghanistan earlier with promises that the men would follow suit quickly, after winding up business in Kandahar and other Afghan towns which still have a small Sikh population. "Our people have been getting a raw deal in Afghanistan for a very long time now," says Manohar Singh, president of Khalsa Diwan’s Afghan Hindu-Sikh Refugee Association that operates out of a busy building in Old Mahavir Nagar.

He talks about the many waves of migration of Sikhs from Afghanistan that preceded September 11: "Our people had moved to areas in Afghanistan’s North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan after Partition, but in 1978 when the Communists took over Kabul, several Sikhs fled Afghanistan; then, 1992 saw another wave of refugee migration following the killing of Najib; after the Taliban took over, many more Afghan Sikh families began to leave." The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have triggered off another wave of panic migration among what remains of the Sikh community in Afghanistan, he adds.

According to a report on ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan, published by a coalition of human rights organistations under the International Campaign to End Genocide earlier this year in Washington D. C., Afghanistan had a population of over 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs before 1992. Over the years the number dropped to a few thousands (The Khalsa Diwan had put this figure at around 20,000). Under the oppressive Taliban regime, this number further declined. "Today there are just about 1,500 Sikhs in Afghanistan," says Manohar Singh.

An Afghani Sikh woman, Rita, who managed to leave Afghanistan a few months ago along with her family, is now in Amritsar. She says she is happy to have reached the "land of our Gurus", Rita describes the terror of living under the Taliban regime: "We had to wear a burqa to cover ourselves. We could not even keep our hands outside the burqa. Any woman not obeying the diktat of the Taliban would be severely punished. A woman’s hands were amputated simply because she took them out to receive some goods from a shopkeeper." She said.

Given the persecution they faced under the Taliban regime, Sikhs in Afghanistan had begun the process of moving out for quite a while now. "The families have been applying for visas to Pakistan, and then, in Pakistan, there is a long waiting period again before the Indian home ministry clears their entry to India," explains Manohar Singh.

The process of clearance is a long-drawn out one. Among other things these Sikh Afghans have to be verified first and only then will the approval come through. "On paper we are assured that the process will not take more than two months. In reality it can take up to two years," he adds. As part of their function as a representative body, the Afghan Hindu-Sikh Refugee Association and the Khalsa Diwan have to liaise between the various authorities. "It is very difficult and we have to keep assuring families here that their husbands and other relatives in Afghanistan will reach India safely. But it is a long journey and no one is quite sure what the outcome will be," feels Singh. And in the process, this small and once prosperous community has been reduced to living a life stripped bare of everything, including very basic human dignity.

Jaan Kaur invites you for a cup of tea to her home, not far from Khalsa Diwan. Her home, on the ground floor of a small building – one of many similar looking dwelling blocks that line either side of a little stretch of Old Mahavir Nagar – is a single room, approximately 10 feet by 10 feet. Two little stickers, one advertising Lakme deep pore cleansing milk and the other pushing the merits of Jet King tutorials are plastered on the fron door. Inside, two threadbare pieces of once brightly-patterned cloth are spread across the floor. A young girl, Tarnjeet, is lying on the ground. Her dark eyes stare blankly out of a face contorted in pain. "She’s sick… we don’t know what the trouble is and, anyway, with hardly any money maybe it is better we don’t know what is wrong with her," says her mother. Another girl, Gurpreet Kaur, Taranjeet’s sister, is lying on a bed, the only piece of furniture in the room. "She is also unwell…," mutters Jaan Kaur.

Ever since the US attack began on Afghanistan, there has been no news from Gulab Singh, Jaan Kaur’s husband. "Please write his name in your paper," she says, "just in case someone who knows him reads it…. They might be able to help us trace him," she adds. Jaan Kaur has two little sons also with her, though both are now out playing in the streets. "My six year-old son cries in his sleep… it is an old habit he has," he says, "He watches TV nearby in someone’s house and whenever he hears about some fresh bombing in Afghanistan, he comes back and asks me if I’ve heard any news about his father’s death.

Gulab Singh had left his wife and two daughters in Delhi over a year ago. He had gone back to wind up business matters in Hilmand and Kandahar. The plan was that he would return to India soon. "We are still waiting for him. Now I don’t even know where he is," she says. In Hilmand, Gulab Singh had a grocery shop. Like most others from his community he was a small businessman, and even after the Taliban took over, these small businesses were fairly stable, at least in the towns of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Khost and Ghazni – areas where small pockets of Sikh families lived.

Nand Kaur is Jaan Kaur’s neighbour in Old Mahavir Nagar. Like Jaan Kaur, Nana Kaur speaks very little Hindi. Their primary language is Punjabi. In the absence of any eduction for girls in Afghanistan, both Jaan Kaur’s daughters are completely illiterate and understand no Hindi at all. Even after a year in India the girls have not begun any form of education. According to Jaan Kaur, "It is too late for them… now it is time to look for their husbands, not send them to school."

Nand Kaur is waiting for news of her son, Talwar Singh. He left Kandahar soon after September 11 and is now holed up in Pakistan waiting for clearance. Nand Kaur is just back from a visit of the UNHCR office in Jorbagh. "Not that she will get much help from there," feels Manohar Singh. According to the Khalsa Diwan, Sikh refugees are actually "nowhere" people in India. They are not top priority with the UN body because they are of Indian origin. "So the thinking there is that since they have reached India they can now fend for themselves," he explains.

But actually these people are wretchedly poor, more so because the bread-winning male members are often still in Afghanistan and the women have no education or skills to speak of. The Khalsa Diwan runs a small school where classes include vocational training in sewing and a few crafts. The school also provides some elementary literacy training and a basic computer course. "But it is a drop in the ocean", concedes Singh.

Only a handful of Sikh families have been able to come into India after the US attacks and even these include only those people who had already been issued a Pakistani visa before the attacks began. "Though my son had been issued a visa, he was still reluctant to leave Kandahar because we have a lot of land there and leaving all that behind to come to India and live like this was not an appealing idea," explains Nand Kaur.

But then the WTC strikes happened and a numbing fear psychosis rippled through Afghanistan. "My son knew then that he just had to get out of there, and very quickly". A number of people like Talwar Singh are now stranded in Pakistan.

At the moment, for Afghan Sikhs perhaps the only thing worse than being stuck in Pakistan is being stuck in Kabul or Kandahar. "The atmosphere is very tense. We have heard reports from our people there. They must be very discreet in their movements, and there is this constant fear of being harassed or being picked on just because they are Sikhs," says Singh. Nanad Kaur fears for her son: "He must be careful… but that is not easy given that because of his pagri he’s going to stand out… I hope the military does not harass him. I go to the Khalsa Diwan everyday but there is no news."

The apex Sikh body for religious affairs, the Amritsar-based Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is working with the National Minorities Commission to bring these Sikhs safely out of Pakistan. According to SGPC secretary, G.S. Bachan, as many as 230 Sikhs have fled to Pakistan, after September 11 and are waiting for visas to enter India : "There are families in Peshawar, Panja Sahib Gurdwara [in Hasan Abdal some 45 km from Rawalpindi] and Lahore. I have specific information from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad that over 45 of them have been granted travel papers to enter India and are expected to cross over from Wagah either by the Samjhauta Express or on foot."

Talwar Singh, like other fleeing Sikhs, left Kandahar by road. Nand Kaur doesn’t know the details of his journey but she knows that he reached the Chaman border post in Pakistan about a week later. "He is now in the Panja Sahib Gurdwara and will have to stay in Pakistan for sometime more," she adds vaguely. All she knows is that he will probably have to remain in Pakistan for a long time. Nand Kaur also has a daughter. The girl is married to a land-owning family in Kandahar. "I don’t know how she is, if she is still alive or if her husband is OK. There has been no news. But then she is a girl, so this is her fate," adds Nand Kaur.

And until Talwar Singh, Gulab Singh, and others like them arrive, the incomplete families of Old Mahavir Nagar will wait out their lives silently in their new cubby-hole homes. There is little else they can do.

[Courtesy: The Telegraph]