When you grow up with religion in your mind and fear of difference, you learn nothing. Imagine being stripped off of every right in your own country, facing discrimination and social exclusion because of the religion or community you belong to!
LifeBeyondNumbers got in touch with 3 Afghan Sikh families, who share a love-hate relationship with their motherland and why their religion has turned their stories of hope into despair.
“Apne desh se hi man uth gaya hain ji, na khushiya mana sakte hain na marne ke baad jala sakte hain, qafir kehte hain apne hi log (I feel heartbroken in my own country because neither we are allowed to celebrate festivals nor we are allowed to cremate the dead, we are called non-muslims or infidels),” says 50-year-old Shammi Singh.
Singh was born in Shor Bazaar, Kabul and was a tailor by profession. Like other members from his community, he too had to flee along with his family because they were living in constant fear of being killed in this war-torn country.
Singh’s family is one of the 40 families who fled Afghanistan in 2012. These families have been living in a precarious condition as the Indian government has denied citizenship to them. They are out of work and cannot admit their children to any educational institutions. The situation is no different for the Afghan Hindus as they are also facing discrimination and are sidelined for being non-Muslims.
“Afghanistan was never an intolerant country. Afghan Sikhs used to celebrate Baisakhi with our Afghan Muslim brothers and they used to invite us during Eid. There was a brotherhood, but since 2008, things started to become worse due to an upsurge in Islam conservatism and primarily because terrorist groups like Taliban and ISIS are active in this country,” said Shammi Singh.
India might be a peaceful country to reside, but it is not helping the Afghan Sikh migrants in any manner. Their pleas of financial help from religious bodies and government have helped very little. People are offering sympathy but no one is coming forward to help them financially.
Singh lives with his wife and 4 children in a dilapidated house in the dingy lane of Chawni Mohalla in Ludhiana for which they pay 4500 rupees rent. He works in a laundry factory as a worker for 200-250 rupees per day in Manna Singh Nagar and his 15-year-old son, instead of going to school, works in a garment shop and earns 5000 rupees per month so that he can help his father in the daily expenses.
“Our 19-year-old daughter died due to fever and while she was suffering we couldn’t take her to a hospital because of our financial condition. It is sad that we are living a life without dignity and our country is hesitant to accept us. Our kids couldn’t go to school and study because they were bullied or harassed for wearing turbans.”
There is no exact data available in the country that can tell us the exact count of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, but people from this community believe that the life threats in Afghanistan made them leave their nation.
It is believed that Guru Nanak visited Jalalabad in the 15th century and is considered to be a very sacred place among Sikhs in Afghanistan.
According to the UNHCR report, refugees from Afghanistan comprised the second largest group by country of origin, although their numbers decreased. At the end of 2016, there were 2.5 million Afghan refugees, compared with 2.7 million a year earlier. While this decline was mainly due to returns from Pakistan, that country nonetheless continued to host the largest Afghan refugee population (1.4 million). Also, Afghanistan stands second to Syria in producing a significant number of refugees.
It was only due to extended help from former SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar, many Afghan Sikhs could flee war-torn Afghanistan and settle in India. He issued numerous Rs.12,000 cheques to families in need and also helped Afghan Sikhs, who wanted to go back to Afghanistan from India. About 12 families went back to Afghanistan after they came to India in 2012.
Former Jail & Tourism Minister of Punjab Govt. Hira Singh Gabria, who represents Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) political party, also helped Shammi Singh and family in their difficult times.
India is no different for these people because they live in constant fear of being thrown out of their houses as the Indian government has denied citizenship to them for being Afghan Sikhs. The Afghan Sikhs had approached Manmohan Singh government earlier but it was of no help.
“Our freedom has been snatched away from us and we cannot practice our faith openly. It is humiliating to go through that every day. We are ready to go back to our country if they are ready to accept us,” says Ranjit Singh (36).
“I have 16 family members to feed and I am the only bread earner. We cannot apply for jobs here because we don’t have citizenship. I now work at a garment shop where I get 100-200rs daily but that is not enough. I cannot send my children to school or bear their medical expenses. My children are growing without education, why is it always the innocent ones who suffer? ”
“We are willing to go to any country that is ready to accept us and provide citizenship. We don’t have money to travel to other countries and we have to depend on Government institutions since Indian government is not responding to our request,” says Ranjit.
Another Afghan Sikh, Karori Singh (40) also has a similar story as well. Like others, he too wants to shift with his family in a separate country where he can earn and take care of basic necessities. “In Afghanistan, Sikhs are more into trade business because they are denied government jobs. This makes it difficult for us to manage daily needs. We have lost everything. Being a minority in the country, people look at us like strangers, but we also have a history to share and a language of our own.”
This year on July 1, Avtar Singh Khalsa was killed in a suicide bombing attack while he was on his way to meet Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, along with his Sikh and Hindu community members in Jalalabad. 19 people were killed in the deadly blast. Singh was planning to run in the parliamentary elections in October for a seat in the lower house. He was the key member of the Sikh community in Afghanistan and with him being killed; the hopes of the community have shattered.
With Afghanistan and India, both rejecting Afghan Sikhs because of their community or birthplace, their chances of survival are slowly diminishing. India might be a peaceful country to reside, but it is not helping them practically.
No good has ever come out of a war. Power always stands a chance to corrupt people and the fear and hatred it brings with it is contagious and can spread too quickly.
Imagine your parents throwing you out of your house because they don’t like your behavior. Sounds strange right? And you will question their love? Even though few Afghan Sikh refugees have found shelter in India, they are struggling to survive- constantly switching countries and houses to survive.
The Afghan Sikhs did not leave their country because they stopped loving their motherland; it is because they feared for their life. They are ready to shift to any country that can provide asylum to them. All they want is to live with dignity and brotherhood.