As per Aljazeera, “Afghanistan as their home history is full of such anecdotes and lore about a substantial thriving community of Hindus and Sikhs who have called this country their home over the centuries.” For instance, Guru Nanak in 15th century, visited a place in Jalalabad, located at the east of Kabul which Sikhs believe to be sacred and it was home to a substantial population of the Sikh community. However, various Sociologists have said that the Sikh population in Afghanistan has decreased to a great extent. In the 1970s, the number of Hindus and Sikhs were seventy thousand but the present estimate highlights that the current numbers are less than 7,000. Hindus and Sikhs are spread across three provinces that are Kabul, Nangarhar and Ghazni. According to Rawail Singh who is an Afghan Sikh civil rights activist said that “during the years of Mujahideen rule and the civil war in the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet-backed government, were the worst for Afghan religious minorities.” He further stated that “We were harassed, our lands were forcefully taken, we were persecuted and even killed for even slightest display of our faith; kidnappings of Hindus and Sikhs were rampant.”
According to International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 published by United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, “the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis.” “Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population; Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totalling 1,300 individuals in the country.” It has been significantly reduced from a total population of 2.2 lakhs in the 1980s.
The political representation of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan is limited but in May 2014, first time in history, there was an appointment of a representative who was of the rank of ambassador from Hindu community. The Minority Rights Group International states that “nevertheless, despite managing to secure positions in parliament by appointment, Sikhs and Hindus continue to report being pressured to convert and facing disruptions to funeral and cremation ceremonies by local officials.” Further it said that “these communities are socially ostracized, Sikhs living in Kabul reportedly face economic hardship, with many refusing to conduct business with them, but also due to land grabs in areas in which Sikhs have historically resided.” Apart from economic and social discrimination, sometimes manifesting as physical and verbal abuse, the liberty to practise their religion has also been taken away. In the present times, the capital city of Afghanistan that is Kabul is home to only one gurdwaras (considered to be Sikh’s place of worship), which was eight at some point. Further, according to United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “90 per cent of the total 9,000 Afghan refugees in India are Sikhs.”
MANIFESTATION OF RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION-
According to Article 2 of Constitution of Afghanistan, “the sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rituals.” This clause is however insufficient because of lack of provisions in law that protect the freedom of religion or belief for minorities. Historic instances have established barbaric penalties for blasphemy and apostasy which have been used as an instrument to harass religious minorities. Blasphemy can be punishable by death “if committed by a person of sound mind who has reached the age of majority, namely over the age of 18 for males or over the age of 16 for females; accused is given three days to recant, or otherwise, face death by hanging.”
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines Apostasy “as an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith or the abandonment of a previous loyalty.” The practise of conversion from Islam is known as apostasy and can be punishable by death. For example, in 2007, a fatwa was issued that declared practitioners of the Baha’i faith as blasphemy. The International Religious Freedom Report for 2014 by US Department of State highlighted that “State-backed religious leaders and the judicial system are empowered to interpret and enforce Islamic principles and Sharia’s law, leading at times to arbitrary and abusive interpretations of religious orthodoxy.” As a result, although the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan allows the religious minorities to practise their faiths and follow their rituals, they continue to face discrimination, violence, harassment, threats in the public sphere.
The level of intimidation is so acute that these communities are always in the fear of physical and verbal abuses. The government’s approach to provide protection to such minorities has been inefficient because they continue to face harassment. One of the major religious practises pertaining to funeral rights of Sikhs and Hindus is restricted by the local authorities in the public arena. There have been many instances where people threw stones at Sikh funeral processions, verbally attacked, they continue to face difficulty for obtaining land for cremations and suffer harassment during major religious celebrations. When bodies are taken to crematorium, they need the assistance of police officials so as to save themselves from stone attacks.
Sikh community in particular have to cut the hair to protect themselves from religious violence. Further, under the threat of the religious violence and the threat of conversion, Hindu and Sikh communities are forced to pay tax so as to conduct their businesses. Education for children is one of the major challenges faced by these communities. This is because they are functionally prevented to attend the state-run schools. As stated by World Sikh Organization of Canada, “Sikh and Hindu students face systematic discrimination from educators and students of the majority communities, including mocking and shaming, exclusion from school activities and pressure to convert to Islam.” Further, “Most parents are afraid to send their children to school in fear that they will be verbally and physically assaulted; these are not isolated incidents but daily occurrences.” Thus, the only form of education accessible to such children is in the form of informal teaching at Gurudwaras. Hindu and Sikh women are frightened to leave their home alone as they face threats, are insulted and face physical violence. One of the Sikh refugees from Helmand said that, “our women have to wear burqa (veil) to go to marketplaces, we can’t visit our gurdwara and often, locals spit on our faces; they humiliate us for our joora (hair bun), taunt us by saying kafir (infidel).” Both these communities are also widely discriminated in the employment sector be it private or public and there is lack of access of job opportunities in the labour market.
Apart from such brutal actions by the Afghan administration, these religious minorities are also victims of suicide bombing. Such attacks force such minorities to seek asylum and leave their home countries. For example, the 2018 attack on the eastern city of Jalalabad killed 13 members of the Sikh community. Tejvir Singh who is a Secretary of a national panel of Hindus and Sikhs stated that “Our religious practices will not be tolerated by the Islamic terrorists, we are Afghans; the government recognizes us, but terrorists target us because we are not Muslims.” In one of the similar attacks by a terrorist organisation affiliated to ISIS in the capital city of Kabul killed 25 Sikh worshippers. Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna highlighting the funeral service of one of the worshippers said that “During her funeral service, a bomb was detonated, and additional explosives were planted outside their Sikh house of worship; the terrorist group presented the mourners an ultimatum: leave Afghanistan within 10 days or suffer more attacks.” Furthermore he appealed to the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) “Because the rampant religious violence against Afghan Sikhs and Hindus poses an existential threat for them, I urge the US Embassy in Kabul to refer Sikhs and Hindus still in Afghanistan for emergency refugee protection under the USRAP and for the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to accept this referral without objection to ensure their safety.”
After deeply analysing the entire situation of Hindus and Sikhs communities in Afghanistan are frightened to express themselves. World Sikh Organization of Canada is of the stance that “Afghan Sikhs who leave Afghanistan are often reluctant to even provide their names as they fear family members remaining behind may be targeted for kidnap and extortion.” Extortion is one of the significant challenges faced by these communities. In many instances, a significant and a large amount of money is demanded by the terrorist organisations for releasing the innocent victims held as hostages. Further, due to the absence of a proper census in the country, nothing much can be said about the number of people availaing judicial remedies. However, according to a survey conducted by Poresh Research and Studies Organisation (PRSO), “Only 7.0% of Hindu and Sikh respondents say anyone in their family have gone to court for legal remedies.”There can be various reasons behind such statistics such as lack of legal awareness amongst citizens, absence of trust in the judicial system of the country, the failure of state to protect its citizens etc.
These forms of religious persecution are a blatant violation of human rights of the citizens and various other international norms. It specifically violates Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” It highlights that how a state has failed to act and protect its own citizens. However, there are certain recommendations which can render assistance to Hindu and Sikh communities. There is a need of permanent rehabilitation of the minority communities who seek asylum to escape religious persecution because of the presence of migratory tendencies. The PRSO survey highlights that “The main reasons behind the need of migration are insecurity/war/suicide attacks (67.9%), unemployment (31.0%), and for education or because of illiteracy (19.6%).” At the same time, Hindu and Sikh communities in Afghanistan should be contacted with the local NGO’s, human rights organisations, to build trust and cooperation in case they want to stay in their home countries.
ARTICLE BY – BHAVYA BAHL (SYMBIOSIS LAW SCHOOL, NOIDA) HRDI THINK INDIA WORK FROM INTERNSHIP.
 Supra note 4