Recent efforts to reserve a seat in the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the parliament) for the Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan have rekindled some interest in this tiny religious minority. Included in the draft of the electoral law, the issue was rejected by the parliament in July, but has been re-enforced on 3 September 2013 through a presidential decree. The parliament is now expected to further discuss whether to reject it or to let it pass unscathed. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini (with input from Ehsan Qaane) looks at Afghan Hindus and Sikhs’ past and present conditions and argues that the issue of the parliamentary seat, seemingly irrelevant, could serve as another indicator of the country’s morale after a decade of attempting to build democratic structures.
Over the past 15 years, Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have been caught between an excessive, unwanted visibility and a total lack of it. The few thousand remnants of a once numerous community do not make the news often, and when they do the reporting is usually about the problems they face. As a minority community, and a religious one, they feel the current hardships and insecurity in Afghanistan even more than their Muslim neighbours.
This time, the protesting and lobbying campaign their community leaders organised in July and August seems to have won some support from the government. The main issue is to ensure their representation in the parliament, which they see as a way to address the difficulties they face. In the first Wolesi Jirga (WJ), a young and highly educated Sikh woman, Anarkali Honaryar, was elected for Kabul province. At the same time a senior Hindu from Kandahar, Ganga Ram, was appointed a senator in the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (MJ) by President Karzai. Five years later, the community failed to produce a united candidacy and none of the contestants gathered enough votes to be elected to the WJ in 2010. Anarkali Honaryar was later appointed to the Meshrano Jirga.
The Senate made the proposal to add one seat to the Wolesi Jirga’s total – bringing it from 249 to 250(1) – during the discussions on the new electoral law. The seat would be reserved for Hindus and Sikhs to elect their own representative. A joint commission of the Wolesi Jirga and the Meshrano Jirga further debated in the weeks preceding the parliament’s summer recess, and during this time, the proposal was dropped from the electoral law draft. The Hindu and Sikh community complained.
In following weeks, they received support from members of the civil society who advocated in favour of the parliamentary quota, while reports appeared in the press about their problematic conditions. A delegation of Hindus and Sikhs eventually visited Karzai on 13 August. They reportedly carried ID cards in their hands when they entered the palace and announced that they were ready to give them up and go to some other country as asylum seekers if their pleas were not heard.
Judging by the subsequent presidential decree announced on 3 September, they found open ears and the Hindu-Sikh community will receive its reserved seat in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2015.
An ancient connection
Hindus and Sikhs constitute a fraction of the Afghan population. Recently, one leader mentioned that only 800 families still live in the country, in the provinces of Kabul, Nangarhar, Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Balkh. This figure would be consistent with the “some thousands” that is often heard when referring to them. Numbers are difficult to ascertain, as many Afghan Hindu and Sikh households are split between countries, with the men living and working in Afghanistan while families have relocated abroad. However, the current tiny size of this minority belies its past importance in the economy of the country, especially at certain junctures.
Afghanistan, located from both geographical and cultural points of view at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, has an ancient connection with the Indian subcontinent and the civilisations and religions that flourished there. Putting aside the toponyms and archaeological remains that reveal past epochs of Hindu presence in many parts of Afghanistan, the modern era bears many witnesses to the continued presence of Hindus and, possibly from the seventeenth century onwards, of Sikhs, too. (2)
Many current Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan are thought to have come from beyond the Khyber Pass, arriving when the Mughal Empire ruled parts of Afghanistan, including Kabul, Jalalabad and Ghazni (and at times Kandahar, Balkh and Badakhshan). Even Hindu Rajput governors were at times sent to Kabul, the capital of the Mughal’s vast frontier province, but Hindus who settled permanently were more typically shopkeepers and artisans. Sources suggest that a few groups even lived in rural areas, in the Shomali and near Jalalabad, and practiced agriculture, but these were exceptional instances: the majority of the Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan were and still are urban dwellers engaged in trade or professional activities.(3) Many were moneylenders; others were tabib, Ayurvedic physicians practicing in cities or in the countryside as itinerant doctors (a connection which continued until recently, at least in Kabul, where many Sikhs imported medicines from India and ran pharmacies).
This religious minority was at its largest and reached significant economic importance after the Afghan state was founded in 1747. During the Durrani empire, the fortunes of a Hindu mercantile class originating from Sindh, the so-called Shikarpuris (from the town Shikarpur, nowadays in Pakistan), rose to the highest echelons of the region’s economy. This was also a direct effect of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s campaigns of conquest and the new importance his capital, Kandahar, assumed: trade routes between Iran, Central Asia and India were re-directed to the benefit of Shikarpur, which became a major economic hub. The Durranis used Shikarpur as a political tool to control their Indian provinces (one of the gates of Kandahar old city still bears its name, and the city contained as many as 20, between Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras). Between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, the Shikarpuri merchants became so prominent that often the Afghan rulers and the even the British depended on their loans – when the East India Company tried and failed to establish a protectorate on Afghanistan between 1838 and 1842, the British used Shikarpuri loans to pay their troops. Their fortunes eventually declined with those of the land trade routes in the late-nineteenth century, but not before some had settled in Afghanistan.
Another Hindu community that benefited from an Afghan connection were the Pandits of Kashmir. Kashmir was an Afghan province between 1752 and 1819, actually the richest, despite having lost much of its previous splendour and suffering from recurrent famines and the violence engendered by the frequent revolts of local governors. Interestingly, its Hindu minority was not the worst-affected by the unsettled times as the Afghan rulers co-opted them massively in their administration in both Srinagar and Kabul (especially during the reigns of Timur Shah (1773–93) and of Zaman Shah (1793–1800). Some scholars assume that it was this Afghan patronage which led the Pandits become proficient speakers of Persian and civil servants, later to be broadly employed for administrative purposes by the British in India.
Indeed, Hindus have featured constantly in the administrations of various Afghan kingdoms, almost always as accountants or treasury officials, a capacity in which they were deemed more trustworthy than fellow Muslims. This was because, then and now, subordinate officials in charge of a ruler’s economic resources were often tempted to challenge his authority. This eventuality was effectively reduced by entrusting the finances to non-Muslims, who had no chance of competing for power in a Muslim-dominated environment like Afghanistan. Morad Beg, the Uzbek ruler of Kunduz in the first decades of the nineteenth century, found a highly trusted and effective diwan begi, a role similar to that of a prime minister, in Atma Ram, reportedly the second-most-powerful man of his khanate and the only Hindu in Afghan Turkestan who could possess slaves (he owned some 400).
A tolerant attitutde towards non-Muslims
But how were Hindus and Sikhs on the whole treated? For the best part of the nineteenth century, foreign travellers – British colonial officers and their informants (usually Indian) – concurred in attributing to the Afghans a tolerant attitude towards non-Muslims and a much less bigoted approach to other religions compared to other Muslim groups of Persia or India. This attitude – although sorely tested by repeated attempts of invasion by colonial powers, in particular Anglo-Indian armies – was apparently maintained towards the Hindus and the Sikhs (although a tiny Armenian community disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century).
Afghan rulers’ attitude towards Hindus and Sikhs on the one hand was, broadly speaking, one of paternalistic goodwill and state protection, motivated by the economic benefits this small, peaceful and valuable group of citizens brought. Even during the reign of Abdul Rahman (1880–1901), marked by state repression and despotism, Hindus and Sikhs seem to have escaped the rough handling met by other, more rebellious Afghan communities. The Amir, on the other hand, punished with long prison terms those among his many Hindu and Sikh accountants who embezzled money. In areas where the state was weak, and tribal institutions comparatively strong, their protection would have been guaranteed by their status as hamsaya, “neighbours”, or, better, clients of the local tribesmen, with whom they would establish bonds of loyalty perpetuated from one generation to another.
Hindus and Sikhs were subjected to a separate taxation system for non-Muslims living under Muslim authority and so had to annually pay the jazya, a poll-tax that sometimes was calculated per shop instead per head (in areas of weak state control, the non-Muslim hamsaya would be asked to contribute to the extraordinary expenses of their tribal patrons, i.e., weddings). Judging by passing references in the sources, other restrictions such as the prohibitions to carry arms or ride horses inside the cities (or to ride only on pack saddles) were probably enforced, with exceptions made for some outstanding personalities and officials. However, under Sher Ali (1863–66, 1869–79) a Hindu achieved the rank of “field marshal”, and under Abdul Rahman and his successors, Hindus and Sikhs served in the police forces in Kabul and Kandahar. During Habibullah’s reign (1901–19), prominent members of the community made entreaties to allow the formation of a Sikh unit in the Afghan army, and the idea received broad support even by the more religiously conservative faction at court, that of Habibullah’s brother Nasrullah.
Taleban order to wear distinctive badges
Coming to the issue of representation, it is not completely clear if the Hindu-Sikh community had, at least at times, specific institutions to rule on disputes among themselves. Afghan historian Hamid Kakar reports that under Abdul Rahman, Hindus had a council of five elders in charge of “ruling all suits, claim of interests, and questions relating to Hindu laws”.(4) Disputes within the community were ruled thus, while those involving Muslims were referred to the qazis.(5)
The requirement for this religious minority to wear distinctive marks – a yellow, red or black turban – is also mentioned occasionally. Indeed, more recently the world became aware of the existence of Sikh and Hindu Afghans only when the Taleban ordered that they wear distinctive badges, a policy with ominous past associations for Europeans and one which caused a general outcry.(6) Trapped in the status of second-grade citizens, devoid of political power although usually well-off and safe, Hindu and Sikh visibility in Afghanistan was thus mainly reduced to outward symbols. However, at one stage in history the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs had become a prominent international political tool.
That was at the height of the anti-colonial discourse in Afghanistan during the early 1920s, when ideas of pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism still coexisted, also influenced by the (still) united Hindu-Muslim struggle against the British authorities in India. Between 1919 and 1929, the so-called decade of Amanullah was to witness the climax and demise of such unity of purpose and action.
Amanullah consciously decided to play the card of Hindu-Muslim unity to further his modernising efforts and reap international recognition as a champion of pan-Asianism. He appointed Naranjan Das, an influential Hindu civil servant from Abdul Rahman’s time to the delegation to the peace conferences of Rawalpindi and Mussoorie at the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The move impressed the Indian public and annoyed the English. But this were more than symbolic moves: his reforms abolished the jazya and encouraged Hindus and Sikhs to take part in developing the state educational system in effect turning them into equal citizens on par with Muslims.
Amanullah attended Hindu-Sikh religious ceremonies and restored some former places of worship, like the springs of Sultanpur near Jalalabad, which Habibullah had previously enclosed as a private residence.
The government – and also the Muslim religious elites – showed such goodwill towards this minority that they participated in the yearly Vaisakhi celebrations of the Sikhs of Jalalabad, a ceremony that assumed increasingly official proportions during the early 1920s. Some militant mullahs active in opposing the British government on the other side of the Frontier would even use the Vaisakhi celebrations as a stage from which to promote with fiery speeches the cause of anti-British struggle, no doubt with government consent. Indeed, in those years, Lalpur, conveniently located on the border with the tribal areas and featuring a consistent Sikh population, became a haven for clandestine cross-border activity such as gun smuggling and press for the Indian freedom fighters, many of whom had taken shelter with Amanullah in Kabul. Local Hindus and Sikhs were assertively involved in such activities. Among the ranks of the Ghadr party, a clandestine militant organisation active in the 1920s and 1930s, the number of Afghan Sikhs from Lalpur, Jalalabad and Kabul was remarkably high.
Tensions and divisions between Hindus and Muslims in India matured in the late 1920s, and the fall of Amanullah to a fundamentalist revolt in January 1929 brought all this participation in broader politics to an end. The doors of Kabul would be closed to the Indian revolutionaries by the more-pragmatic and pro-British monarch Nadir Shah (1930–33), and Afghan Hindus and Sikhs would pay a price during the civil war of 1929. The Hindu-Sikh communities near the Frontier fell prey to tribes out looting under the excuse of rebelling against Amanullah. The religious militancy encouraged by the mullahs no longer considered the Hindus and Sikhs as allies. The same Frontier mullahs who had praised Hindu-Muslim united struggle against colonialism only a few years before came back to Lalpur, killed some local Hindus and Sikhs, vandalised the gurdwara and the school and re-imposed the poll tax on non-Muslims.(7)
In the decades leading up to 1979, the Hindu-Sikh community maintained a low profile, but managed to retain a relatively good economic position in face of the modernisation of trade and business in the country. Their number was at its peak, estimated by some at more than 50,000. Conflict started to affect them badly only during the late 1980s, when it reached towns and cities. Many Afghan Hindus and Sikhs fled the country at the fall of Najibullah’s government (which had also tried to include the Sikh and Hindu minorities politically)(8) and the start of internecine mujahedin fighting in Kabul in 1992. According to a paper presented in 2001, “Of the about 66,000 Afghans in Germany, a minority of some 5,000 refugees are Hindus. They maintain four nicely constructed temples in Hamburg, Frankfurt and two in Cologne.” Many Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, around 9,000, have received refugee status, and often citizenship, in India.
Winding down the businesses, leaving the country
After 2001, some did return, but the current Hindu-Sikh community is nowhere close to its previous size. They are to be found in almost all towns and cities of Afghanistan, with the exception of its northwestern corner. In Kabul, they reside in different areas, most notably in the Old Town and in Karte Parwan, where two of their main temples are located.
Occasionally specific issues have arisen between them and Muslim Afghans, such as the dispute over the crematory in Qalacha. Once conveniently located out of town, the site used by the Hindus to burn their dead has been reached by the sprawling urban growth of Kabul. Local Muslim residents strongly object to its use and the issue has sparked protests from both sides.
The Hindu-Sikh community’s present position seems to be undermined not by harsh and concerted hostility from their Muslim neighbours, but rather by a constant erosion of the security and room for action required for carrying on their business, their religious ceremonies and, in short, a normal life. And that is enough for many to decide it is not worth it anymore, and to send their families away, first from Khost or Kunduz to Kabul, and eventually from Kabul to New Delhi as well as to progressively wind down their economic activities and move out of the country altogether.
Faced with this risk, which would represent yet another cultural, human and economic loss to further impoverish Afghanistan, the presidential decree published on 3 September may be a positive development. Critics of the proposal when it was first rejected by the joint parliamentary committee have argued that it goes against the Constitution and that it could lead other minorities to ask for special representations. It remains to be seen if the parliament, now back from its summer recess, will challenge the decree, accept it, or possibly just avoid making it the subject of its debates and allow it be enforced.
Respect for the diverse heritage – a value once stressed by the president
Karzai’s move (actually the decree was published when the president was traveling to Pakistan, something which led some to see an element of “counterbalance” aimed at India) is one that would be expected from a president wanting to safeguard the rights of non-Muslim minorities. Irrespective of the debate on how unity and equality in a country are best achieved – whether through reserved quota policies or the pursuit of fair chances for all – the allocation of the seat has been supported by civil society members and is widely seen as justly protecting the rights of a tiny minority in troubled times of insecurity and militancy. Critics of the decree and the president will be at odds with civil society, human rights watchdogs and the international community if the presidential decree is overruled by parliament.
The presidential decree offered a shorter law-making process, lessened the likelihood of opposition and delineated more strongly the president’s personal standing in favour of the minorities before the national and international public. One could also say that the government has taken an easy shortcut by offering an institutional position to the elite of a disaffected group – in this case, although it’s quite an unprecedented step, it’s easier and more feasible than addressing the criminality, lack of facilities, insecurity along routes and radicalisation of the society that have deteriorated conditions for Hindus and Sikhs.
But the point goes beyond Karzai’s rationale for this decision, whether it’s a routine patching-up through patronage or a sincere attempt at reviving his pristine charms of cosmopolitanism and attention for the cultural diversity of his country. These values, which Karzai heavily stressed and embodied during the first years of his tenure, reflected a thirst among the best of Afghan society for tolerance, openness to and attention for the country’s diverse heritage and the belief that this constituted wealth and not a source of rivalry and fault lines. Bleak years of conflict, competition and corruption seem to have taken a toll on this bright perspective. Do those values still matter for Afghans at the eve of 2014?
(1) The constitution provides for a Lower House of up to 250 seats. Before the first post-Taleban parliamentary election, lawmakers chose a house with 249 seats.
(2) The following paragraphs are an extremely concise abridgement of an essay I wrote for “Incontri con l’altro e incroci di culture” ‘Uyun al-Akhbar. Studi sul mondo islamico, vol.2, 2008. I direct readers to the original text for references.
(3) All accounts from British travellers in Afghanistan from the early nineteenth century report the presence of Hindus in the Afghan bazaars; Charles Masson correlated the number of Hindu traders present with the prosperity of an Afghan market.
(4) “Hindus” would probably refer to both groups in some nineteenth-century sources. Their condition of minority among Muslims and their similar livelihoods have brought Afghan Hindus and Sikhs into close contact and eventually to a high degree of shared identity. In the 1910s, the reformist propaganda of the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj on the Hindu side and a “puritan” influence coming from the Sikhs of Panjab briefly brought tension and clashes between the two groups, for example, when militant Sikhs stormed a wedding in Kabul trying to prevent a mixed Hindu-Sikh marriage in early 1919.
(5) However, this was not always clear: in one instance from Habibullah’s reign, Hindus resented that the murder of a Hindu goldsmith in Logar at the hands of a Muslim was being ruled by the Sharia court, and the mass protest, in the form of a hartal, a lock-out of the shops, lasted for weeks and extended to Gardez.
(6) Amanullah allowed Sikhs, to whom the obligation to wear distinctive marks did not matter much as it is already part of their religious duties, to keep their turban when entering Kabul – the only Afghan citizens apparently to whom this consent was given. Also in the 1950s, according to Louis Dupree, they were allowed to wear their five religiously-prescribed pieces of gear during their military service.
(7) Only in some cases the old tribal solidarity resisted the imported modernity of these communal riots. The Shinwaris of Peshbolak in Nangarhar assigned a strong contingent of tribal police to escort their Hindu and Sikh hamsaya to Peshawar, which they reached in safety and with all their belongings, including 17 copies of the Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of Sikhism.
(8) For example, President Najibullah appointed one Sikh and one Hindu, a merchant and the owner of a small factory, as representatives to the 1989 Loya Jirga.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020