ټول حقوق د منډيګک بنسټ سره محفوظ دي
The deadly attack on Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib at Shor Bazar in Kabul on 25th March 2020 which led to death of 27 Sikhs including children and women shocked the small 650 odd community.
The Gurdwara Sahib was also a home to 50 Sikh families. They eventually requested for refuge to the Indian government. A couple of years ago on 1st July 2018 in a bomb blast in Jalalabad, 15 Afghan Sikhs & 4 Hindus were killed which included the community leaders Avtar Singh and Rawail Singh. The Afghan Sikhs are now leaving the country and it is important to trace the origins and history of Sikhs in Afghanistan.
There is very little material on Afghan Sikh history or its origin in the public domain. Roger Ballard (2011) stated that Afghan Sikhs are “likely to be made up of those members of the indigenous population who resisted the process of conversion from Buddhism to Islam which took place in this area between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, and who subsequently aligned themselves with the teachings of Guru Nanak – himself a Khatri and the founder of the Sikh tradition – during the course of the fifteenth century”1
Guru Nanak came to Afghanistan during his 4th Udasi (1517 – 21) in 16th century2 and it is more likely that the Hindus rather than Buddhists became Nanakpanthis (followers of Guru Nanak). There is no evidence that Buddhism survived in Afghanistan till 15th or 16th century. Bukhara was one of the major cities of Khurasan (medieval Afghanistan), Anthony Jenkinson who visited this city in 1558 mentions Indian merchants in the city.3
The majority of Afghan Sikhs belong to Arora and Khatri castes. Few are from Bhatia, Bhatra and Rajvanshi background. All are well known to an average Sikh except for the last one which are in majority among the Afghan Sikhs present in Afghanistan. They originally belonged to Maidan Shar in Wardak province. They left the city in 1940 when one of clan girls was abducted and converted to Islam. They migrated to Kabul, Gardez and Ghazni. The majority of the Sikhs killed on 25th March 2020 were from this group.
The Afghan Hindus are also Khatris and Aroras. A small number of them are Brahmins and Bhatias. The present-day Afghan Sikhs are descendants of the Afghan Hindus who became Nanakpanthis when Guru Nanak came to Afghanistan in 1521. A large number of Afghan Sikhs shared their surname or sub-caste with Hindus.4
BABUR ON KABUL
Babur, the founder of Mughal Empire in the sub-continent captured Kabul in 1504 and later captured Delhi in 1526 after the first battle of Panipat. Babur wrote an autobiography, Baburnama and he refers to Kabul as an excellent trading center and Hindustan’s own market. He mentions that almost 8,000–10,000 horses would come to the city along with 15,000–20,000 caravans from Hindustan with household stuff, slaves, white cloth, refined sugar candy, common sugar and aromatic roots. Despite making 300–400 percent profit, many merchants were not satisfied although they would never make such profit even if they went to Cathay (Northern China) or Turkey, he noted. He adds that in Kabul, products from Khurasan, Iraq, Turkey and China were available and Hindvi language was spoken in the region.5 Although Babur does not mention Hindu merchants specifically, but Indian merchants and language are mentioned in his memoirs.
The history of Sikhs in Afghanistan starts with the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak (1469–1539) who was a prolific traveller. The life and times of the Guru is recorded in Janamsakhis which are semi-historical in nature as they are written in a devotional manner and do not contain dates but records of his visits to Mecca, Medina, Bagdad, Kabul and Kandahar (all in Central Asia) along with visits to Sri Lanka and within the Indian sub-continent.6 The earliest copy belongs to the early 1600s but their earlier antiquity cannot be ruled out.
Guru Nanak and his companion in his travels, Bhai Mardana left Mashhad (Persia) to reach Balkh and then reached outskirts the city of Kabul which was under Babur at that time. In one instance, the Guru met some holy men who inquired what brought a Hindu ascetic to a land of Muslims. The Guru replied that ‘the Almighty created the same Divine Light, which pervades all. God has created all beings in the same mould. However, some of them wear janeu while some others got themselves circumcised’. The holy men were very impressed with the Guru. The Guru stayed in the city for some time and then travelled farther into the country.7
They also went to meet Maan Chand, son of Khan Chand who lived in Kabul city. The Guru sent for him through a local Pathan. Maan Chand met Guru Nanak and later became his follower and a preacher of Guru’s doctrine in this region.8 Unfortunately, the oldest historical Gurdwara of Afghanistan, Gurdwara Guru Nanak, based in Jad Mewan was demolished when the road was widened in 1950. As per the regulations, the dismantled material and cost of the land was paid to the Gurdwara Management Committee. They could have re-purchased the land as not all was lost to the road. After some time, it was purchased by a good-natured local Muslim who was willing to sell it to the Kabuli Sikhs. However, the local Sikhs did not get together to raise the amount to buy the land.
The Jalalabad-based Sikh organisation, Khalsa Diwan Afghanistan, volunteered to help in it. Professor Ganda Singh writes that he was told by a Kabuli Sikh that they did not require the help of outsiders (i.e. Jalalabad). Sadly, the local Kabuli Sikhs never got together to rebuild this Gurdwara.9
The Gurdham Sangreh (written by Giani Gian Singh in 1921) records that in Sultanpur (about 8 km from Jalalabad) a shepherd boy while grazing his goats, got very thirsty and fell on the ground. Both Guru Nanak and his companion Bhai Bala were there, and the Guru asked Bhai Bala to get some water. The latter answered that there was no water nearby, the Guru then asked him to lift a rock and when Bala lifted one, a stream of water came out. The stream still exists, a famous place in relation to Guru Nanak and the Sikhs in Afghanistan. The place finds mention even in Charles Masson’s travel account written in the 1840s.10 The Guru Nanak Darbar at Jalalabad commemorates the visit of Guru Ji is an important site of pilgrimage for Sikhs.
Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana came to Ar Randha (Arghandab) River and met a Mughal Pathan fakir who introduced himself as Yaar Ali and asked about Guru Nanak. The Guru said he was a Banda of Khuda, a servant of God. The Fakir then asked who was his Peer (spiritual teacher)? The Guru replied that the one who had created this world was his Peer and the fakir fell at the feet of the Guru.11
SIKH GURUS AND THEIR FOLLOWERS IN KABUL
The Mughal Emperor Babur captured Kabul in 1504 and by 1526 he was the master of North India. Kabul& Eastern Afghanistan became one of the provinces of Hindustan (contemporary writers use this name). Indian merchants had been regularly visiting Kabul throughout the centuries. As mentioned earlier, Babur referred to Kabul as Hindustan’s own market. The province of Kabul remained with Hindustan until 1738 when it was conquered by Nadir Shah, the Persian ruler. During this period, the Sikh chroniclers record numerous names and instances when Sikh followers from Kabul came to the region now known as East Punjab, to pay respects to the Sikh Gurus.
Bawa Kirpal Das, who was a descendant of Guru Amar Das (1552–74), the third Sikh Guru, wrote Mahima Prakash Vartak in 1741. This manuscript mentions the name of Kabul wali Mai (Lady from Kabul) who did seva (voluntary service) with great devotion when the digging of the Baoli (stepwell) at Goindawal (district Tarn Taran, East Punjab) was undertaken by the third Guru.12 The manuscript refers to Bibi (sister) Bhago who was in-charge of the Manji (Sikh preaching centre) in Kabul while according to an inscription in Gurdwara Haveli Sahib in Goindwal her name was Mai Sevan. These may be two different women or the same individual, but it is remarkable that there was a Sikh woman preacher in the 16th century.
Prof. Ganda Singh writes that Baba Ganak Baksh from Gurdaspur was an important Udasi Sadhu who became a Sikh during the time of Guru Amardas and started preaching. His followers are known as Ganj Bakshiye. A Gurdwara was named after him in Kabul. It cannot be verified if he came to Kabul or the Gurdwara was built by one of his followers. Unfortunately, this small Gurdwara is under the illegal occupation of the tenant from the majority community.
Guru Arjan (1581–1606) was the fifth Guru of the Sikhs. His cousin, Bhai Gurdas wrote Vaaran which are much revered by the Sikhs and it mentions the name of Bhai Rekh Rao and Bhai Bhana Mallan, the Sikh residents of Kabul. The manuscript Sikhan di Bhagat Mala written by Bhai Mani Singh around 1720s elaborates that they looked after the stores of the local chief. A complaint was made against them that they were using short weights and misappropriated the provisions in the stores. However, their devotion and piousness proved their honesty. The weights were tested and found to be correct. Some Sikh chroniclers have mentioned the same anecdote for Bhai Katara. Bhai Gurdas (1551 – 1636) is said to have visited Kabul, the Khalsa Gurdwara at Shor Bazaar was built by him during this period.
The Gurdwara Pipali Sahib situated a mile and a half north-west of Harmandar Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar commemorates the visit of Guru Arjan when he reached here to greet the Sangat (Sikhs) of Kabul who had come to participate in the digging of tanks. The Guru built four water tanks in Amritsar city. The site was also visited by the Guru Hargobind.13
The manuscript Gurbilas Padshahi Chhevee, a biographical account of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind (1606–44) written in the first quarter of the 18th century records the name of Bhai Karori, a Sikh horse dealer in Kabul who sent two of his finest horses Dilbagh and Gulbagh as an offering to the Guru. Shortly after, Bhai Tara Chand and Bakht Mall who were Masands (Sikh preachers) in Kabul travelled with the Sangat and the horses to meet the Guru at Kiratpur, East Punjab. On the way, the horses were forcibly taken by the Faujdar (Garrison Commander) of Lahore. The Sikhs informed Guru Hargobind of the highhandedness of the Faujdar when Bidhi Chand, a Sikh was able to recover the horses through a stratagem.
An early 17th-century Persian manuscript Dabistan i Mazahib considered to be written by Zulfiqar Ardastani has a chapter on Nanakpanthis. It mentions two anecdotes relating to Bhai Sadh who lived near Balkh. The anecdotes show that a devoted Sikh is contented with the will of the Almighty which may bring joys and sorrows in life and their devotion to the Guru.
On Guru’s order, Bhai Sadh left Balkh for Iraq to buy horses. Shortly after, his son fell sick and he was asked by his companions to go back to his son. He replied that if his son perished, it was the will of the God and that there were enough resources in the house to cremate him. Bhai Sadh added that he would return only after fulfilling the mission. Though the son passed away, the father did not return mid-way.
In the second incident, Ardastani was travelling with Sadh from Kabul to Punjab when the former discovered that the belt of his sheepskin had snapped. Sadh immediately took off his zannar (the sacred thread) and made a joint there. Ardastani was surprised and asked what he had done. Sadh replied that ‘The wearing of the sacred thread is an undertaking of service. Whenever I neglect the service of my guests and friends, I become a non-wearer of it’. And Bhai Sadh quoted a verse, ‘This knotless relation, though slender as a single strand, is rosary in a cloister and a zannar in a temple’.14
Bhai Sabhaga, a Sikh from Peshawar, brought five horses from Kabul as an offering to Guru Hargobind in the latter’s court at Hargobindpur. Mahan Kosh quotes Suraj Prakash Granth that ‘Dhani bado aru nam sabhaga’ (Sabhaga was rich in money & virtues).
The 18th century manuscript, Mahima Prakash mentions that Bhai Gonda was sent to Kabul to preach the Sikh doctrine by the seventh Guru, Har Rai (1644–61). The manuscript also records an anecdote about his devotion. Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib at Shor Bazaar which was the site of the unfortunate but deadly attack on 25th March 2020 was established by Bhai Gonda.
Giani Gian Singh mentions that Guru Tegh Bahadur was travelling towards Samao (Bathinda, East Punjab) when he was informed about the Sangat from Kabul and Peshawar coming to see him. The Guru halted at Samoa and sat under a tree to receive the Sangat. When the Sangat arrived, a farmer working in the nearby fields provided bread and buttermilk for them. The Guru blessed the peasant and a Gurdwara was built to commemorate this event.15
Prof. Hari Ram Gupta quotes from contemporary records that a Duni Chand from Kabul bought a costly tent at Anandpur (East Punjab) to be used for Guru Gobind Das (later, Guru Gobind Singh from 1699) for holding durbar in 1688–89. The tent was made of the finest silk and had numerous pictures stitched with threads of gold and strings of pearls hung around it. The flooring had beautiful Persian carpets. The gesture hurt the pride of Pahari Rajput ruler Bhim Chand who already held a grudge against the Guru which later led to the Battle of Bhangani (1689), first of the several battles between the Sikhs and the Pahari Rajput rulers.16
Baba Sri Chand (1494 – 1629) son of Guru Nanak and founder of Udasi Sect also came to Afghanistan. The Gurdwara Baba Sri Chand in Shor Bazaar, Kabul was established by Baba Almast (1553 – 1643) when he visited Kabul. There is also small Gurdwara Baba Almast next to Khalsa Gurdwara in Kabul.
Bhai Nand Lal (1633–1715), a great poet and scholar of Farsi language was born in Ghazni and was one of the poets in the court of Guru Gobind Singh. His composition written under the pen-name Goya is much revered and sung by the Sikhs. His father was Diwan Chhajju Ram, Mir Munshi or chief secretary of the Governor of Ghazni.
At the age of nineteen, Nand Lal migrated to Multan which was a big city of merchants. He settled in Multan and took a local Sikh woman as his wife. He got employed by the local chief and was soon appointed as Mir Munshi. It is through his wife that Nand Lal became close to Sikh doctrine and the contemporary socio-political circumstances led him to seek refuge under Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur. His life and work have been covered in detail by Prof. Ganda Singh.17
Sadly, the Sikhs in general and particularly those from Afghanistan did not share his remarkable work with fellow Afghans. Only a small part of his devotional poetry written in praise of Guru Gobind Singh is sung by the Sikhs as most of his poetic compositions are in Farsi, a language alien to most of the present-day Sikhs. Two Gurdwara Sahibs are named after Bhai Nand Lal in Ghazni.
AHMED SHAH ABDALI
Ahmed Shah Abdali is fondly called Ahmed Shah Baba and considered as founder of Modern Afghanistan. One community’s hero can be an other’s villain. Abdali is remembered in Punjab for persecuting Sikhs and desecrating and destroying Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar. Punjab was the only province which Abdali lost during his reign from 1747-72. To manage Sikhs diplomatically Abdali appointed Kabuli Mal, an Afghan Hindu from Kabul as the governor of Lahore in 1763. He and his nephew Amir Singh (Sikh?) managed Lahore provinces for few months. Sikhs captured Sirhind in December 1764 and Lahore in January 1765.18
A local Afghan Hindu in Kandahar shared an interesting anecdote with the author of this article. A Gurdwara Sahib dedicated to Baba Sri Chand exists in Kandahar next to a Mosque and a Hindu Temple. Upon Hindus & Sikhs request, Ahmed Shah Abdali granted permission to expand their place of worship in his capital city. The locals objected that this would mean the building of non-Muslim would be bigger than the Masjid. It is said that Ahmad Shah overruled them and replied that there are Masjids is every street and this is their (Hindu/Sikh) only place of worship in the city hence his decision would stand. The Gurdwara is now locked but under the control of the Sangat.
POST AHMAD SHAH
The city of Multan and neighbouring areas remained under the Sikh Misl Sardars (leaders) for a decade before being passed on to the Afghans. Timur Shah, the successor to Ahmed Shah was unable to re-capture Punjab but was successful in Multan in 1779.Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799–1839) successfully annexed Kashmir, Multan, Attock, Dejarat, Hazara and Peshawar which were all under the Afghans.19
In 1838, Shah Shuja was able to secure support from the British East India Company and Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was agreed that Shah Shuja would be re-instated as the Amir of Afghanistan and Dost Mohammed would be removed. Shah Shuja will forfeit any claim towards Peshawar and Maharaja would do the same for Shikarpur (in Sindh). Shah Shuja was re-instated as Amir of Afghanistan in late 1839, almost thirty years after he was initially deposed by his brother. However, Shah Shuja was murdered in 1842 and the British who were already fed up with the costly (human and monetary) war which later came to be known as First Anglo-Afghan war invited Dost Mohammad Khan who was earlier deposed by the British to take up the reign in Afghanistan.
Khushwant Singh writes that the new Sikh ruler, Maharaja Sher Singh was unhappy and felt that the British had used Sikhs in the Afghanistan campaign to their own benefit. Apparently, the British forgot to consult the successor of Ranjit Singh regarding the reinstatement of the old adversary of the Sikhs, Dost Mohammed Khan to head the helm of affairs in Afghanistan. When Dost Mohammed passed through Lahore on his way to Kabul, the Sikh ruler gave him a huge welcome and expensive gifts. The Khan was also inclined to form better relations with Sikhs as they were neighbours. A few months later Sher Singh was murdered which eventually led to the British occupation of Punjab.
In 1848–49, the Sikhs fought the British which came to be known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Dost Mohammed was sympathetic to the Sikh cause and sent irregular Afghan mercenaries which fought alongside the Sikhs in the Battle of Gujrat in February 1849. The superior artillery of the British won the day, and this ended the era of Sikh and Afghan relationships on a rare co-operation.20
EARLY 19TH CENTURY
In 1808, Mountstuart Elphinstone was sent to Afghanistan by the British to study and possibly make an alliance lest the Russians decided to invade the sub-continent.
As an example of Afghan toleration, Elphinstone mentions a Sikh goldsmith who he says was a very intelligent man and had travelled throughout Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia. This Sikh goldsmith always spoke about ‘the kindness and hospitality’ of the Afghans as opposed to the Persians who were very suspicious and would not allow the Sikh to draw water from the well or walk in the rain lest he splashed water on a Persian making him impure!21
Mohan Lal (1812–77) popularly known as Mohan Lal Kashmiri was a traveller and writer. He travelled to Afghanistan and Central Asia in 1832–34 with Alexander Burnes on a mission given by the East India Company to gain intelligence about the country. His proficiency in the Persian language assisted in this venture.
Alexander Burnes writes that there were 300 Hindu families in Kabul which were in addition to the Shikarpuri merchants who lent money to the Government. These merchants lived separately as they did not bring their families (womenfolk and children) with them to Afghanistan. Burnes’ account tells us about the powerful Hindu Prime Minister of the Khan of Bukhara, but the city only had Hindu merchants unlike Kabul which had a permanent settled Hindu population.22
Prof. Ganda Singh in his book, Early European Accounts of the Sikhs refers to the account of Mr John Griffiths about Afghanistan in 18th century, Griffiths gives very interesting information, he writes that the principal inhabitants were Muslims, with some Hindus, who had adopted the ‘institutions of Baba Nanak’. Griffiths erroneously writes that they ‘are called Khatri’. In essence, he was stating that some Hindus had adopted the religion of Guru Nanak and became Sikhs or Nanakpanthis. Since most of the Sikhs and the Hindus belonged to the Khatri (or Arora) caste that followed the mercantile or trader profession, hence ‘Khatri’. This is the first European reference to Sikhs in Afghanistan.23
The Singh Sabha Sikh reform movement came to Afghanistan in early 20th century when Akali Kaur Singh came to Nangarhar province in 1918 and stayed in the country for a year. He went from house to house preaching the Sikh doctrine which led to the construction of many Gurdwaras especially in places where the Sikhs were in few numbers and were without a place of worship.24
Similar to the Frontier province and Sindh (now in Pakistan) there were a considerable number Sahajdharis and many had dual Hindu – Sikh beliefs. Erroneously both these groups have been clubbed as Sahajdharis or Nanakpanthis by some historians.
Late Sadhu Singh Saathi mentions that the first Amrit Sanchar (Sikh ceremony of initiation into Khalsa) in Afghanistan was arranged in February 1920 in Lal Pur district in Nangarhar province. A number of Sahajdharis took Khande di Pahul and became Khalsa. The following year, another Amrit Sanchar was conducted in the Gurdwara at Lal Pur. It was decided that a Sikh conference would be arranged and all Khalsa and Guru Nanak Naam Leva Sikhs (another name for Sahajdhari Sikhs) would be invited. During this conference on 22nd January 1921, the Khalsa Diwan Afghanistan was created. The organisation played a key part in the social, cultural, economic and political circles of Eastern Afghanistan. They did much work for propagation of the Sikh values and traditions. Saathi credits Akali Kaur Singh’s leadership for this achievement. Another Sikh, Teja Singh Swatantar (1901–73) came to Kabul as a Sikh missionary in 1923.
SIKHS & AMIR AMANULLAH KHAN (1919-29)
Professor Ganda Singh, who visited Afghanistan in September 1952 writes that there was a small mosque behind the Gurdwara Jyoti Saroop at Lahori Darwaza, Kabul. A Hindu fakir Chacha Bali who was revered by both the Muslims and Hindus lived at the site. When he died, he was buried and later the Muslims built a mosque over his grave. In 1919, the wall between the Gurdwara and the mosque fell, and the Muslims did not allow the Sikhs to repair it. Sikhs went to Amanullah Khan who tried to persuade the Muslims, but they did not allow him to intervene and said it was a matter of Deen (religion) and only the Emperor could intervene. Later, when Amanullah became the Amir he himself supervised and commissioned the wall.
Amir Habibullah Khan, father of Amanullah was very impressed by the beauty of Chashma (stream) and its surrounding at Sultanpur. He tried to buy it from the Sikhs, but latter expressed their inability to sell as it was a site where their Guru came and hence is a property of all Sikhs over the world. Habibullah forcibly occupied it in 1906 and built a palace next to it. When Amanullah Khan became the Amir, a deputation was sent to him by the Sikhs and he listened to them very patiently, finally allowing them to bathe in the Chashma. In 1924, Khalsa Diwan Afghanistan got permission to hold a Diwan (religious program, audience hall) here on Vaisakhi.
On 18th May 1925, the Sikhs organised a three-day Samagham (religious programme) for the first time in the city of Kabul. The religious function was held in the garden of Diwan Niranjan Das (Commerce Minister under the Amir)’s mansion. Giani Avtar Singh and Master Udham Singh were the main organisers. Following the completion of Akhand Paath, a Nagar Kirtan, a Sikh religious procession with the Guru Granth Sahib in a spacious vehicle which had the Khalsa flag and the flag of Afghanistan on either side was taken out in the city. On the last day, Amrit Sanchar (Khalsa initiation ceremony) for the willing was performed. The programme which was supported by the government was very well attended by the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.25
Baba Mangal Singh Bedi & Tara Singh Pishpalaki as Sikh representative participated in the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of 1925. In the year 1927, but the Amir Amanullah Khan ordered his government and the honorary workers that any participant of the second Loya Jirga should not wear turbans. Much to the surprise of the Amir, only two people (the above two Sikhs) were wearing turban in the Loya Jirga. The Amir had little clue about Sikhs and their obligation to maintain Kesh. They rendered their resignation at the end of the Grand Assembly in 1927.26
RESETTLEMENTS IN URBAN AREAS
Until 1931 Sikhs and Hindus were settled throughout the villages and small towns of Nangarhar and in the neighbouring Kunar province. That year during an attack by the robbers, two robbers (belonging to Mangal Pashtun tribe) and a Sikh were killed. This meant an ongoing enmity between the Mangal tribe and the Sikhs. To safeguard, the government relocated the Sikhs and Hindus to the bigger towns and cities. Most of them came to Jalalabad which significantly increased their population in the city.27
SIKHS & ZAHIR SHAH (1933-73)
Amanullah Khan had reduced the Jaziya to half for Hindus & Sikhs and removed the ongoing instruction to wear yellow turbans (for Hindus). During the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, the Jaziya tax was totally abandoned.
In 1954, the local government (Nangarhar province) decided to widen the road and Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar at Jalalabad came under that modernization plan. This meant that the Gurdwara had to be demolished and the local government would give land [for the gurdwara] elsewhere. When the Sikhs failed to convince the local authorities not to demolish the gurdwara, a petition was made to the Emperor Zahir Shah in Kabul who issued a royal edict and the Gurdwara was handed back to the Sikhs. The road widening plan was changed.28
In 1965 permission was granted to build the new Gurdwara at Karte Parwan area in Kabul. This Singh Sabha Gurdwara is the largest Gurdwara Sahib in Afghanistan. The Gurdwara has three floors and a basement, including a kitchen, a primary school building, an emergency clinic and a guest house.29
Traditionally Sikhs & Hindus have been shopkeepers, Hakeems (Greco-Persian medicine), involved in moneylending, informal banking and trading of spices, herbs and medicines. In the 1960s the community started venturing into further and higher education. By early 1970s every hospital and university in major Afghan cities had their fair share of Sikh & Hindu doctors and professors.
In 1969, Jai Singh Fani was elected as an independent candidate to Afghan Legislature. He was a bright young man but suddenly passed away in 1977 after a short period of illness. Right from 1925, every Loya Jirga & Parliament till date had a Sikh representation.30
People in Afghanistan are multi-lingual. In addition to the official languages of Dari and Pashto which was widely spoken, there are number of minor languages. The persecuted Hazara Shia community speaks Hazaragi language. The Nuristani, Uzbek, Turkmen communities have their own language.
The Afghan Sikhs (& Hindus), when they apply for refugee status in UK, they are interviewed in Pashto which they speak fluently. However, the communities in Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad at home speak Hindko, a dialect of Western Punjabi language. The Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Peshawar and neighbouring Punjab speak Hindko however, majority of the province speaks Pashto. The Hindus of Kabul speak a dialect of Hindi called Kabuli Hindi at home.
The Sikhs (& Hindus) of Khost province are mostly Sahajdhari and speak Pashto at home like the neighboring Sikhs across the Durand Line in FATA area (Federally Administered Tribal Areas merged with KPK in 2018). The vast majority of Sikhs living in Panja Sahib and Nankana Sahib (West Punjab, Pakistan) belong to this region.
The Sikhs & Hindus of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan spoke Multani. This language is called Saraiki in West Punjab. Traditionally this region has very few Sikhs however there were appreciable number of Sahajdhari Sikhs and after year 2000 many became Khalsa.
The Pakistani census records Punjabi, Hindko and Saraiki as separate languages. The first two are more mutually intelligible than the third one. The youngsters in East Punjab will struggle to comprehend Saraiki compared to Hindko.
The languages also tell a little story. The city of Kandahar had its share of Multani and Shikarpuri Hindu merchants in 17th & 18th century, if not earlier. The local Hindus adopted the language of their affluent co-religionists.
Prof. Ganda Singh came to Afghanistan in September 1952 and visited Kabul, Ghazni, Jalalabad &Kandahar and stated there were 6000 – 7000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country. This is a very humble estimate as two decades later, Louise Dupree in his book ‘Afghanistan’ published in 1973 states there were 25,000 of them (15,000 Sikhs). The Sikhs were more numerous than Hindus. In other part of the book, Dupree gives the combined figure as 30,000. Khajinder Singh Khurana gave their number as 60,000 in 1992 when vast majority of Sikhs & Hindus left Afghanistan (in the ratio of 3:2).
Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by his cousin Daud Khan who became the President who was assassinated in April 1978 which plunged the country into chaos. Later in December 1979, the Soviet Union sent their forces to support the communist regime in Kabul. This plunged the country into civil war. Many prominent Afghan Sikhs and Hindus left the country in late 1970s and 1980s.
Dr Joginder Singh Tej Khurana, former Member of the Afghan Grand Assembly in 1990-92 is currently living in London and is writing a book on the community focusing on past 100-150 years. He and late Gajinder Singh, fellow Parliamentarian played a pivotal role in 1992, working with Dr Najibullah Ahmadzai, the President of Afghanistan to get a safe passage for the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. He was in midst of the plans for exodus with Afghan government in 1992 when lists were made, and speedy visas were given to Sikhs and Hindus. Dr Khurana informs that the Kabul Embassy has informed that approximately 75,000 Sikhs and Hindus were issued visas to India in 1992. About 10,000 decided against leaving the country. By end of Taliban regime in October 2001, the number of Sikhs had dropped to 3000 and before the attack on 25th March 2020, only 650 – 700 Sikhs remained in the country.
The first major exodus of Afghan Hindus (& Sikhs) was during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880 – 1901). Amir suppressed numerous rebellions including those of Hazaras (a predominately Shia community who are considered as descendants of Mongols due to their facial features) community. Dr Khurana informs that this led to many fundamentalist elements in Afghan society to harass Hindus & Sikhs. Many left the country and settled in India. The Afghan Sikh community in Patiala in Punjab came to India during this time. 31
Mr. Umesh Sharma, 72 years old from Bengaluru informs that his great grandfather Pandit Guru Dass moved out of Herat in 1888 when the local Muslims boycotted Hindu (& Sikh) shops. The family came to Gujranwala then to Lahore and finally settled in Meerut in 1943. Mr. Sharma adds that 90% of Hindus & Sikhs left Herat, out of which 30% settled in other parts of Afghanistan and rest migrated to British controlled India. It may be mentioned here that the Amir seem tolerant towards Hindus (& Sikhs). Diwan Niranjan Das who was the Commerce Minister under Amanullah Khan also served under the Abdur Rehman. The Amir gave Hindus the permission to build the Asamai temple on the lower side of Koh (Mountain) e Asamai in Kabul. In addition, he sent the building material and a palanquin for the idol.
Amir Amanullah Khan’s (reign 1919 – 29) modernization plan which included education for women, wearing modern clothing etc. led to a strong resentment and there was a rebellion in Khost province in 1924 which was quelled in January 1925. The Amir came from long tour of Europe in 1928 and announced that he was banning hijab & burka. Although there were other factors, but the Amir was declared as ‘kuffar’ (infidel) and large number of tribes in Eastern (& Kandahar) Afghanistan rebelled against the government. This Afghan Civil started in November 1928 and ended in October 1929. This civil war affected Eastern Afghanistan including Kabul and Kandahar which traditionally had relatively high Hindu and Sikh population who were again at the receiving end of the fundamentalist element. This again led to some migration of Afghan Hindus & Sikhs to British India.
MASS MIGRATION 1992
On 13th April 1988, on Vaisakhi day, a gunman entered the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar, Jalalabad when the place was full of devotees. He killed 13 Sikhs and 4 Muslims security guards. Dalair Singh Arora confronted him and managed to kill the terrorist. Dalair Singh lost his life and is remembered for his bravery.32
During March to October 1989, the Mujahideen attacked Jalalabad with intention to capture the city. The local tribal chief impressed upon Mujahideen for peace, but latter said they had to attack, and the chief gave them the map of old township and marked that area where Mujahideen could bomb. And this area was where Sikhs lived in Jalalabad. For 6 months the missiles were fired on the area and 102 Afghan Sikhs died and over 500 were injured in these attacks.
The relations between Afghanistan and India have always been cordial. It was felt that under the fundamentalist Mujahideen (who were supported by Pakistan and USA) life would become very difficult for the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. The Sikhs & Hindus were considered as Indians & friends of Soviet Union, an enemy of the Mujahideen. The Mujahideen had publicly declared many times that Indians and Russians cannot be trusted. These fears were not unfounded, when Mujahideen captured Kabul in April 1992, they thoroughly searched and desecrated Gurdwara Singh Sabha, Karte Parwan, the largest Gurdwara in Kabul. The Sikhs were harassed throughout this period.
At that time, it was extremely bureaucratic to obtain a passport for anyone in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Afghan government issued speedier passports to the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs and called the scheme Aab Gang (Aab means water, Gang is river Ganga) pilgrimage passport. It was on the lines of the Haj visa for Muslims issued by Saudi Arabia.
The Indian embassy set up an on-the-go visa department at Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib in Shor Bazaar in Kabul to rapidly issue visas without any checks so that the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs could flee the civil war. It was too dangerous for people living in the old town to travel to the Indian embassy in the centre of the town because of the dangers of bombardment all over Kabul. The Indian embassy did not have enough staff to put the visa stamps, so some Afghan Sikh volunteers at the Gurdwara had to put visa stamps on people’s passports. Close to 65,000 people left Afghanistan and came to India under this scheme. As mentioned earlier, this major migration of the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus happened in 1992 just before the Mujahideen captured the capital Kabul.
The Taliban were defeated in October 2001 and since then Afghanistan had a fragile democracy. Sikhs were about 3000 in 2001 and during the democracy their number dwindled to 650 – 700. By end of August 2020, 450 Afghan Sikhs had left Afghanistan and sought refuge in India. During this period (2002 – 20) the Afghan government failed to provide them adequate housing or reinstate their homes which has been illegally occupied by their powerful neighbours or warlords during the 1990s. Sikhs boys were continuously bullied in schools and the teachers and school management would not intervene. There is hardly anyone in the community who has studied beyond schooling after 1990s. However, the present Afghan government is sympathetic towards Sikhs. Two primary schools for Sikhs were opened in Kabul and Jalalabad. The Sikhs were given representation in Parliament and Government. This year 50 lakh Afghani rupees were allotted for renovation of Sikh and Hindu places of worship. Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar in Jalalabad and Dargarh Peer Rattan Nath Mandir in Ghazni were refurbished this year. In the past 5 years, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed each year in attacks by government and Taliban forces. The Shia Hazara community has been specifically targeted. The Taliban now controls almost 50% of the country and government is trying to come to a peace deal with them. Afghanistan has over 60 including many historical Gurdwaras. But after the recent massacre of the Sikhs by Taliban in a Gurdwara in Kabul on March 26, 2020. The most of the Afghan Sikhs are leaving Afghanistan for India under Modi Govt’s permission for Afghan Hindu and Sikh to enter in India. They are actively assisted by DSGMC and provided temporary boarding at lodging at Gurdwara Rakab Ganj at Delhi. It the tragic end of Afghan Sikh history and their rich heritage. Will the Sikh organizations in India and abroad take notice of this tragedy and raise this issue at the national and international for the preservation of the Sikh heritage?
Roger Ballard. (2011) The History and Current Situation of Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikhs Population. Stalybridge: Center for Applied South Asian Studies p2
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The writer of the article spoke to several Afghan Sikhs & Hindus living across the globe including India, Afghanistan, UK, Germany, Belgium and USA.
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Dr Joginder Singh Tej Khurana informed the writer on 3rd September 2020
*the author of the book, Afghan Hindus & Sikhs History of a Thousand Years