The death of 17 Hindus and Sikhs in an explosion in the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on July 1 was perhaps a final attempt to obliterate the last vestige of pre-Islamic civilisation which held its sway in the landlocked nation till about 10 centuries ago.
According to local police, the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber, who targeted a vehicle carrying Hindus and Sikhs travelling to meet President Ashraf Ghani. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.
In a statement, the IS said it had targeted a group of “polytheists” and implicitly claimed “divine” sanction for the dastardly crime. The killings have naturally shaken the small community of Hindus and Sikhs, which are planning en masse migration from their homeland, reminiscent of the flight of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in India in the 1990s, under similar circumstances.
“I am clear that we cannot live here anymore,” Tejvir Singh, 35, whose uncle was killed in the blast, told the media. Singh, who is the secretary of a national panel of Hindus and Sikhs, further said, “Our religious practices will not be tolerated by the Islamic terrorists”.
The number of Hindu and Sikh families in Afghanistan is estimated at less than 300, and the total population, below 1,000. The country was home to as many as 2,50,000 Sikhs and Hindus before the devastating civil war in the 1990s. A decade-old US State Department report said Afghanistan had about 3,000 Sikhs and Hindus.
Some of the frightened Hindus and Sikhs have sought shelter at the Indian consulate, following the recent attack in Jalalabad. Speaking to the media, Sardar Baldev Singh, who owns a book and textile ship in the city, said, “We are left with two choices: to leave for India or convert to Islam”.
Till about a 1,000 years ago, India’s cultural footprint (including Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions) covered a large landscape, extending from Afghanistan in the West to Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asia. Following the entry of aggressive Islam into the region, today it’s confined to India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
What Hindus and Sikhs are facing in Afghanistan is a repeat of what the non-Muslims experienced in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 1947, the share of Hindus in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was 30 per cent and in Pakistan, it was 24 per cent.
Today, both Bangladesh and Pakistan have roughly a population of 20 crore each. Going by their percentage share of population at the time of Partition, the number of Hindus in Bangladesh now should have been around six crore and in Pakistan 4.80 crore. Together, both the countries should have had a total of around 11 crore Hindus and Sikhs.
However, the total Hindu/Sikh headcount in both the countries is not even two crore today. What happened to the remaining nine crore? Obviously they were either forced to convert or migrated to escape persecution.
The remnants of the pre-Islamic civilisation in the region have been vandalised and destroyed over centuries. The vandals claimed inspiration from Islam. Mahmud Ghazni (971-1030), during the solemn ceremony of receiving caliphate honours on the accession to the throne of Ghazni, had taken a vow to wage jihad every year against the idolaters of India.
Ghazni lead over a dozen campaigns into India during his 32-year reign. He had three motives: to slaughter heathens, destroy their places of worship and plunder. Subsequent Muslim invaders followed in his footsteps in varying degrees.
In March 2001, the Taliban, on orders from Mullah Mohammed Omar, dynamited and destroyed the fourth and fifth century statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. The statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art and were 115 ft and 174 ft tall, respectively. But for the Taliban, they were neither works of art nor historical heritage. The then Afghan foreign minister had said the destruction was merely about carrying out “Islamic religious iconoclasm”.
Up to the 10th century, Afghanistan (along with present day Pakistan and Kashmir Valley) was predominantly Buddhist and Hindu, with a sprinkling of small communities who worshiped their own Gods and idols. In The Afghans, Willem Vogelsang writes: “During the eighth and ninth centuries AD the eastern parts of modern Afghanistan were still in the hands of non-Muslim rulers. Most of them were either Hindus or Buddhists.”
Mahmud Ghazni began crossing the Indus river into Hindustan in the tenth century. The Ghaznavid military incursions assured the domination of Sunni Islam in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Various historical figures such as Martin Ewans, E J Brill and Farishta have recorded the introduction of Islam into Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan to the conquests of Ghazni.
Ewans, in Afghanistan: a new history, notes that Ghazni who ruled between 998 and 1030, expelled the Hindus from Gandhara, and succeeded in conquering the territory stretching from the Caspian Sea to Varanasi, Bukhara and Samarkand. Ghazni encouraged mass conversions to Islam, looted Hindu temples and carried off immense booty, earning for himself, depending on the viewpoint of the observer, the titles of ‘Image-breaker’ or ‘scourge of India’.Ghazni died almost a thousand years ago. But that mindset continues to thrive.
Former Rajya Sabha member and Delhi-based commentator on social and political issues