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CHANDIGARH: Days after a suicide bombing in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad killed close to 19 Sikhs, the community is divided over whether they should relocate to India. Most of them are, however, of the opinion that the Indian government should grant them permanent asylum on compassionate grounds.
Although Afghanistan’s dwindling community of Sikhs and Hindus struggle every day with growing insecurity and economic challenges, they have decided to stay put in that country for now.
“We want to stay here only as Afghanistan is our home land,” said Surpal Singh Khalsa, son of 52-year-old Avtar Singh who died in the bombing and was the only Sikh candidate running for the October 20 parliamentary and district council elections. His elder brother Narinder Singh, who was injured in the blast, echoed his views. Talking with The Sunday Standard over phone, Surpal said, “There are only 300 families of Sikhs and Hindus living in Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad. Only 1,500 of us remain in this country, in which our great grandfathers lived and worked.”
He said they were facing several problems, which is why his father had decided to lead a delegation to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “Most of us are poor. Our businesses have been taken over by the Muslims and now we are working as employees in their cloth, medicine and other shops. On the side, we do our herbal medicine business, which is negligible.” He continued, “There is hardly any opportunity for education for our children as they cannot study in government-run schools or colleges. If they go there, they are abused. So most of them have left studies and are learning Gurmukhi in gurdwara-run schools. A few of us send our children to private schools but they are expensive.”
Surpal said most Sikhs lived in gurdwaras as their houses were destroyed or taken over.
Amrit Kaur, the widow of Satnam Singh who was killed in the July 1 Jalalabad blast, did not paint a happy picture of living conditions for Afghan Sikhs in India. She said her family had relocated to Delhi three years ago but her husband, unable to make ends meet, had returned to Jalalabad a month ago.
“The sole bread-earner was my husband and he is dead now. I have hardly any source of income. I have three children and we do not want go back to Afghanistan. I did not go for my husband’s last rites, we just prayed for him in the Delhi gurdwara,” Amrit, who makes dry snacks to earn a living, said.Not that Afghan Sikhs living in India do not have their share of problems. Surbir Singh, who came to Amritsar in 1995 with his family, said, “Every year, we have to get our permits renewed in Delhi.
Then our visas are extended after police verification from Amritsar. My father is dead now. The Patiala family into which my sister is married says they will not take the headache of getting her Indian citizenship. It is for me to get her visa extended, otherwise they will leave her.”Bhagwan Singh said, “We want the Indian government to give us citizenship as we have been living in India for over 25 years now. But we are still treated like Afghans.”
The Sikhs started coming to Afghanistan in the 15th century after Guru Nanak visited Kabul. In the 16th and 17th centuries, during Mughal rule, and later during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh also they went to the country in large numbers. They mainly settled in Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad and prospered during the rule of last Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973.
Pakistani Sikhs share same fate
It isn’t just Afghani Sikhs in India who have not been given Indian citizenship despite living in the country for years. Around 200 Pakistani Sikh families living in Punjab for over 25 years share the same fate.
“There are over 100 families of Pakistani Sikhs living in Khanna, 30-odd families in Amritsar and several in Jalandhar who came in 1995 or 1999. We have not been given Indian citizenship despite repeated requests. Every year, we have to get visas for our family extended and face harassment from police. Also, in educational institutions our children are called Pakistanis and discriminated against. We cannot marry off our children, especially daughters as we are from Pakistan,” said Saran Singh who runs a scrap shop in Amritsar. He migrated to India in 1999 from Peshawar.