‘We Belong to Afghanistan’

Rawail Singh believed in a peaceful future for Sikhs like him in his homeland — and died for it.

ABUL — When I saw the news of the brutal suicide attack on Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus on Sunday, my first instinct was to call my friend and regular source Rawail Singh for more details. I didn’t realize until his phone went unanswered that the Kabul-based peace activist had been among the 19 people killed, 17 of them Sikhs or Hindus, while waiting to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Jalalabad.

Singh was one of the kindest and most recognizable faces in Kabul’s nascent civil society and one of the most active members of his community. He’d had many offers to help him and his family leave Afghanistan, but he insisted that he was a son of the Afghan soil and refused to depart a country where he still saw tremendous potential.

“Why would I leave? This is my land, my country, my culture. Historically, we belong to Afghanistan. One of the founding leaders of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, visited Afghanistan in 1520. We’ve been his followers since then,” he told me last year.

The loss of Singh, who was in his late 40s, isn’t just a tragedy for those who knew him; it may be the final deathblow to a community that was once a symbol of a very different Afghanistan.

“Within a few minutes, a significant part of our fraternity was wiped out: our leaders, elders, and mentors,” said Sachdeva Omprakash, an Afghan Hindu attending the mass funeral on Monday at the Bagh Bala Gurdwara in Kabul, one of a handful of temples left in the city. Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan closely identify with each other’s communities, both politically and socially, as non-Muslim minorities.

As in Iraq and Syria, the long war in Afghanistan has been particularly harsh on religious minorities. Afghanistan once had thriving Sikh and Hindu communities, but today, the numbers have been reduced to only the most determined and persistent. On Monday, the Gurdwara was filled with sounds of women and children wailing for the martyred leaders and muted sniffles from the men, who refused to allow themselves the luxury of mourning amid preparation of last rites and filing documentation to identify their compatriots.

“It’s not as if we haven’t suffered enough already,” Omprakash said, referring to the persecution at the hands of every Afghan government since 1992. “There were 400,000 families here once,” he said, “Now there are not even 400.” Most estimatesput the community at a high of about 250,000 people at its peak. Today, while there are no official records, community leaders believe there are just 1,400 Sikhs and Hindus remaining in all of Afghanistan. Two years ago, I was told this figure was closer to 3,000.

But Singh had been determined to prove he could be both a Sikh and an Afghan.

He could be phlegmatic about the persecutions his community faced. “Believe it or not, the Taliban government was more tolerant of us than the mujahideen government before them,” Singh told me in 2016, referring to the brief-lived Islamic State of Afghanistan government of 1992 to 1996. “Of course, they did discriminate, and we also had to wear certain pieces of clothing that identified us, but they also had court hearings [in case of disputes within communities] and were often fair in their judgement, even if it was prejudiced toward non-Muslims,” he recalled.

“It was a different society before 1992. Hindus and Sikhs lived in prosperity and harmony in Afghanistan,” he told me. “Our community members were mostly business owners, and finance and trading in Afghanistan was largely operated by Hindus and Sikhs. When the mujahideen came to power, this community became a target for criminals controlled by them. There was widespread kidnappings, extortion, and banditry, as well as religious persecution.”

Singh helped smuggle his own relatives to India via Pakistan in the 1990s, hidden in trucks transporting goods over the border. But he soon returned, newly married and unwilling to give up on his homeland. Yet even after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there was little hope for the community. “Our children were harassed in schools during the mujahideen years — many of them were forced to drop out, affecting a whole generation. Things didn’t improve during the Taliban, and even today, little has been done to accommodate our children,” he explained.

The new Afghan government that formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 attempted to build a more tolerant and inclusive system of governance. Under then-President Hamid Karzai, one seat in the upper house of the Afghan parliament was allotted to Sikhs and Hindus. However, despite Karzai’s best attempt to allow the Hindus and Sikhs to contest the lower house, the move was blocked by parliamentarians. In 2016, though, President Ashraf Ghani, by a presidential decree, made it possible for the minority community to elect a representative to the new parliament in the upcoming elections. That candidate, Avtar Singh, died alongside Rawail Singh on Sunday.

Despite government efforts, life was hard for the Sikhs and Hindus who returned in the 2000s. Most found their property had been seized. “They returned to find their homes occupied by strangers, their lands captured by warlords,” Rawail Singh told me in 2016. “My own cousin’s house was taken over by a notorious strongman, who refused to hand over the house even after the courts ordered him to leave. We spent nearly 12 years between courts and officials, and paid a collective bribe of $35,000 to various officials.” Singh noted that he was often challenged by officials who told him he couldn’t be both non-Muslim and Afghan.

Singh witnessed a once tolerant and diverse Afghan society becoming more and more divided.

“They [Muslims] keep asking me to convert to Islam because they consider our religion as something less. It’s not always forceful, but it’s there everywhere,” he said, recalling conversations with even government officials and ministers who have “strongly suggested” he convert to live a better life. “Some of them [Afghans] think we are from India and they tell us to ‘go back.’ There’s a limit to how much one can tolerate. After a while, people will leave, and those who could afford it have already left,” he said in another interview in 2017.

Sacred cremation grounds in Kabul were seized. “Even the land around it belonged to us. But the areas around it have been grabbed by Afghans with the help of local warlords. Now, the residents living close to it complain about our cremation practices. They throw stones and garbage at us,” he said. In 2012, Singh campaigned successfully for Hindu and Sikh burials to be provided with police escorts for protection. At his own funeral, armed security officers accompanied the funeral procession.

Rawail Singh had already lived in a kinder, more tolerant Afghanistan. He was hopeful that things could change. He wanted to raise his three children as close to their heritage and culture as possible, and they helped in his peace activism. A mural of his youngest daughter Komal’s eyes graces the walls outside the National Directorate of Security — Afghanistan’s intelligence agency — at a busy checkpoint in central Kabul, carrying an anti-corruption message.

For all of Singh’s message of hope, there was little of it to be found at the funeral, as one community member told me: “Many of us aren’t sure if we will stay in Afghanistan anymore. Unfortunately, a lot of us can’t afford to leave right now, but we are going to try. If we don’t, we will all perish here.”

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