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Afghanistan: Outlaw Hindus and Sikhs

Kabul. "This is my knife. I carry it around with me everywhere. And if someone comes to question me or my religion, I'll use it." Balber Singh Granthee is 70 years old. He leans forward slowly and whispers, but his words weigh heavily in the ear. "I am a good Sikh, I am a good person and I am a proud Afghan. And I will defend that until my death." For 21 years, Balber Singh has been taking care of Daramsal - that's what the Sikhs call their temple. Every morning the congregation gathers here to start the day together. Balber Singh makes sure that everything is in order. He lovingly places a silk cloth over the altar to protect the Holy Scriptures. "Hindus and Sikhs have common roots, but our religions are very different," he says. For example, Sikhism does not have a caste system. "Only in Afghanistan have the communities come together." Because they experience the same discrimination, they want to fight for their interests together. The Hindus have their temple at the other end of town. Hidden behind high walls, they live, work and pray, because a life that is integrated into the public sphere is dangerous.

"I myself will never leave Afghanistan," says Balber Singh determined. He would have every reason to do so: Leaving the temple alone carries risks. The temple has already been burned down several times. There is hardly anyone in the community whose friends and relatives have not fallen victim to the hatred. Balber Singh Grantee has seen the country's turbulent history first hand. But above all, he survived them: the Shah, the communists, the invasion of the Soviets and their war against the mujahedeen. During the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, Hindus and Sikhs were forced to wear yellow markings on their clothes. "They copied it from the Nazis."

Came as slaves


The history of the Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan is older than that of the modern nation-state. Ibn Battuta, known as the Arab Christopher Columbus, traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas in the 14th century. There he noted the name "Hindu Kush" ("Hindu murderer"), which was established among the locals, so called because of the countless Hindu slaves who were transported over the icy mountain passes in the course of the Islamic conquest of the region. This is how the first Hindus came to the country: as slaves. Later, many of the parishioners were involved in importing and exporting because of their linguistic and cultural ties to India. Most of the Sikhs didn't come until the 19th century. Many were soldiers in the service of the British Crown, which was trying to expand its colonies in the region.

Today only about 1000 Hindus and Sikhs remain. Most of them fled to India or the USA.

"There has always been hate"


For many of those who stayed, however, the question of belonging is a decisive factor against leaving the country. Balber Singh sees himself as an Afghan. The head of the Sikhs, Awtar Singh, too. You both served in the army and hardly know any other country. In his office behind the Daramsal's prayer hall, Awtar Singh relates his worries about the future. "I lost two brothers myself. People pretend the conflict between religious communities is something new. But there has always been hatred." Nevertheless, Awtar Singh claims that the situation of the Hindus and Sikhs is worse than ever. "Because many flee, we become an even smaller minority. That means that we are even less important in a corrupt and contested country. Fewer people are interested in our well-being and nobody cares about the protection we are sorely needed. "

It is a doom-loop. Because it is easy to deny such a small minority the legitimacy of national affiliation. After the US-led military intervention from 2001 when Hamid Karzai became president, the communities were better off. Karzai had succeeded in ensuring that minorities in Afghanistan were given permanent representation in parliament in order to represent the interests of all ethnicities and religions of the pluralistic society.

With poverty and corruption, however, tensions between the various parts of society quickly returned. The Sikhs in particular were an easy target, they were and are already visually conspicuous in public life. After all, women do not wear a veiled headscarf, whereas men wear a turban. "I claim that I was better off under the Taliban than today. Back then there was order. We paid protection money, and that was good," says Awtar Singh. "When I was threatened by a fellow citizen once during the Taliban, a young Talib stepped in. He held a rifle to my potential tormentor's head and said: 'Leave him alone, he's an Afghan like you!!"