KABUL, Afghanistan — According to the World Sikh Organization of Canada, Sikh and Hindu communities who have lived in Afghanistan for centuries currently make up less than 1% of the country’s total population. This is due to the fact that these religious minorities face discrimination and harassment from Afghans for their faith. Reports have shown that Hindus and Sikhs experience a lack of education, physical assault, forced relocation to different cities, higher taxes and discrimination in employment. Although the Afghan Constitution allows citizens religious freedom, religious minorities in Afghanistan still remain vulnerable. This has caused them to move to flee Afghanistan and settle in other countries as refugees. To combat this problem, the U.S. Congress has taken action to ensure that Hindus and Sikhs no longer face mistreatment in Afghanistan.
Roots of the Situation
The end of the Afghan War initiated the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan. The Afghan War, which took place from 1976-1992, started when military officer Nur Mohammad Taraki and his troops overthrew the Afghan centrist government led by President Mohammad Daud Khan. This led to the formation of an Afghan communist government that worked with the Soviet Union to launch land and social reforms.
Muslims and anti-communist groups resented these reforms and would openly oppose the changes. Internal conflicts and uprisings by anti-communist Islamic guerillas led to the Afghan War, in which the Afghan government and the Soviet Union worked together to put down the opposing side. Eventually, supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pakistan government, the guerillas overthrew President Najibullah. They then placed Burhanuddin Rabbani in charge of the government in the early 1990s. However, the Taliban led a coup and seized the capital of Kabul in 1996, eventually gaining control of the government.
This was when the mistreatment of Hindus and Sikhs reached its peak. Many were persecuted and killed for even displaying signs of their religion in public. The Taliban forced religious minorities to wear yellow armbands to identify what religion they practice. Meanwhile, the kidnappings and murders of the Hindus and Sikhs were prevalent. While a republic replaced the Taliban in 2004, Afghans continued to mistreat religious minorities in Afghanistan. During the 1970s, there were approximately 700,00 Hindus and Sikhs living in Afghanistan. By the 1990s, that number had reduced to 15,000. As of right now, there are about 1,350 Sikhs and Hindus that remain in the country. Many who the Afghan government had suppressed had fled the country to escape intentional attacks.
According to the Hindu American Foundation, two major attacks became the breaking point for religious minorities in Afghanistan. The first was in 2018 when a suicide bomber in Jalalabad struck a crowd of Hindus and Sikhs who were arriving to meet President Ashraf Ghani. The attack killed 19 and wounded at least 10, some of whom were community leaders. Furthermore, one of the Sikhs killed in the attack was the only political candidate representing his religious group in the elections that year, which again has had a major effect on Afghanistan’s diversity.
The second major attack occurred in March of 2020 when an Islamic militant stormed a Sikh’s religious complex in Kabul leaving 25 worshippers dead and 8 wounded. At least 80 religious minorities were trapped inside the complex until Afghan security forces backed by a U.S. led military coalition killed the attacker and brought an end to the ambush. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. This came as the U.S. was planning to withdraw about 13,000 troops from Afghanistan.
The U.S. Response
In response to the latest 2020 attack on the Hindus and Sikhs as well as decades of mistreatment, the U.S. Congress introduced a resolution on August 14. This resolution condemns targeted terrorist attacks against members of the Sikh, Hindu and other religious minorities in Afghanistan. The resolution also supports refugee protection for Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan due to systematic religious persecution and discrimination. Jackie Speier, the representative for California’s 14th congressional district was the sponsor behind the bill along with seven other representatives.
The resolution states that “Sikhs and Hindus are indigenous but endangered minorities in Afghanistan, numbering approximately 700 out of a community that recently included over 8,000 members.” It also mentions the latest attacks that took place against the Hindus and Sikhs, and states that “these acts of violence follow a greater pattern of targeted violence.” Although the resolution has not been passed by Congress yet, this step is one of the first that the U.S. Congress is taking to ensure that religious minorities in Afghanistan are treated properly.
– Sudiksha Kochi