The number of Sikhs in Afghanistan has dwindled to a fraction of what it used to be in the 1970s, and members of the minority community face an uncertain future in the strife-torn nation they call home.
“Afghanistan is our country, our homeland,” said Gurnam Singh, the caretaker of the last gurdwara in Kabul, that has survived decades of war. “But we are leaving out of sheer hopelessness.”
Scores of Sikhs once gathered in the temple to worship. Now only a few are left, according to a recent article in Al Jazeera.
Some 100,000 Sikhs lived in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Almost the entire Sikh population in the country has been driven into exile because of relentless conflict, poverty and religious bigotry.
The exodus began during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and continued through the theocratic rule of the Taliban that followed the 1978-92 Afghan War. During the intervention of the United States, the number of Sikhs continued to decline according to statistics maintained by community members.
Since the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021 with the Taliban returning to power, another wave of Sikhs fled the country. Gurnam Singh estimates that no more than 140 Sikhs remain, most of them in the cities of Jalalabad and Kabul.
Most of Afghanistan’s Sikhs have taken refuge in India, where 90 percent of their faith’s 25 million followers live, primarily in the northwestern state of Punjab.
Exiled Sikhs have been offered priority visas by the Indian government and the opportunity to apply for long-term residency, although citizenship for them is not yet an option.
Among those who have not emigrated is Manjit Singh, a 40-year-old pharmacist whose daughter left for India with her husband last year.
“What would I do in India?” he said. “There is no job or house there.”
For many Sikhs who are holding out, the idea of leaving Afghanistan is tantamount to deserting their spiritual home. “When this gurdwara was built 60 years ago, the whole area was full of Sikhs,” said Manmohan Singh. “Whatever joy or sorrow we felt, we shared it here.”
Security at the sacred site is tight these days. Visitors must go through ID checks, body searches and two fortified doors. Last October, unidentified gunmen vandalized the temple. The incident was reminiscent of an attack on Sikhs in March 2020—the worst in the community’s history in Afghanistan. Islamic State terrorists assaulted Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul, killing 25 people.
Paramjeet Kaur, one of the Sikhs who was in the temple at the time, escaped with wounds to her left eye. A few weeks later, she left Afghanistan for India but “we had no work and it was expensive, so we came back,” she said. A few weeks later, the Taliban rode back to power. Kaur, along with her husband and three children, currently live in the Karte Parwan Gurdwara. Their children do not attend school, and Kaur never leaves the temple, because there is nowhere else that she feels safe. She is considering leaving again—for Canada or the U.S. this time.
“My son and daughters are still small,” she said. “If we leave, we can make something of our lives.”
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