KABUL (Reuters) - They thrived long before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century and for a long time dominated the country’s economy, but Sikh and Hindu Afghans now find themselves struggling for survival.
“We have no shelter, no land and no authority,” says Awtar Singh, a senator and the only non-Muslim voice in Afghanistan’s parliament.
“No one in the government listens to us, but we have to be patient, because we have no other options,” says Singh, 47.
In a brief idyll in 1992, after the fall of the Moscow backed-government but before civil war erupted, there were around 200,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan compared with around just a few thousand today.
When warring factions fought over Kabul, razing entire neighborhoods in deadly rocket barrages, the two communities became targets partly because of their religion, but also because they didn’t have a militia of their own for protection.
Armed men stormed a temple in Kabul and tore a religious book to avenge the destruction of a mosque by fanatic Hindus in India. After complaining of extortion, intimidation, kidnappings, theft and even rape, those with the means fled to India where they live as aliens and require visas, like other foreigners.
Ironically the rise to power of the hard-line Islamist Taliban marked an improvement in the lives of those who remained — and some emigres even started to return.
“The Taliban did not suppress us — they respected our religion and if we had any problem they would resolve it immediately, let alone delay it until the next day,” says Singh.
Some Afghan Hindus were baffled by Western outrage at one Taliban decree — ordering them to wear a yellow tag to identify their religion — saying in practical terms it spared their clean-shaven faces from the wrath of the Taliban religious police, who insisted Muslim Afghan men must grow beards.
The Sikhs escaped scrutiny because they also grow their beards long.
Since the Taliban’s fall, Afghanistan’s new constitution promises religious minorities greater freedoms than before, but it is harder to ensure in practical terms.
Hindus and Sikhs had scores of properties stolen during the civil war and its aftermath and thousands of claims lie gathering dust in the arcane bureaucracy that makes up the government.
“I have my family still in India because I have lost my house and other properties,” says Awtam Singh, who was an important trader in the old days but is now reduced to selling herbal medicines in a tiny Kabul shop.
“We feel ignored by this government,” he laments.
While tens of thousands of Muslim Afghans have the same problems, they at least have politicians or leaders fighting their corner.
Some of the returning Hindus and Sikhs have brought their families and live mostly in secure areas such as Kabul and eastern city of Jalalabad, where they have temples and segregated schools.
Even after death, problems continue. Part of the land that Sikhs and Hindus use for the funeral pyres for their dead has been taken over by urban sprawl in Kabul.
“I can not see things getting better for us,” said Awtam.
“The Indians say you belong to Afghanistan, and here we are seen as Indians. No government cares for us, he said.
Editing by David Fox and Sanjeev Miglani