Before it earned its moniker as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan ceded a significant amount of its territory to the neighboring Sikh Empire throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, an event remembered today for being the last successful foreign invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the gains made by the Sikh Empire would prove short-lived, following their defeat at the hands of the British East India Company, which would go on to consolidate similar empires scattered across the Indian subcontinent.
Beyond its relevance to Afghan history, the legacy of the Afghan-Sikh Wars, and the colonial period that followed, helps explain the presence of both Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan today. The country’s strategic location as a trading hub, its independence from colonial powers, and its secularist orientation, encouraged hundreds of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus to emigrate from British India to bustling commercial hubs like Kabul, Jalalabad, Ghazni, and Kandahar. Though most Sikh and Hindu arrivals worked as merchants, these families would go on to lay multi-generational roots, taking citizenship and serving in the civil service, the armed forces, and even in political positions as advisors to the Afghan monarchy.
Yet, like most Afghans, the prospects for Sikhs and Hindus swiftly changed amid the deposition of King Zahir Shah in 1973, and the Communist-led Saur Revolution against Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1979. The insecurity that ensued would have a remarkable and disproportionate impact on Afghanistan’s religious minorities, with informal censuses suggesting the Sikh and Hindu population went from over 700,000 in the 1970s to just 15,000 in the first years of Mujahideen rule in the early 1990s. Since then, decades of instability and religious persecution have exacerbated the exodus of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, leaving their combined population with under 1,500 members today.
The setbacks incurred by the Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities has encouraged them to cluster geographically, lobby collectively, and even share places of worship. For those that remain, the present obstacles to integration have seldom been greater than under the incumbent Afghan republic. During the brief rule of the Taliban, Sikhs and Hindus were considered a tolerated minority, albeit with the expectation of paying the jizya tax for non-Muslims. But the American invasion and the subsequent installation of the Afghan republic saw a sizable spike in the reported grievances of Hindus and Sikhs. These grievances include targeted attacks, asset seizures, and systemic discrimination by the Afghan state and society.
From the security side, the proliferation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has successfully recruited fighters from hardline elements of the Taliban, has targeted Sikhs and Hindus on multiple occasions over the past 3 years. These incidents include a 2018 suicide bombing that targeted a Sikh and Hindu neighborhood in Jalalabad, and last year’s deadly massacre of Sikh worshipers at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Kabul, both attacks were claimed by ISIL.
In addition to the incessant security threat posed by non-state armed groups, the woes of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities are acutely felt in day-to-day life. Reports of seized assets, including businesses and property, have largely gone unanswered despite persistent calls for an inquiry into the matter. Sikhs and Hindus have also reported discrimination in obtaining and using government services, including in judicial recourse, and even in sending their children to government-run schools, where they face chronic taunting and bullying. Finally, endemic religious persecution has nott abated much since the fall of the Taliban, with the major sticking point revolving around cremation practices, which are considered standard in the Sikh and Hindu faiths, but heretical to Islamic beliefs.
Such conditions have forced Hindus and Sikhs to insulate themselves, by establishing their own schools, and using temples to house those who have been forces to forfeit their property. The Afghan government’s efforts to redress these grievances has done little to dissuade the community from leaving. A presidential decree reserving one seat in the Wolesi Jirga to represent the Sikh/Hindu community was finally passed by President Ashraf Ghani, after similar measures floundered under his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
But with its members still fleeing in droves, parliamentary representation is unlikely to alleviate the impediments to religious freedom and protection of property. One longstanding demand from Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees in India has focused on their path to citizenship. Known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the legislation crafts a fast-track route for minority religious groups who emigrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh before 2015. Though controversial for leaving out Muslims from its criteria, the CAA was well-received by Afghan Sikhs and Hindus and even supplemented with additional Indian initiatives to extend visas to those still residing in Afghanistan. A similar resolution was floated in the United States House of Representatives last year, and aimed to resettle some Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in the US, describing the groups as ‘endangered minorities.’
In the absence of formidable protections of minority religious groups from the current or a future Afghan government, the barriers faced by Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are likely to endure and encourage more to permanently leave, despite familial ties and the strength of their Afghan-influenced culture and identity. Like the Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jains that preceded them, the rich history of Sikh and Hindu contributions to Afghan society is all but certain to only be visible in books and museums within the next decade.