October 11, 2022
NEW DELHI — In a Sikh temple tucked in the narrow lanes of the Indian capital, New Delhi, 60-year Harbans Singh offers a prayer of gratitude. The temple has become his temporary home after he fled Afghanistan, where his family had lived for generations.
“We have left our homes, our shops and come here to save ourselves. Conditions there are very bad,” said Singh. “We have arrived empty-handed.”
Singh and his son along with other family members were in a group of 55 Afghan Sikhs who arrived in India in late September — they were among the last members of the community still living in the strife-torn country. Only a handful remain in Afghanistan, according to those who have come to India.
Afghan Sikhs numbered in the tens of thousands during the nineteen eighties when they ran well-established businesses. But driven out by decades of conflict and persecution, only a few hundred were left when the Taliban took power last August.
Although the Taliban had assured the community of their right to remain in Afghanistan and to practice their religion, its return reignited fears of a resurgence in violence that had targeted the community.
The latest exodus of the Afghan Sikhs was sparked by a deadly attack in June on a Sikh temple in Kabul that killed one worshipper and wounded seven others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
Even before Taliban rule, Sikh temples had been the target of attacks that were also claimed by the Islamic State group.
The dread of waiting for the next attack or staying hidden from sight is over for those fleeing Afghanistan. Harbans Singh’s son, Harminder Singh, said it is a relief not to live in fear of “explosions and gunfire” that had become commonplace in their hometown, Jalalabad and had petrified them.
The Indian government has facilitated the repatriation of Sikhs and Hindus leaving Afghanistan by offering visas, residency permits and organizing evacuation flights. The birthplace of Sikhism, India is home to most of the world’s Sikh population.
The Singhs, who had never visited India, feel safe in the Sikh temple where they have got refuge. It has long been the first stop for those leaving Afghanistan and is known in the neighborhood as the temple for those from Kabul.
But uprooting themselves from a country they had called home for generations was also hard.
“We had our temples there, our community and we used to organize fairs on special occasions. Leaving our life there makes me feel sad,” recalled Harminder Singh.
It was not just fear of violence that prompted them to leave. The collapse of the economy after the Taliban took power hit their businesses making the future look bleak.
The Singhs owned a shop selling spices in Jalalabad — most members of the community in Afghanistan were either shop owners or pharmacists, selling goods that came from India or Pakistan. They said there was amity among Sikhs and ordinary Muslims, many of who they counted as their customers. But in the past year, work had dwindled. “It was not what it used to be earlier. There was too much turmoil and customers had stopped coming,” according to Harminder Singh.
His two children also could not get an education which was organized for the community in the temple in the last year. “The teacher stopped coming,” he explained.
But while India offers safety, the future may not be easy for Singh’s family because the wait for citizenship can be long and uncertain.
It presents a conundrum for the Afghan Sikhs, said Partap Singh, who heads the Sikh temple, Guru Arjan Dev ji gurudwara, that offers shelter to those returning from Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, they used to say we are Indians. Here they say we are Afghans,” said Partap Singh, “Where do we belong? We don’t know where to go or what to do. We have no future.”
The community is urging the government to extend more help as it confronts the agonizing task of rebuilding life from scratch.
“They don’t have proper homes, work, or citizenship papers that would facilitate their rehabilitation. Even educating their children is a challenge,” according to Partap Singh. “They are facing so many hardships. Some are setting up pavement stalls or selling street food to earn a living.”
These are problems that Singh and his son will have to grapple with in the coming years. For the time being, they are just getting used to a new country but for the time being the temple where they are sheltered offers both refuge and comfort — many here understand the language they used to speak in Afghanistan, a mix of Pashto and Dari.