Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Forced to wear yellow patches in the days of the Taliban, the homesick Sikhs of Afghanistan still hide in back alleys and yearn for India.   

In the Taliban’s birthplace, the southern city of Kandahar, their children cannot go to school and locals stone or spit on the men in the streets, who mostly try to hide in the narrow alleys of the mud-brick older quarter of the city.   

“We don’t want to stay in Afghanistan,” says 40-year-old Balwant Singh. “The locals tell us “'you are not from Afghanistan, go back to India.” Sometimes, they throw stones at us, the children. We feel we have to hide. I am even afraid to go to parts of the city.”

Their temple, or gurdwara, in Kandahar is a simple traditional yellow pole capped by the orange Nishan Sahib flag. It sits outside a stark prayer room in an obscure courtyard reachable only after knocking on two sets of unmarked heavy timber doors down a cramped mud-brick tunnel-way.

The pole does not rise above roof level, unlike the splendid gurdwaras across India where they tower above the temples and the countryside, visible for kilometres.   

There are about 10 Sikh families in Kandahar — fewer than 50 people. Another 22 lonely men, all their families back in India, live as traders in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan, another Taliban stronghold. Similar numbers are scattered across Afghanistan

Most Sikhs, along with the country’s handful of Hindus, came with the British from the Indian empire in the 19th century. But after the mujahideen civil war and the 1994 rise of the Taliban, most had fled by 1998.    In 2001, the Taliban ordered Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities to wear yellow patches, ostensibly so they would not be arrested by the religious police for breaking Taliban laws on the length of beards and other issues.   

The Sikhs who have returned since, like those of Kandahar and Uruzgan, are mainly small-time traders who complain of the pittance they make here, but say it is more than India offers. “We don’t want to stay in Afghanistan. But we have no choice,” says Santok Singh. Almost all have no papers or visas and are at the mercy of authorities in a country where corruption is rife.   

Most are general traders or pharmacists. Forced to sell their goods cheaper than their Afghan competition to win business, they are too ashamed to tell their families what life is really like.    Hem Singh says, “We don’t tell our families how bad our life here really is.”