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Sikhs struggles under Afghan intolerance

world Updated: Feb 01, 2012 01:33 IST
Ernesto Londoño
Ernesto Londoño
Hindustan Times
Baljit Singh

Among the throngs of inmates in downtown Kabul’s prison trying to prove they are not thieves or insurgents is a soft-spoken Sikh man with piercing black eyes. He is being held on a highly unusual charge: falsely claiming Afghan citizenship.

Baljit Singh, 23, says he was born in Afghanistan but that his family fled religious persecution when he was five. He returned to his native country on July 6, 2010, aboard a British chartered plane transporting Afghan deportees, and he has been locked up ever since by authorities who say he isn’t Afghan.

Singh’s ordeal offers a disturbing glimpse into the type of religious intolerance that has made Afghan Sikhs a vanishing segment of society. His case also casts a condemning light on a justice system that could take on significantly more responsibility as the United States transitions authority in Afgha­nistan to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Promoting religious ­tole­rance was one of the goals that the US and its allies set in Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled a decade ago. But reli­gious minorities, who make up about one per cent of the population, are still routinely ostracised here.

“I’ll go anywhere,” Si­ngh said in a recent interview at the crammed Kabul detenti­on centre. “Just not this country, where they can put innoce­nt pe­ople in prison for years.”

Sikhs, who follow a mon­ot­heistic religion founded in the 15th century, once constituted a large, prosperous part of Afghan society. In recent decades, as the country has become more religiously conservative, they have been harassed and disparaged as statue-worshipping infidels.

They have moved en masse to India and other countries, and community leaders say there are now no more than a few hundred or at best a few thousand Sikhs left in Afghanistan.

Life for Sikhs there has become especially hard in recent years according to community leader Awtar Singh, a former lawmaker. Thousands had their property stolen during the civil wars of the 1990s. Job pro­spects are bleak outside of Sikh enclaves. And the­government refuses to let Sikhs open cremation facilities, barring them from following an important religious tradition.

“The living conditions are getting hard for Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan,” said Awtar Singh, who is not related to the detainee. “The remaining people who can afford to do so want to go to India,” he added.

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