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Afghan or Indian? A long identity battle

Divya Goyal writes: Even as the Afghan Sikhs find new homes in new countries -- and are viewed through the prism of their religion and ties to India -- their clothes, language, food and culture all bear a distinct Afghan identity.

Written by Divya Goyal |
Updated: August 30, 2021 8:56:36 am
The roots of Sikhism in Afghanistan date back to the 16th Century. (Photo: Pritpal Singh)

As the last batches of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus arrive in India from the Taliban-besieged nation – holding on to memories of the good days while preparing for a refugee’s life in a new country — many have been asserting that ‘We are Afghans’ and not ‘Indians’ or ‘Hindustanis’ as is being perceived.

The reality is that, like in case of most communities, history is interlinked. The roots of Sikhism in Afghanistan date back to the 16th Century, when Guru Nanak visited the country to spread the message of “peace, brotherhood and tolerance”.” As per his travel history recorded in the earliest Janamsakhis, during his fourth udaasi (travel) between 1519-1521, Guru Nanak visited present-day Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Sultanpur with Bhai Mardana.

Soon, Guru Nanak’s followers grew in these parts and many Sikhs followers from Kabul began to visit Punjab to pay their respects to Sikh gurus. Later, the seventh Sikh Guru Har Rai also played a pivotal role in sending Sikh missionaries to Kabul and a dharamsaal (gurdwara) was established in the city.

Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are still hopeful of the sun rising once again. (Photo: Pritpal Singh)

“Several documents record the thriving trade of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghan society but today 99 per cent of them have left the country. Afghanistan now refuses to acknowledge them as their natives but they have made contributions to their motherland despite a turbulent journey. Can an Afghan be a Hindu or a Sikh? History says YES,” notes historian Inderjeet Singh in his book Afghan Sikhs and Hindus: A History of A Thousand Years.

From an estimated one-two lakh in the 1970s, the number of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan has been dwindling since 1992, following the Soviet War when the government fell and Mujahideen rebels took over Kabul. Between 1992 and 2001, the communities faced persecution at the hands of both the Mujahideen and then the Taliban, and many members took refuge in Canada, Austria, the US and UK.

Many of those old fears were revived recently when a suicide bomb attack killed at least 18 Hindus and Sikhs in July 2018, including Awtar Singh Khalsa who was then running for parliamentary polls. He was father of current Afghan MP Narendra Singh Khalsa who arrived in India last week.

Last year, on March 25, when a terror attack by an Islamic State gunman killed 25 Sikhs at Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul, the Sikh-Hindu population in Afghanistan stood at 650, with around 400 moving to India soon after. As Taliban forces took over, just 280 of them were left.

But even as they find new homes in new countries — and are viewed through the prism of their religion and ties to India — their clothes, language, food and culture all bear a distinct Afghan identity. The Sikhs from the region can be broadly divided into three categories: Pashtun Sikhs, who hail from provinces such as Khost and Paktia and speak Pashto and Dari; Sikhs from Kabul, Nangarhar, Ghazni, Kundoz, Laghman and Logar, who speak the Hindko dialect of Punjabi; and the Siraiki-dialect speaking Sikhs from Kandahar, Urugzan.

But with Dari (Persian) and Pashto being spoken all over Afghanistan, most members of the community are proficient in at least one of these languages. Hindi entered their lives through Bollywood films in the 1980s and 1990s, and many understand the language now, though not all of them can speak it as is believed. Some Afghan Sikhs can read the Gurmukhi Punjabi script but have a strong Afghani lilt. The way they wrap their turbans too is different from Indian Sikhs, and their food, with delicacies such as Ashak and Mantu, has more in common with other Afghan communities than with the cuisine of Punjab. Attan Milli, an Afghani dance on Dari and Pashto songs, usually performed at weddings and other celebrations, also forms a part of their culture.

Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul which was destroyed in March 25 attack. (Source: Pritpal Singh)

“Yes, we are Sikhs, but not Hindustanis. We are Afghans,” says Pritpal Singh, 43, a London resident who returned to Afghanistan in 2012 to film a documentary in his father’s ancestral town Jalalabad. When his family moved to the UK in the early ’90s, his father brought with him two things: his ‘Taskara’ (Afghan national ID card) and a certificate of his military service.

“My father’s medicines shop was gutted in an attack in 1992. We had to sell our house, leave our agricultural lands, and flee… I see the same things happening again. I fear now that my children, who have grown up in London, will never be able to visit Afghanistan,” says Singh. “They will probably never believe me when I will say that I have seen my mother and other women move around fearlessly in Afghanistan without wearing burqas.”

Pritpal remembers those glorious days of his teen years in Kabul — plucking grapes from vines with his cousins at his house in Karte Parwan, performing sewa and savoring langar at local gurdwara, travelling to Qargha Lake and Paghman Hills in his dad’s Datsun vehicle every Friday and watching Bollywood flicks in local theatre ‘Bahaaristaan’.

“Nothing can take that Afghani out of us, wherever we move. During my wedding reception in London in 2005, we all had danced on Dari and Pashto songs,” he says.

Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are still hopeful of the sun rising once again, and a homecoming. “Khuda kunad dar Afghanistan aman biaya (May God bring peace to Afghanistan)”.

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