Hindus Abandon Afghanistan (fwd)

S Jain skjain at server.uwindsor.ca
Thu Nov 16 02:45:30 UTC 1995

I thought members of this list might be interested in reading the following
post re. the fate of minorities in Afghanistan. 

On another matter, it has also been reported (in another news group) that
the Kabul Musuem has been damaged by mortars beyond repairs and much of
the collection has been looted and is being sold abroad. In the
neighboring country - Pakistan - Moenjodaro compounds are in 'ruins' and
are being sadly neglected (vide _The Globe and Mail_ (Toronto) of Oct. 26)
by the Pakistani government. Indologists should be weary of such
developments since future scholars may be deprived of much valuable
materials if ancient artifacts are lost by (our) negligence.

------- start of forwarded message -------
Xref: news soc.religion.hindu:400
From: Rajiv Varma <rvarma at ccaix.jsums.edu>
Newsgroups: soc.religion.hindu
Subject: Hindus Abandon Afghanistan
Date: 2 Nov 1995 02:23:00 GMT

Hindus Abandon Afghanistan

January Violence Is the Last Straw-After 10 Years of War, Virtually All
50,000 Hindus have Fled, Forsaking

By Lavina Melwani, New York

Kandahar in Afghanistan is a small town-a sleepy, four-bazaar town-but
within its heart it holds a burden of griefs: ten-year-old Mukesh had been
sent by his mother to the nearest bazaar to fetch yogurt for lunch. He
never returned home alive. Caught in a sudden volley of cross-fire between
warring factions, he was shot in the brain. His mother never recovered
from the meaningless loss of her youngest child, and died within a few

Over the past ten years, the rest of this Hindu family have had to flee,
one by one, from their beloved homeland of Afghanistan where they were
born and brought up, and scatter into the far corners of the world. They
are just some of the thousands of Hindu Afghans who have seen their loved
ones, their community and their way of life evaporate before their very
eyes. Such are the daily tragedies behind the stark newspaper headlines of
the war in Afghanistan. 

The once-flourishing capital of Kabul has been turned into a morgue as the
troops of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the rebel fighters led by his
opponent, Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fight to the bitter end.
Indeed the last day of a recent four-day ceasefire was used by the warring
factions to dig new trenches in preparation for more fighting. As jets
bomb the embattled city, which is on the brink of famine, people flee the
war zone with a handful of belongings. Thousands are homeless. The key
players in this endless war may have changed from time to time, but the
real victims have always remained the Afghan people. 

The War With no Winners

Like pawns in a high-powered chess game, the Afghans-Sunni and Shiite
Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike-have watched helplessly as homes, businesses,
places of worship and even lives have been snuffed out by bombs and
bayonets. As Afghans, the Hindus suffer with the rest of the population.
But as minorities in an Islamic country, they are placed in double
jeopardy. When Babri Masjid was destroyed in India by fanatical Hindus at
a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally in December, 1992, some radical Muslim
Afghans seemed to forget that Hindu Afghans were their countrymen, and
burnt and looted their temples in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad in

The once-thriving Hindu community in Afghanistan which numbered 40,000 has
now dwindled in some parts to a paltry three families. Manu Lal, a young
Hindu who escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan and then took refuge in
the U.S., recalls the golden days of Hinduism in Afghanistan: "Indians
have been there for thousands of years. My great-grandfather was born in
Afghanistan. Even in a small town like Kandahar, we had 5,000 Hindus, and
many beautiful temples. There were temples to Shiv Parvati, Devi Mata,
Satyanarayan and also many gurudwaras. There were four big gurudwaras
which even people from India came to see." 

Indeed, many Hindus point out that Afghanistan was originally a Hindu
country, and that 99 percent of the Hindu Afghans were born there. A
statue of Buddha has stood in Kabul for more than 2,000 years and a
mountain is named Asha Mai, after a Hindu goddess. Madan Kumar (his name
has been changed to protect his family still in Afghanistan), a Hindu
Afghan who fled to the U.S. nine years ago, observes: "We have lived in
Afghanistan for generations-why should anyone question our nationality? So
it is the religious differences which are being attacked." 

The Hindus were mostly prosperous merchants, dealing in clothes, dry
fruits, pharmaceuticals, currency exchange and Indian tea and spices. This
may have hardened resentment amongst the Muslim Afghans. Says Kumar,
"Although some Hindus have been so powerful that they have even controlled
the exchange market [looted and burned in the January fightin], there were
thousands of Hindus living in the slums. Overall, though, Hindus have done
well, and that makes them a very visible minority and an easy prey for
opportunistic forces who are looking for unstable situations." 

Manu Lal recalls, "While Kandahar had more Hindus, Jalalabad [just on the
Afghan side of Khyber Pass], which had once been partly controlled by
Ranjit Singh, had a large population of Sikhs. The capital city of Kabul
had a big temple which had a Hindu school and taught religious scriptures
and Hindi. In those days Hindus were very safe because they were treated
like honored guests." Kumar acknowledges that though there may have been
some religious bigotry, generally Muslims and Hindus lived in mutual
respect and friendship. Not any more. 

Temple Destruction

Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras have been attacked by rockets and bombs,
some the casualty of war, and some of religious intolerance. About two
years ago the ancient Mata Asha Mai Temple in Kabul, to which the local
Hindus had devoted a lot of time and money, was hit by rockets. A new
building erected in the surroundings has also been damaged, as have the
Hindu cremation grounds. Hindus started using the gurudwara grounds for
their cremations, until the gurudwara was also struck. 

Last January Barnett Rubin, Director of Central Asian Studies at Columbia
University, visited Afghanistan as part of a delegation sent by the
International League for Human Rights, the New York-based organization
which has consultation status with the United Nations. He visited
Jalalabad, where Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras had been destroyed, to
investigate whether the cause had been religious intolerance. The city,
which before the war had 4,000 Sikhs and 800-900 Hindus, now has just 50
Sikh families and three Hindu families. He points out that while Hindus
and Sikhs, like all the communities in Afghanistan, have suffered
tremendously due to the war, these two communities have suffered most
profoundly due to the destruction of Babri Masjid. 

Says Rubin: "According to the Hindus and Sikhs in Jalalabad, their places
of worship were undisturbed throughout the war. However, after the
destruction of Babri Masjid, there was an emotional reaction on the part
of some of the people there, and they attacked both the mandir and the
gurudwara and destroyed quite a lot of the property there, although nobody
was injured." Roopchand, a Hindu trader and community leader, explained
that over 2,000 carpets and other valuables which had been endowed to the
temple and which were stored in the basement were burnt or looted. 

The Shurra of the town later apologized to the Sikhs on realizing that
they had nothing to do with the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Comments
Rubin, "Of course, the Hindus in Jalalabad had absolutely nothing to do
with that too but I'm afraid there's a kind of tribal mentality still
which is that when members of a certain group harm your group, then you
take vengeance on that group. So they did not apologize to the Hindus." 

Rubin and his team interviewed the three remaining Hindu families in
Jalalabad and also visited the 850-year-old mandir which is a mazaar or
pilgrimage place of the Bhakti saint Mathuradas. According to the Hindus,
it was visited by people of all faiths since it was a combined Bhakti-Sufi
shrine. But as Rubin points out, "All the religions have become more
fundamentalized now, so they are more separate." The Hindus told the
delegation that the destruction of the temple was not a mass movement and
that they do not suffer continuing harassment. The delegation, however,
found plenty of human rights violations. Rubin says, "Obviously burning or
looting of temples and gurudwaras is an example of religious intolerance" 

No Easy Way Out

With the capital of Kabul totally swallowed in the fighting, Hindus can no
longer get visas from the consulate there or fly to Delhi. The alternate
route is overland through Pakistan, but Pakistan will not issue transit
visas unless they already have visas to India. Since there are no
distinguishing marks to separate them from other Afghans, who do not
require visas, Hindus do slip into Pakistan without visas. However, the
situation is fraught with danger if their Hindu identity is discovered.
Sikhs, because of their turbans and beards, have an even harder time
entering Pakistan without a visa. Rubin observes, "There is some kind of
religious discrimination on the part of the Pakistani authorities since
they don't allow Hindu or Sikh Afghans to go into Pakistan without a visa
while other Afghans are allowed to do so." 

So as the once-beautiful, rugged country of Afghanistan slowly
disintegrates, those who can escape, do. Many Hindus and Sikhs have fled
to safety in India, Germany and the U.S. Those who stay behind, as one
Hindu pointed out, are either too poor or too greedy. Indeed, contrary to
the stereotypes of all Hindus being rich traders, there are many
struggling there who have no way of paying passage out of war-torn
Afghanistan. Rubin says, "There are no wealthy Hindus in Jalalabad. If
they are wealthy, they are not living in Jalalabad." 

While the majority have found refuge in India, a small number have landed
up in America. Manu Lal, whose young brother was killed in the bazaar
crossfire and whose mother died from the trauma of her son's death, fled
to Pakistan and then to the U.S., to escape compulsory induction into the
Afghan army. Another brother, who was in the army, was paralyzed during
warfare. Yet another brother, forced into the army at age 14, managed to
also flee to the U.S. Relative newcomers, the hardworking family is
starting from scratch. 

Madan Kumar has been luckier than most refugees: he came into the U.S.
nine years ago as a professional and managed to make a good living for
himself. The scars, however, remain. Asked if he experienced any tragedies
while fleeing, he says, "That in itself is a tragedy-being forced to leave
the country where you were born and raised. You establish links throughout
your life and all of a sudden you're cut-off. Not all the families have
been able to re-unite. It would not be an exaggeration if I told you that
for the first five years every single night I had nightmares about the
war. I thought I was back in Afghanistan." 

A sizeable number of refugees have joined family members in Germany. The
U.S. has a small community of Hindu and Sikh Afghan refugees, totalling
about 500-600 people, or about 150 families. About two years back they
formed an Indian Afghan Organization, which has its main office in New
York and a branch in Maryland. Since many of these refugees fled with just
the shirt on their backs, they have few possessions or mementos of their
life in Afghanistan. They have just the memories and they share these with
each other in social gatherings organized on religious festivals like
Diwali and Holi. 

If you ask Madan Kumar what he misses the most about a peaceful pre-war
Afghanistan, he says, "The peace itself. That was a time when people were
innocent, when there wasn't much dushmani (enmity). There was little
religious intolerance. Hindus and Muslims were friends. They were a
God-fearing people, living in peace. People have lost the culture they had
for centuries. Something has been lost in this war, and it cannot be found

As the guns of war continue their maniac destruction of Afghanistan, it
seems a certainty that th Hindu population will have vanished when the
smoke clears. The ageless Asha Mai Mountain, the 2,000-year-old Buddha,
and the Mathuradas Temple may still stand, but there will be no
worshippers. Generations of Hindu Afghans will grow up on foreign shores
without knowing their land. As Madan Kumar sadly admits: "If I go there, I
will feel a stranger. That circle of friends and family has completely
vanished. A piece of land means to you as much because of social relations
bound to it. If you've lost all connections, you go to that country in
what hope, to know whom?" 

Afghan Hindus in Delhi

While those who have stayed behind struggle with food shortages, bombs and
a ravaged economy, those who have managed to escape struggle to start a
new life in new places. According to Hinduism Today correspondent in New
Delhi, Rajiv Malik, a large number of refugees have sought asylum in the
capital and adjacent cities. The wealthy ones have settled down in the
posh colonies of New Delhi like Lajpat Nagar and Defence Colony. Others
have purchased homes in middle-class areas East and West Delhi. While
Delhi has attracted the Sikh Afghans, many Hindus have settled in
Faridabad, an industrial township in the neighboring state of Haryana. 

Tek Chand Sarin, 66, is a Hindu refugee from Kabul who came to India eight
months ago and is living with his family in Faridabad, in a middle-class
neighborhood. Sarin, an active member of the Democratic Party during the
early 80's, believes that Hindus were still happy and prosperous during
the period the Russians were in Afghanistan. He noted, "Even after the
Russians left Afghanistan, the Hindus faced no problem during the regimes
of Babrak Karmal and Dr. Najibullah. I remember when Dr. Najibullah was in
India, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi checked up with him about the position
of Hindus in his country. To this the Afghan premier's reply was, `Hindus
of Afghanistan are our own people, and I will ensure that they face no
problem in my country.'" 

Sarin believes the real problems of the Hindus began when the leftists and
fundamentalists came to the forefront in 1992. He says, "Three members of
an influential family of Hindus were brutally murdered by Muslim
fundamentalists after which it became abundantly clear that Hindus were no
longer secure in Afghanistan." 

He recalls the big backlash after the Ayodhya incident, with temples and
gurudwaras being attacked: "There was also an attempt to burn the Holy
Granth in one of the gurudwaras. But the fact is that the exodus of Hindus
had started much before it. Nevertheless, after Ayodhya the feeling of
insecurity gripped the minds of Hindus in a big way as even their women
were insulted."  Sarin and other Hindu leaders had also met with Afghan
President Rabbani to discuss their concerns. He, however, offered no
assurances and that itself showed that times had changed. Says Sarin,
"There were lots of cases of kidnapping and looting and the situation was
going from bad to worse." 

Sarin, who had given an interview to BBC on the violence faced by Hindus
in Afghanistan, found certain cases registered against him and finally
felt compelled to leave the country. While in Afghanistan, he had been a
member of the managing committee of Mata Asha Mai temple. He turned over
the charge of the 2500-year-old temple to the United Nations force, which
set up an office in the temple building. At the same time, he found many
temples and gurudwaras were controlled by militia who were using them as
storehouses for arms and rockets. 

The journey into India via Pakistan was a rocky one. Sarin told Hinduism
Today, "We were harassed along the way. At many places we had to pay money
to avoid inconvenience and harassment. Though I myself had no problem,
many of my co-passengers were asked to shell out Rs. 2500 [US$75] to get
the passport stamped by Pakistani officials." 

Sent by Rajiv Varma <rvarma at ccaix.jsums.edu>

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