A change to the Elections Law, which abolished an automatic seat in Parliament for a SIkh representative, has many members of the minority group worried that their daily fight against discrimination could be compounded.
The culture and rights of the Sikh community is under threat in Afghanistan from new legislation. (Photos: Zafar Shah Rouyee)
Amit Singh is wary of strangers. “I thought that you were a government official come to collect taxes from me or ask me for my license,” the 56-year-old Sikh shopkeeper told Afghanistan Today's reporter when they met. Put simply, Singh is used to being discriminated against.
“Different people come to my shop and take money from me under many different pretexts," says Singh, who owns a herbal medicine store in the Kotay Sangee area of Kabul.
"One day, they introduce themselves as officials from the municipality. Another day, someone comes from the Ministry of Finance and asks me if I have a license. Another day, from another governmental institution. I don't know if they are real officials or ordinary people who go around, harass people and take money from them," says Singh.
Accustomed to pressure
With such exorbitant and nebulous fees being levied on him, Singh struggles to feed his seven-member family. But there is little he can do. He is the only Sikh storeowner on his street - in a society where ethnicity often has a strong say.
"There is no way we can raise our voice and there is no one who would hear our voice,” he says somewhat resigned, adding: “If I make 50 Afghanis ($10) a day, I end up giving at least 20 per cent away.”
Daily harassment in the street
Sikh parents say they are fighting to ensure secular education for their children.
Torlok Singh, a Hindu resident in Kabul, says women and children in his community face the brunt of discrimination. “Our women cannot walk around in the city without being threatened. We cannot do business here. They ask us for our licenses," Singh also told Afghanistan Today.
"We have lived our lives here. Yes, we need to have licenses, but we should not be insulted, threatened, or harassed.”
Sikh families also complain that their children are bullied in schools and forced to learn the Koran. “When I went to school, I did not have to take the Koran class, and I did not have to read the Koran, but now they compel our children in school to read the Koran. We are not Muslims,” says Sanji Singh Jowharzada, a Kabul Hindu resident.
Around 99 per cent of Afghans are Muslims and there are less than 5,000 Sikhs in the whole of Afghanistan - some say as few as 3,500. Sikhs used to be guaranteed one seat in Parliament according to the former Elections Law, but recent amendments withdrew the clause allocating this seat.
Lesser voice than the nomad community
The change sparked widespread protests among Hindu and Sikh councils and civil society institutions in Afghanistan.
Activists say that under the new law, 10 seats are reserved for nomads at the House of Representatives - but none for Hindus and Sikhs.
When the Election Law was being discussed in Parliament, a commission consisting of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate was selected to design and agree on the law. A first House of Representatives approved draft retained the automatic Sikh seat, but the joint commission later eliminated it.
The last MP
The Sikh community currently has one representative in Parliament, Anar Klee Honaryar. But Honoryar only won the seat because of the clause in the Elections Law. She had previously failed to win a majority in a Kabul district and many Sikh activists fear they will be more politically marginalised in the future.
"Eliminating this seat essentially means forgetting and silencing Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, marginalizing and ignoring their political and civil rights," said Zahra Sepehr, a civil society activist.
Protests later erupted at a temple in Kabul, where members of the Sikh and Hindu community met to raise their concerns.
“The reserved seat at the House of Representatives could allow [Sikhs] to raise their voice to the government of Afghanistan as far as their social, religious, economic, and cultural problems are concerned,” said Raul Singh, a Sikh community spokesman.
Home or exile
Raul Singh, centre, addresses a recent meeting of Hindu and Sikh leaders in Kabul.
At a joint meeting with civil society institutions in Kabul, Singh, deputy to the National Council of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, said that if these issues are not addressed, the last and most drastic option arises.
“If our demands are not met, we will be compelled to ask the government of Afghanistan to tell us to leave the country so that we would seek refuge in another country through the United Nations,” said Raul Singh.
One of the key bones of contention between the Sikh community and their neighbours is the issue of cremation. Singh says his community's burials of the dead are not respected.
“One of our relatives died in Samangan Province, and since there is no place to cremate there, they had to bring his body to Qalacha in Kabul. Three days after cremation when people went to collect his bones, they found that people had thrown 170 bricks at it,” he said.
Cremations by a garbage dump
The government first allocated a piece of land in the Lataband area of Kabul where Hindus and Sikhs could perform cremation. But Hindus and Sikhs say this place is also where the municipality dumps garbage.
Authorities then allocated a new site, but the Sikh community says the area is unsafe. "We carry our deceased around for days. We simply cannot find a place to cremate them because our properties have been illegally appropriated," Eshwar Das, editor-in-chief of the Kabul-based Nat website, wrote recently in a post.
The post continues: “We have paid taxes in our beloved country without being provided security. In this country, our rights are being violated and nobody listens to our grievances.”
Waiting for Karzai
Sikh community leaders say they have been trying to meet President Hamid Karzai to address their issues for the last 10 years. With the recent media attention their campaigns have garnished, their wish came true. Karzai finally decided to see more than 50 representatives of Hindus and Sikhs on August 13, 2013.
According to the statement released by the President’s Office, he "promised to address the problems of this ethno-religious minority." Karzai also called Hindus and Sikhs "citizens of Afghanistan" and re-affirmed their equal rights in the country.
"Afghanistan is like a painting"
“Afghanistan is like a painting where there are different ethnic and religious groups. You are one of the beautiful colours in this painting. Afghanistan would lose its beauty without you,” said Karzai, ordering the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Hajj and Holy Sites, and the Mayor of Kabul to draw up a list of reccomendations to present to the cabinet.
Last Monday, Doctor Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Independent Human Rights Commission, also met in Kabul with Sikh and Hindu representatives. She assured that she would do everything possible to raise their concerns to relevant officials.
"Tell us to leave this country"
Speaking after the meeting with Karzai, the Sikh council's Raul Singh said he hoped the president would keep his word. Karzai, said SIngh, promised to address all the group's issues "within a month".
The Sikh community will accept only real change or nothing, says Singh: “We all took our national identification cards and told President Hamid Karzai that should our problems not be addressed, we are here to submit them to you and want you to tell us to leave this country.”