Global Voices – What destiny for diversity in Afghanistan? The case of Sikhs and Hindus

Kabul – Afghanistan, 08 August 2018. If any one attack this year has spotlighted deepening insecurity in Afghanistan it was the July suicide bombing that killed 19 people and injured 10 as Sikh and Hindu representatives made their way to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

For the ISIS group who claimed the targeted suicide bombing in Jalalabad city, the bombing was a coup.

Not only was the group able to create a deadly explosion in an area that should have been cleared for President Ashraf Ghani’s arrival, they were able to kill a man who would have been the country’s first ever Sikh representative in parliament’s popularly elected lower house, Awtar Singh Khalsa.

A prominent Sikh activist, Rawail Singh, was also killed.

In total the attack killed 17 Sikhs and Hindus. As such, many social media users described it as an attack on the diversity they cherish, and that ISIS is known to loathe.

The Afghan constitution stipulates that the President of Afghanistan should be a Muslim. But electoral legislation supports the political participation of Sikhs, who number over a thousand in Afghanistan, and Hindus, of which there are only a few dozen remaining.

According to amendments to the electoral law in 2016, one seat out of 249 seats in the lower house is secured for a representative of either the Hindu or Sikh communities. Women’s rights activist Anarkali Honaryar has held her seat in the upper house since 2010, following a presidential decree by ex-President Hamid Karzai, and has emerged powerful voice for minorities.

Awtar Singh Khalsa would have been the first representative from the two communities in the lower house had he not been killed in the attack. Now his son, Narinder Singh Khalsa will take his place following a request from the community, knowing that he has a target on his back.

Edged out of society

While more than 300 Hindu and Sikh families currently live in Afghanistan, the number of Sikhs and Hindus entering higher education institutions is zero.

Sikhs and Hindus overwhelmingly stop education during middle school, a trend driven by bullying (both from teachers and schoolmates) and economic pressures.

Research from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2009 showed that Sikhs and Hindus are effectively barred from most governmental positions and face wide-ranging social discrimination.

Many have relocated to Kabul after being displaced during conflicts in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Most commonly, they run grocery stores.

Data from 2016 suggests that 99% of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu citizens have left the country in the last three decades.

Back in the 1980s, when they numbered over 220,000, they were able to find jobs in politics and play a more significant role in society. Sikh and Hindu community intellectuals argue that in a country ruined by war, many Afghans have forgotten this role their community used to play.

The July 2 attack was followed swiftly by a protest of Sikhs in New Delhi, where Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Dr. Shaida Abdali, also joined the protesters.

But in the aftermath of the violence many of Afghanistan’s remaining Sikhs see their future in Afghanistan’s bigger neighbour, with which they have greater cultural and religious ties. A total of 25 Sikh families reportedly applied for Indian citizenship immediately after the bombing.

For those Sikhs and Hindus that remain, the patriotism and sense of community embodied by Rawail Singh and Awtar Singh Khalsa are the main motivations for staying in Afghanistan.

Published from Notre Dame du Chant d’Oiseau
1150 Brussel/Bruxelles

Gentbrugse Meersen – Singh – Gent Patershol

Gentbrugse Meersen
05 July 2018

Jan van Aelbroeckdreef

09 July 2018


Old man – Uncut hair

Gent Patershol
Evi – Harjinder
11 July 2018

Watching the fountain

The young woman

The old man

To see all my pictures:

More Belgian pictures to be published
Harjinder Singh
Man in Blue

Published from Notre Dame du Chant d’Oiseau
1150 Brussel/Bruxelles

Dawn – The politics of religion

Zahid Hussain

Op/Ed, 08 August 2018. The 2018 elections have proved to be a mixed bag for the religious right. While the vote bank of the mainstream Islamic parties has shrunk, the strong showing of a newly formed radical group has led to jitters.

Although it has failed to win even a single seat in the newly elected National Assembly, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has emerged as the fifth largest group in terms of vote share, and is nominally behind the MMA which itself is an alliance of the mainstream Islamic parties.

Indeed, the growing electoral support for the extremist outfit whose politics is based on animus against other religious groups and that justifies violence in the name of faith is worrisome; yet it is not likely to change the power matrix in the country.

The rout of the top leadership of the MMA came as a huge surprise in the elections, and so has the expansion of the TLP’s popular base.

There may or may not be any correlation between those two developments; still, the spectacular rise of a radical Barelvi movement has given a new and dangerous twist to the issue of religion and politics in the country.

It may be indicative of disenchanted voters of the mainstream Islamic parties leaning towards extremist groups with a stronger bias against adherents of other religious beliefs.

Although they remain on the fringes of power politics, religious groups in the country continue to wield more influence than their electoral support base indicates. The combined share of the vote for the religious parties, mainstream or otherwise, however, remains below nine per cent.

It was significantly lower than the over 11 % achieved by the MMA during its remarkable success in the 2002 general elections when for the first time in Pakistan’s history the religious parties had managed to lead a provincial government. Their triumph, however, was largely limited to one province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

While also losing ground in its stronghold, the mainstream Islamic coalition seems to have been completely wiped out in Punjab and Sindh where the TLP has made significant inroads.

That also raises the question of whether the TLP electoral gain has largely been at the expense of relatively moderate Islamic parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI-F.

The spectacular rise of the TLP over the past year has changed the dynamics of religious politics in the country.

Traditionally, the JI, in particular, has had a significant vote bank in the two provinces. This time, it was perhaps the worst electoral performance by the party that has long been the face of political Islam in the country.

Most shocking has been the humiliation suffered by the religious parties’ coalition in KP where the entire top leadership comes from. Its resurrection has raised the prospect that the MMA would at least present a formidable challenge to the PTI juggernaut. But that did not happen. There have been several factors contributing to the defeat.

It was evident that both the JI and the JUI-F which remained in opposite camps for the past five years had lost much credibility in KP. It was mainly an alliance of expediency to prevent the division of the religious vote that had cost the two parties in the 2013 elections.

Moreover, there was nothing new the alliance could offer to the electorate to counter the PTI’s overwhelming support in KP. The slogan of Islam was not enough to win public support.

Meanwhile, the spectacular rise of the TLP over the past one year has changed the dynamics of religious politics in the country. In fact, it is a movement rather than a well-knit and organised political party born out of the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

It has also been an assertion of Barelvi radicalism against Wahabi and Salafi groups.

Led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP used the blasphemy issue to whip up religious sentiments both in the urban and rural areas.

It was given further impetus during a two-week siege of Islamabad. The virtual surrender of the state emboldened the group. The clerics were also encouraged by the widening civil-military divide.

The group showed its electoral prowess for the first time in the by-election for NA-120 in Lahore last year by getting a significant number of votes, more than the JI candidate. Its growing electoral appeal was also witnessed in the Peshawar and Bhakkar by-elections.

Yet the TLP’s performance in the general elections across Punjab and Karachi was beyond expectation. It had put up candidates in almost all the constituencies of the national and provincial (Punjab) assemblies, eating not only into the vote bank of JI but also of the PML-N that had traditionally enjoyed the Barelvi vote.

Surprisingly, the TLP’s biggest success came from Karachi where it won two provincial seats and came very close to winning a National Assembly seat.

The party seems to have received support from followers of groups like the JUP that has traditionally had a significant vote bank in the metropolis. The disintegration of the MQM and the gap thus created also helped the TLP make inroads.

It was most intriguing how the Election Commission registered a party with a sectarian/communal base and that preached extremism and violence, and then allowed it to participate in the elections.

It gets more and more bizarre as even Pemra had banned the telecast of TLP rallies because of the vitriolic speeches of its leaders. How come the two state agencies have different laws applied to a such a group?
Similarly, some banned militant outfits were also allowed to participate in the election under new banners in violation of the law. This is more than a policy of appeasement and has raised questions of tacit backing from some state institutions.

Radical groups deal a serious blow to the nation’s struggle against extremism and militant violence. The TLP may not have a concrete programme for it to be a formidable electoral force in the long term. But allowing such groups to operate freely and participate in elections could be disastrous.

It remains to be seen how the new PTI administration deals with this scourge of extremism. Given its soft stance towards the religious right, fears are that such groups may get greater space.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published from Notre Dame du Chant d’Oiseau
1150 Brussel/Bruxelles