As 55 Hindus and Sikhs landed in New Delhi on a special flight from Afghanistan this week, the plight of persecuted minorities in India’s neighbourhood once again came to the fore. These Hindus and Sikhs are one of the very last lot of persecuted minorities who have been provided with visa assistance from the Indian government to help them escape from the torture in Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan. Some of them were under imprisonment before they returned to New Delhi with their hair butchered and pressure to convert to Islam. This has been a common form of torture for Afghanistan’s micro minority, the Sikh community which is all set to become extinct with just 22 Sikhs remaining in the country today. In 2021, an attack on a gurdwara in Kabul by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) had also claimed 50 lives.
The persecution of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan is a long story. While Guru Nanak Dev himself travelled to the country to preach, leading many Afghans to choose Sikhism, a large presence was also maintained by migration of Sikhs to Afghanistan for trading purposes. During the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, many Sikhs fled from Pakistan and found a safe refuge in Afghanistan instead. There are various estimates that peg Hindu and Sikh populations between 5 lakh and 7 lakh in the 1970s. Some peg this population at around 2,20,000. However, it sharply fell to 15,000 in the 1990s when Mujahideen came to power.
By 2016, only 1,350 Hindus and Sikhs remained in Afghanistan. Active discrimination against them has ranged from literal head counts of Hindus and Sikhs for elimination and a diktat to wear yellow armbands for identification. Religious persecution became a common feature of the Taliban rule as did the torture done to the ethnic minorities of Hazara, Uzbek and Tajiks. About 99 per cent of their population left the country in the last three decades with only a handful left behind waiting to be evacuated by the Indian government.
Despite religious persecution being a hard fact of life for many in Afghanistan, Western powers who pontificate on human rights and religious intolerance to other countries, never bothered to recognise it as a legitimate facet of Taliban Rule. Neither were the persecuted Hindus and Sikhs recognised even once as refugees nor was any leniency given in deporting them back to Afghanistan. This has left them with India as their only hope.