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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Sikhs struggle in Afghanistan

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Kabul

Nearly two years after the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan's Sikh community is once again trying to establish itself.

Service at Dharamsal
Sikhs and Hindus share the Dharamsal temple
The Sikhs were first brought to Afghanistan by the British in the 19th century and once dominated the Afghan economy.

But since then they have seen their fortunes fade, especially during the civil war in the 1990s which was followed by the rule of the Taleban.

Several thousand Sikhs, who are mostly Pashto-speaking Afghan nationals, reside in the Afghan capital Kabul and the cities of Jalalabad, Ghazni and the former Taleban stronghold of Kandahar.

Fleeing community

In a narrow lane in a dusty Kabul neighbourhood, hundreds of Sikhs and a few Hindus gather every Sunday for prayers at a shared temple, known as Dharamsal.

Preet Singh
Preet Singh - took part in the election of President Karzai

This is Karte Parwan, the main Sikh-Hindu area in the capital, where most of the community live.

Rajinder Singh is head of the temple trust.

"This temple was built 45 years ago during the rule of King Zahir Shah," he says.

"At that time we had no place to pray or hold ceremonies. But the king granted us permission to hold special prayers at this site to commemorate births and deaths."

The Sikhs along with the Hindus had at one time controlled the currency markets in the main cities.

But all that changed with the advent of the mujahideen fighters who overthrew the Soviet regime and then the arrival of the Taleban.

"The overthrow of Najibullah's regime in 1992 and the fighting between the warlords hurt us very badly," Mr Singh says.

"The constant violence forced many Sikhs to flee, mostly to India, some to Pakistan."

Yellow tags

Just over 100 Sikh families stayed on in Kabul.

We were made painfully aware of the fact that we were minorities
Inder Singh Majboor
They were forced to pay the price for events taking place miles away at Ayodhya.

"When the Babri mosque was demolished in India in 1992 the mujahideen burned down our temple in retaliation," says Mr Singh.

Things got worse during Taleban rule.

In a controversial move, the Taleban forced Hindus and Sikhs to wear distinctive yellow tags and ordered Hindu and Sikh women to be veiled.

Inder Singh Majboor, who owns a small shop outside the temple, remembers it as a difficult time.

"We were frightened by the order. Even though we were allowed to continue praying and holding ceremonies, we were made painfully aware of the fact that we were minorities," Mr Majboor says.

New problems

The fall of the Taleban and the formation of a new Afghan Government has seen many Sikhs return to what they consider to be their homeland and the strength of the community in Kabul has grown to about 360 families.

Gurcharan Singh
Gurcharan Singh had to pay a bribe to get his shops back

Some like Preet Singh were invited to take part in the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of tribal chieftains which elected Hamid Karzai as the new president.

Many others have returned elsewhere.

But those who have returned are confronted with fresh problems.

Most of them find their property in ruins or, in many cases, seized.

Gurcharan Singh's family has been living in Kabul for three generations where they worked as traders and businessmen.

He returned to Kabul last year after 10 years to discover that his shops and home had been captured by warlords.

"For the past year I've been running from pillar to post to try and get my property back," Gurcharan Singh says.

"I've finally agreed to pay a hefty bribe and will hopefully get my shops and home back."

Cremation controversy

Almost all the Sikhs here face this problem. There are very few people who are lucky to be living in their own house.

The Sikhs face another, urgent problem.

President Hamid Karzai with Afghan Sikhs
The new government urges Sikhs to play a more active role

For months now, they have been denied access to their cremation ground.

"We have not been able to use the ground which has been in our possession for over a hundred years," says Gurcharan Singh.

"Three days ago a Sikh woman died and we had to send her body to Pakistan for cremation."

Afghan Religious Affairs Minister Nasir Yar says the government is aware of the problem and is doing something about it.

"Their cremation ground was occupied by some irresponsible people - we are taking this matter very seriously and a delegation has been dispatched and will report back to me," Mr Yar said.

But this is of little comfort to the Sikh community.

"We need access to it immediately," says Rajinder Singh.

"The Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan still face tremendous problems. Although the whole country is trying to recover from the years of war, it appears that no one is thinking of us."

In the fading light of twilight, the Sikhs of Karte Parwan down their shutters and head home.

A proud community who consider themselves Afghans, they may soon be able to cremate their dead.

But clearly there is a lot to be done before they can rebuild their lives.

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