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Afghanistan: Kabul's Sikh, Hindu Communities Reawaken After Taliban Controls

A Sikh ceremony in Kabul is an unusual sight. A few hundred followers gathered today in a temple situated on a hill overlooking the Afghan capital to celebrate an important religious event. RFE/RL's correspondent in Kabul, Dan Alexe, attended this morning's festivities and filed this report.

Kabul, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Sikh-Hindu neighborhood in Kabul is called Kart-i-Parwan. Here, the followers of these two religions, which have their origins in India, worship together in the same temple. Scattered in the crowd of Sikhs this morning were some Hindu families, chanting the same hymns in honor of Guru Gobind Singh. Today is the birthday of this 10th, last, and most important of the Sikh gurus.

The Sikhs are a religious-political community born in Punjab in the 15th century. Sikhism is a syncretistic religion, combining Islamic and Hindu beliefs. The Sikhs believe in a series of 10 gurus, or sages, and possess a sacred book called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

Under their greatest ruler, Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the Sikhs controlled an empire that included northern Punjab, Kashmir, and Peshawar. The Sikhs sided with the British in the Afghan wars. When the British turned against the Sikhs and defeated them, they took from the Sikhs the famous diamond called Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light, which has since adorned the crown of Britain's queen.

The Sikhs and the Hindus arrived in Afghanistan with the British in the 19th century. The number of Sikhs in Afghanistan is estimated today at some 10,000. They live mostly in Jalalabad, Ghazni, Kandahar, and Kabul. In Kabul, more than 100 families are believed to be Sikh. The number of Hindus is unknown but is estimated to be roughly the same.

In the past, the Sikhs and the Hindus controlled the money market in the cities. This, and common persecutions incurred in Afghanistan, led to a rapprochement between the two communities, who in Kabul share the same temple, called a dharamsal. They also take part together in religious ceremonies. Sikh and Hindu women don't cover their faces. They shake hands with men and participate in religious ceremonies -- although they do stand separate from the men.

The Taliban tried to force Sikhs and Hindus to wear distinctive markings on their garments, a measure compared to Nazi treatment of the Jews. Among the signs proposed by the Taliban were yellow badges, as well as a tika, a small red mark on the forehead. The Taliban also required that yellow flags mark the houses of Hindus and Sikhs.

Indar Singh Majboor runs a pharmacy in front of Kabul's dharamsal. His mother tongue is Pashto, as is the case with the majority of Afghanistan's Sikhs, but he expresses himself with ease in Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Kabul.

"During the time of the Taliban, Muslims also suffered; but we are the minorities, and we suffered the most. The fanaticism of the Amr-bel-Maaruf [a special ministry of the Taliban, created to impose Islamic principles and virtues] forced on us the strangest things that we ever heard of," Majboor said. "They told us we should wear a yellow piece of cloth, and we had to put yellow flags on our shops. Also, we were compelled to hang pieces of tissue outside our own houses. It was a cultural oppression, as well as a religious one."

Even children have bad memories of that time. Mamooch Komar of Kabul is a Hindu boy of 12: "We were afraid to go out of the house without wearing a turban, and they forced us to put on yellow shirts."

The Taliban argued the measures were meant to protect these religious minorities, making them easily identifiable for the Taliban's religious police, who otherwise would have punished them for not respecting certain tenets of Islam.

"It is quite clear in Afghanistan and in the whole world when one Sikh stands among 25,000 Muslims. It is immediately obvious that one is a Sikh. Actually, they just wanted to make life difficult for the Hindus. For instance, there is a man in front of you named Manuj Kumar [a Hindu name]. Nobody sees any difference whether he is a Hindu or a Muslim, said pharmacist Majboor. "[The Taliban] put pressure on us, making us wear yellow clothes, but we did not accept it. We made the Taliban agree that [the Hindus] would wear a wristband and a [special] cap."

The Sikhs place great hope in the present interim government, led by Hamid Karzai. Again, Majboor: "Everybody salutes the coming of the new regime in Afghanistan, including us, the Sikhs. Day by day, the number of the Sikhs increases here. In the last month, many Hindus have come here, through Iran, to the Herat province. They know that the situation is improving, that the embassies are functioning, and that the air connections will be re-established. This is a good government."