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Afghan Hindus, Sikhs Seek To Reclaim Their 'House Of Love'

One of the two main entrances to the Hindu village Prem Nagar in Khost.
Shankar Lal, at age 63, wants to reclaim his native "House of Love" after living in exile in India for 20 years.

The Hindu patriarch is from Prem Nagar, Hindi for House of Love, a once-prosperous Hindu village in southeastern Afghanistan that over the years has been absorbed by the neighboring city of Khost.

For the past two weeks Lal and other leaders from Khost's once-vibrant Hindu and Sikh communities have been petitioning provincial authorities to force local strongmen from properties they vacated amid the civil war in the early 1990s.

Support promised by local officials and tribal elders has Lal looking forward to a day when his grandchildren can return to Khost. "I want them to relive my childhood in our hometown," he says.

From afar, Lal and others from the community have kept close watch on developments in their home country.

"Whenever we heard some good news about Afghanistan, we would celebrate it like a festival," Lal says. "If we heard or watched any bad news from the radio or over the television, it would also upset us because it is our homeland -- the homeland of our ancestors."

Traders Return

Shankar Lal
Shankar Lal
Hundreds of Hindu and Sikh families living near New Delhi are now ready to return, and have sent Lal and other elders to make preparations. The immediate goal is to reclaim Prem Nagar, now part of eastern Khost, where they plan to rebuild a grand temple to mark their return.

Next they hope to restore the pieces of a once-thriving trading community in Khost by opening pharmacies, grocery stores, and textile shops in the booming border town.

Lal, a pharmacist by profession, has returned every few years since fighting forced him to move first to Kabul and then to India in the early 1990s. But this time he wants to stay put and live to see his grandchildren make friends with local Pashtuns.

Prem Nagar, known to local Pashtun Muslims as Hindu Qala, enjoyed a cordial relationship with surrounding communities. Some 150 Hindu and Sikh families lived in the 25-hectare village, which was enclosed by massive mud walls in line with local Pashtun architecture.

Memories Of Friendlier Times

Former residents still remember the peaceful prewar days with nostalgia. Charan Singh, a 48-year-old Hindu, recalls the two minorities living like brothers with Muslims.

When the war reached Khost and surrounding areas, most local Hindus and Sikhs headed for Kabul, and later for India. But Singh set up a pharmacy in Kabul and never left, allowing him to keep in close contact with friends from home.

He says that his community can rebuild their harmonious life with the local Pashtuns, but they first need to rebuild their utterly devastated village.

"None of our families now live in Prem Nagar. And there is nothing that can sustain life in it," Singh says. "The whole village has been destroyed completely. It's all in ruins now. Our sacred temple was destroyed by tank fire, artillery, and explosives. Our houses, too, were similarly destroyed."

Ruins of the Hindu temple in Prem Nagar.
Ruins of the Hindu temple in Prem Nagar.

At 80, Sudhal Singh is old enough to remember how Prem Nagar came to be a regional Hindu center. The former shopkeeper, who is part of the visiting delegation from India, can recall the days seven decades ago when a local government official convinced elders to live in one community near Khost rather than being scattered in remote mountain villages.

He says that the development of Prem Nagar improved communal life and brought prosperity to the Hindus and Sikhs who owned most of the businesses there.

Rebuilding A Future

Things have changed drastically. Now Pashtun tribesmen, whose ancestors abhorred trading, are the dominant shopkeepers, with an estimated 15,000 shops in Khost.

But Singh's visits with old friends have convinced him that the return of Hindus and Sikhs would be welcomed, and that there is plenty of opportunity despite the new competition.

For him, it just feels like home. "If I tell you the truth, I feel better after returning to Khost," Singh says. "I suffer from ailments because of my old age. But once in Khost they subside. I feel great and my soul is happy here."

If all goes as promised, Prem Nagar will be handed over to the community represented by the delegation by the end of the month, and Lal is optimistic that everything will work out.

"The situation is improving compared to the past," Lal says. "We are very hopeful that we can see the village of Prem Nagar being built again. Personally, I am very hopeful."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also the author of the weekly Gandhara Briefing newsletter, which features some of best reporting and analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.