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Tracing the History of Afghan Sikhs: Who Are They and What Happens to Them Now?

Sikhism in Afghanistan dates back to the 15th century, making the community as old as the religion itself.

Published
Explainers
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>With the Taliban takeover, an era of Sikhism in Afghanistan approaches its end.</p></div>
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As the Taliban establishes its hold in Afghanistan again, several citizens of the war-torn country are making desperate attempts to flee their home. India, on its part, has promised safe passage to Hindus and Sikhs stranded in Afghanistan.

More than 550 people, including several Afghan Sikhs and Hindus in addition to Indian nationals, had been evacuated until last week, according to the Ministry of External Affairs.

"Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has forced Sikhs to flee their homes. This marks as the end of Sikhi in Afghanistan but also a new beginning for our Sikh brothers in India," President of Shiromani Akali Dal Paramjit Singh Sarna said on Twitter, mourning the loss of the community's cultural heritage.

As an era of Sikhism in Afghanistan approaches its end, here's a look at the history of the community.

Tracing the History of Afghan Sikhs: Who Are They and What Happens to Them Now?

  1. 1. Beginnings of Sikhism in Afghanistan

    Anthropologist and South Asian Studies scholar Robert Ballard, in his 2011 work, The History and Current Position of Afghanistan's Hindu and Sikh Population, suggests that Sikhism in Afghanistan dates back to the fifteenth century – and is therefore as old as the religion itself.

    Ballard hypothesises that Afghan Sikhs descend from those members of the country's indigenous Khatri population, who had resisted the conversion to Buddhism and Islam when it had gained traction in region between the ninth and the 13th centuries, and who subsequently aligned themselves with the teachings of the first Sikh guru Guru Nanak, after he founded the religion in the 15th century.

    Historian Inderjeet Singh, in his 2019 work Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a Thousand Years, notes that Guru Nanak had journeyed to present-day Kabul during his Fourth Udasi – a peregrination undertaken to spread the message of Sikhism – in the early part of the 16th century. It is at that time that members of the Khatri population had been initiated into the faith, Singh posits.

    Expand
  2. 2. Sikhism in Afghanistan: From the 16th to the 18th Century

    Multiple anecdotal fragments found in various ancient texts point to the residency of an established Sikh community in Afghanistan between the 16th and 18th centuries.

    Mughal emperor Babur, who had captured Kabul in 1504, wrote in his autobiography Baburnama of the presence of Hindustani population, particularly merchants, in Kabul, which he called 'Hindustan's own market.'

    Alluding to the rule of Nader Shah in Afghanistan who seized power of the country on 1738, Inderjeet Singh notes that "during this period, the Sikh chroniclers record numerous names and instances when Sikh followers from Kabul came to the region now known as East Punjab, to pay respects to the Sikh Gurus."

    Bawal Kirpal Das, a descendent of the third Sikh guru Amar Das (1549-1574), wrote of the presence of Sikhs in Kabul in Mahima Prakash Vartak, an early Sikh hagiography believed to be authored in 1741. The manuscript mentions a lady from Kabul – "Kabuli wali Mai" – who had performed seva during the construction of the Goindwal Baoli by Guru Amar Das in East Punjab. Another woman, a Sikh preacher who had headed a manji, also finds mention in the text, as per Inderjeet Singh.

    Several gurdwaras were also established in Afghanistan during this period:

    • Professor Ganda Singh, whose research work Afghanistan Da Safar was published in 1954, notes that around the time of Guru Amar Das, a gurdwara, named after one of the guru's followers – a certain Baba Ganak Baksh from Gurdaspur – was established in Kabul.

    • Sikh scholarship also indicates that the prominent religious figure Bhai Gurdas, had built the Khalsa Gurdwara ,which survives in Kabul's Shor Bazaar till date, during the time of fifth Sikh guru Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606).

    • The Pipli Sahib Gurdwara of Amritsar was built around the same time as well, to commemorate the meeting of a sangat of Sikhs from Kabul with Guru Arjan Dev.

    • During the lifetime of the seventh Sikh guru Guru Har Rai (1630-1661), Bhai Gonda, a religious acolyte who had been sent to preach Sikhism in Kabul, established the Har Rai Gurdwara Sahib that survives in the present-day capital.

    • Professor Ganda Singh, in his research work, notes that Baba Sri Chand (1494-1629), son of Guru Nanak, had visited Afghanistan during his lifetime. Gurdwara Baba Sri Chand, which remains in present day Kabul, was established during his visit.

    Expand
  3. 3. 19th-20th Century: Ranjit Singh, Establishment of Khalsa Diwan, and the Sikh Exodus

    Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first king of the Sikh Empire, had ruled the northwest Indian subcontinent, expanding his control to the Afghan region in the early years of the 19th century.

    The short-lived Sikh Empire then fell to the British after the Second Sikh-Anglo War in 1849, a battle which saw Afghan support for the Sikh side.

    Following the zealous evangelist campaigns of the British, a Singh Sabha reformist movement emerged in the subcontinent in response to the proselytisation activities, which arrived in Afghanistan in the early years of the 20th century, writes Inderjeet Singh.

    As part of the movement, prominent Sikh preacher Akali Kaur Singh had arrived in Nangararh province of Afghanistan in 1919 to preach the doctrine of Sikhism. Under his leadership, the Khalsa Diwan Afghanistan was established, which is credited with the propagation and preservation of Sikh values in the region.

    Sikh Exodus from Afghanistan

    The first instance of mass migration of Sikhs from Afghanistan came at the time of the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan when the fundamentalist zeitgeist of the Afghan society had troubled the indigenous Hindus and Sikhs. A large number of Sikhs had left their homeland and settled in India during this time, and formed an Afghan-Sikh community in Punjab's Patiala.

    The emergence of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late 20th century, had created the antecedents for the second and more widespread exodus of Afghan Sikhs.

    In 1988, Jalalabad's Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar has been the target of a terror attack, wherein 13 Sikhs were killed. According to Inderjeet Singh, over a hundred Sikhs died in the subsequent years during the Mujahideen's attacks in Jalalabad. In 1992, when the Mujahideen captured Kabul, the group desecrated Gurdwara Karte Parwan, the largest gurudwara of the city.

    In 1992, close to 65,000 Hindus and Sikhs fled Afghanistan and came to India, Singh reports.

    With the coming of the Taliban in 1996, the condition further deteriorated – "The tolerance of diversity which had hitherto been such a characteristic of Afghan Islam rapidly began to evaporate in the face of the hard line jihadi and fundamentalist attitudes promoted by the Taliban," scholar Robert Ballard observed.

    In the late 1980s, there were about 500,000 Sikhs scattered across Afghanistan, many who had been there for generations, according to a Reuters report. By 2005, about 3,700 persons belonging to the Hindu and Sikh communities remained, as per a UNHCR paper.

    Expand
  4. 4. Afghan Sikhs in the Present

    The size of the Sikh minority in the war-torn country has dwindled drastically over the past few decades, with hardly any community members inhabiting the country today.

    In 2020, about 700 Sikhs remained in Afghanistan, an Al Jazeera report indicated, citing local sources.

    The 2018 Jalalabad attack orchestrated by terror organisation IS had killed 19 Sikhs, while a bombing of the Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara in 2020 led to the death of 25 community members, as per BBC reports.

    With the coming of the Taliban to power for a second time, a cloud of darkness looms over the country, with Afghan Sikhs finding themselves out of place under the Islamist rule.

    As India continues evacuations of Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan with full fervour, 77 Sikhs have been evacuated so far, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri stated on 24 August.

    3 holy saroops (physical copies) of the Guru Granth Sahib have also been transported to India, and were received by the Union minister.

    “There were 13 saroops of Guru Granth Sahib in Afghanistan of which seven were already shifted to India earlier. Three have been shifted today and now just three more remain in Afghanistan. Those too will be shifted soon,” Chhabol Singh, a member of Kabul's Karte Parwan Gurdwara committee, told The Indian Express.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Beginnings of Sikhism in Afghanistan

Anthropologist and South Asian Studies scholar Robert Ballard, in his 2011 work, The History and Current Position of Afghanistan's Hindu and Sikh Population, suggests that Sikhism in Afghanistan dates back to the fifteenth century – and is therefore as old as the religion itself.

Ballard hypothesises that Afghan Sikhs descend from those members of the country's indigenous Khatri population, who had resisted the conversion to Buddhism and Islam when it had gained traction in region between the ninth and the 13th centuries, and who subsequently aligned themselves with the teachings of the first Sikh guru Guru Nanak, after he founded the religion in the 15th century.

Historian Inderjeet Singh, in his 2019 work Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a Thousand Years, notes that Guru Nanak had journeyed to present-day Kabul during his Fourth Udasi – a peregrination undertaken to spread the message of Sikhism – in the early part of the 16th century. It is at that time that members of the Khatri population had been initiated into the faith, Singh posits.

Sikhism in Afghanistan: From the 16th to the 18th Century

Multiple anecdotal fragments found in various ancient texts point to the residency of an established Sikh community in Afghanistan between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Mughal emperor Babur, who had captured Kabul in 1504, wrote in his autobiography Baburnama of the presence of Hindustani population, particularly merchants, in Kabul, which he called 'Hindustan's own market.'

Alluding to the rule of Nader Shah in Afghanistan who seized power of the country on 1738, Inderjeet Singh notes that "during this period, the Sikh chroniclers record numerous names and instances when Sikh followers from Kabul came to the region now known as East Punjab, to pay respects to the Sikh Gurus."

Bawal Kirpal Das, a descendent of the third Sikh guru Amar Das (1549-1574), wrote of the presence of Sikhs in Kabul in Mahima Prakash Vartak, an early Sikh hagiography believed to be authored in 1741. The manuscript mentions a lady from Kabul – "Kabuli wali Mai" – who had performed seva during the construction of the Goindwal Baoli by Guru Amar Das in East Punjab. Another woman, a Sikh preacher who had headed a manji, also finds mention in the text, as per Inderjeet Singh.

Several gurdwaras were also established in Afghanistan during this period:

  • Professor Ganda Singh, whose research work Afghanistan Da Safar was published in 1954, notes that around the time of Guru Amar Das, a gurdwara, named after one of the guru's followers – a certain Baba Ganak Baksh from Gurdaspur – was established in Kabul.

  • Sikh scholarship also indicates that the prominent religious figure Bhai Gurdas, had built the Khalsa Gurdwara ,which survives in Kabul's Shor Bazaar till date, during the time of fifth Sikh guru Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606).

  • The Pipli Sahib Gurdwara of Amritsar was built around the same time as well, to commemorate the meeting of a sangat of Sikhs from Kabul with Guru Arjan Dev.

  • During the lifetime of the seventh Sikh guru Guru Har Rai (1630-1661), Bhai Gonda, a religious acolyte who had been sent to preach Sikhism in Kabul, established the Har Rai Gurdwara Sahib that survives in the present-day capital.

  • Professor Ganda Singh, in his research work, notes that Baba Sri Chand (1494-1629), son of Guru Nanak, had visited Afghanistan during his lifetime. Gurdwara Baba Sri Chand, which remains in present day Kabul, was established during his visit.

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19th-20th Century: Ranjit Singh, Establishment of Khalsa Diwan, and the Sikh Exodus

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first king of the Sikh Empire, had ruled the northwest Indian subcontinent, expanding his control to the Afghan region in the early years of the 19th century.

The short-lived Sikh Empire then fell to the British after the Second Sikh-Anglo War in 1849, a battle which saw Afghan support for the Sikh side.

Following the zealous evangelist campaigns of the British, a Singh Sabha reformist movement emerged in the subcontinent in response to the proselytisation activities, which arrived in Afghanistan in the early years of the 20th century, writes Inderjeet Singh.

As part of the movement, prominent Sikh preacher Akali Kaur Singh had arrived in Nangararh province of Afghanistan in 1919 to preach the doctrine of Sikhism. Under his leadership, the Khalsa Diwan Afghanistan was established, which is credited with the propagation and preservation of Sikh values in the region.

Sikh Exodus from Afghanistan

The first instance of mass migration of Sikhs from Afghanistan came at the time of the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan when the fundamentalist zeitgeist of the Afghan society had troubled the indigenous Hindus and Sikhs. A large number of Sikhs had left their homeland and settled in India during this time, and formed an Afghan-Sikh community in Punjab's Patiala.

The emergence of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late 20th century, had created the antecedents for the second and more widespread exodus of Afghan Sikhs.

In 1988, Jalalabad's Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar has been the target of a terror attack, wherein 13 Sikhs were killed. According to Inderjeet Singh, over a hundred Sikhs died in the subsequent years during the Mujahideen's attacks in Jalalabad. In 1992, when the Mujahideen captured Kabul, the group desecrated Gurdwara Karte Parwan, the largest gurudwara of the city.

In 1992, close to 65,000 Hindus and Sikhs fled Afghanistan and came to India, Singh reports.

With the coming of the Taliban in 1996, the condition further deteriorated – "The tolerance of diversity which had hitherto been such a characteristic of Afghan Islam rapidly began to evaporate in the face of the hard line jihadi and fundamentalist attitudes promoted by the Taliban," scholar Robert Ballard observed.

In the late 1980s, there were about 500,000 Sikhs scattered across Afghanistan, many who had been there for generations, according to a Reuters report. By 2005, about 3,700 persons belonging to the Hindu and Sikh communities remained, as per a UNHCR paper.

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Afghan Sikhs in the Present

The size of the Sikh minority in the war-torn country has dwindled drastically over the past few decades, with hardly any community members inhabiting the country today.

In 2020, about 700 Sikhs remained in Afghanistan, an Al Jazeera report indicated, citing local sources.

The 2018 Jalalabad attack orchestrated by terror organisation IS had killed 19 Sikhs, while a bombing of the Har Rai Sahib Gurdwara in 2020 led to the death of 25 community members, as per BBC reports.

With the coming of the Taliban to power for a second time, a cloud of darkness looms over the country, with Afghan Sikhs finding themselves out of place under the Islamist rule.

As India continues evacuations of Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan with full fervour, 77 Sikhs have been evacuated so far, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri stated on 24 August.

3 holy saroops (physical copies) of the Guru Granth Sahib have also been transported to India, and were received by the Union minister.

“There were 13 saroops of Guru Granth Sahib in Afghanistan of which seven were already shifted to India earlier. Three have been shifted today and now just three more remain in Afghanistan. Those too will be shifted soon,” Chhabol Singh, a member of Kabul's Karte Parwan Gurdwara committee, told The Indian Express.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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