Their number, which was as high as 200,000 in this overwhelmingly Muslim country under the communist-backed Najibullah regime, has dwindled to a few thousand after the great majority fled to India over the past decade – driven out by war and religious prejudice.
Now some are seeking to return to the land in which they have lived for centuries. But many more are put off by a lack of housing – their homes having been destroyed in savage fighting between mujahedin and Soviet forces and later rival Islamic groups – and, above all, problems with education.
“Our children can’t study in ordinary schools because the Muslim children tease them for their hair and bracelets,” said Avtar Singh, head of the only Hindu school in Kabul and leader of the community in the capital, whose remarks refer equally to Sikhs.
“So our children can only study in our temple, where we can teach only four subjects – Maths, English, our own language and religion.
“We have run a school in a temple in the west of Kabul for the past 35 years. Before the wars, 5,000 students were studying there and others studied in ordinary establishments alongside Muslims.
“Before the wars there was love and understanding between all the communities, and our children studied happily in Muslim schools. Now the Muslims themselves are turning against each other, so what chance do we have?”
Prejudice against Hindus, which emerged with the arrival of mujahedin forces battling the Soviets, heightened in 1992 after Hindu extremists demolished the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, saying it was built on the site of razed a Hindu temple.
Hindu and Sikh homes and temples across Afghanistan – in this country both groups are generally referred to as Hindus – were looted and burned.
The hard line Taleban regime which took power in 1995 announced it was planning to order Hindus to wear labels identifying them as non-Muslims – recalling the Nazis policy towards the Jews in the Second World War – which provoked an outraged reaction from around the world.
Asked why they did not take their case to the ministry of education, Otar Singh said, “We want our children to study with Muslims in ordinary schools, with the help of the ministry. But at present we can’t because, firstly, our children don’t even know their own language properly, so how can they learn Dari (Persian). Secondly, other children will know that they are different, from their hair, bracelets and names, and will tease them.”
Kamal Jeet, 10, who was doing religious studies in the temple, told IWPR, “If we study alongside the Muslims they make fun of us, so we don’t do it.”
A Hindu woman, who declined to give her name, said, “Before the wars I studied in a local school near the Hindu temple. There were no problems between Hindus and Muslims then. Now our population has dwindled, and our children are unhappy studying with Muslims, and also have language problems.”
Amer Parkash, a Hindu from Ghazni province, south-west of Kabul, who was in the capital on business, said, “In Ghazni we don’t have a single Hindu school, and most of our children can’t read or write properly.
“During the wars a lot of bad things were done to us, and our children are still afraid to go out to buy groceries. We would like all of us to live and study together as we did in the past.”
In some schools this appears to have already happened. In Ghazi Ayob Lycee, in the west of Kabul, 13-year-old Manish Kumar, a lone Hindu in a Muslim school, said he had experienced no problems and got on well with his class-mates. “I translate Indian songs for them in my free time,” he said proudly.
“When I came to this school a year ago I didn’t face any problems. I go out of the classroom when the rest do Islamic studies. We are all Afghans, and we should all serve our country.”
The principal of Ghazi Ayub school, Sadat, told IWPR, “Hindu boys and girls won’t face any problems if they want to come here. Before the wars, half of our students were Hindus, and they all got on well together. We have told Manish Kumar that if he has any problems he should come straight to us.”
Deputy Education Minister Zabihullah Esmati said, “Hindus are Afghans, and they have a right to go to school with Muslim children. The doors of every school are open to everyone. If anyone teases or bullies them they can complain to the school principal. And failing that, they can come and tell us their problems.”
Shahabuddin Tarakhel is a radio and television journalist in Kabul.
This article was originally published by the IWPR (Institute for War Peace Reporting), London, in the Afghan Recovery Report (ARR No. 45, 24 January 2003). The Institute for War & Peace Reporting strengthens local journalism in areas of conflict. Religioscope has been allowed by the IWPR to repost its articles.
© 2003 Institute for War & Peace Reporting