An excellent and rare article on the Guardian website, by Afghan author Reza Mohammadi, gives a brief account of the present day state of the country’s Hindu minority. Says the author:
“Hindus are clearly among the oldest inhabitants of Afghanistan. They are the native people, whom Islamic fundamentalism has turned into unprotected strangers. Strangers, who this year found themselves forced to argue for days with Muslims in the centre of Kabul in order to be allowed to cremate their dead in line with their tradition. Strangers who never dare to send their children to school for fear of mockery.”
Many people mistakenly believe that the all Afghan Hindus must be migrants from India, who went to Afghanistan for business/entrepreneurship. While this is true for some Afghan Hindus, others are in fact indigenous Afghans, whose ancestors have dwelt there since time immemorial.
The land that is now called Afghanistan was once an important part of Hindu or Vedic world. For example, it is quite well known that “Gandhar” of Mahabharata fame, the kingdom of Shakuni (the wily uncle of Duryodhan) is modern day “Kandahar” (the second largest city of Afghanistan). Several historians believe that the Vedas may have been at least partly composed in what is now Afghanistan. The Hindu Shahi dynasty ruled Afghanistan until the 10th century AD, when they were finally conquered by Muslim invaders who they had been fending off for around three centuries.
At this time, the predominant religions of the Afghan people were Hinduism (with strong Buddhist elements) and Zoroastrianism.
Over the sands of time, the country’s non-Muslim populations dwindled, although the non-Muslim communities still played a part in the country’s life and culture. In the more peaceful times of the last two centuries, some Hindus and Sikhs even migrated to Afghanistan for business opportunities. Today it is not known how many Hindus remain in Afghanistan. It has been estimated that there are 200,000 Afghan Hindus around the world, but the majority do not live in Afghanistan. There may be 30,000 or so Hindus still in Afghanistan, but it is reported that this figure falls by the month, as the majority try to flee the daily discrimination they face. The lowest point of the ordeal of Hindus in Afghanistan was when the Taliban were in power. The Taliban made them wear yellow armbands to distinguish them from Muslims, which greatly increased discrimination against them. A number of Hindu organizations around the world protested the introduction of this discriminatory measure.
There are promising signs that Afghan Hindus who have fled to other parts of the world are trying to organize themselves to ensure the survival of their historical culture and traditions onto future generations. As example of this is the Afghan Hindu Association, an association of Hindus who live in the USA, who according to the website number approximately 7,500. They have set up a community center to where functions and educational and welfare activities are conducted.
One can only hope for better days where the remnants of Hindu culture in Afghanistan – the artifacts, temples and of course the people are restored and given a respectable place of in the country’s cultural landscape. Don’t count on that happening any time soon though.
Hinduism in Afghanistan is practiced by a tiny minority of Afghan Hindus, believed to be about 1,000 individuals who live mostly in Kabul and other major cities of the country.Before the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan, the people of the area were multi-religious and a vast majority practiced Hinduism and Buddhism
There is no information on when Hinduism arrived to Afghanistan but some historians have suggested that the territory south of the Hindu Kush may have been culturally connected with the Indus Valley Civilization in ancient times. At the same time, most historians maintain that today’s Afghanistan was inhabited by the Medes followed by the Achaemenid before the arrival of Alexander the Great and his Greek army in 330 BC. It became part of the Seleucid Empire after the departure of Alexander three years later. In 305 BCE they gave south of the Hindu Kush to the Indian Maurya Empire as part of an alliance treaty.
Alexander took these away from the Aryans and established settlements of his own, but Seleucus Nicator gave them to Sandrocottus (Chandragupta), upon terms of intermarriage and of receiving in exchange 500 elephants.
—Strabo, 64 BC – 24 AD
The main ethnic groups in Afghanistan which practice Hinduism today are the Punjabis and Sindhis who are believed to have come along with Sikhs as merchants to Afghanistan in the 19th century. Before the Soviet war in Afghanistan, there were several thousand Hindus living in the country but today their number is only about 1,000. Most of the others immigrated to India, the European Union, North America or else where.
Afghan Hindus and Afghan Sikhs often share places of worship. The main ethnic groups in Afghanistan which practice Hinduism are the Punjabis, and Sindhis who came as merchants to the region in the 19th century. They once dominated the Afghan economy. Along with the Sikhs, they are all collectively known by some as Hindki. Linguistic demographics among the Hindu community are diverse and generally follow regional origins: those hailing from Punjab generally speak Punjabi, Sindhis speak Sindhi, Kabulis and Kandharis speak both Pashto and the northern and southern dialects of Hindko. The local Hindu community in Afghanistan is mostly based in the city of Kabul. The 2002 loya jirga had two seats reserved for Hindus and today President Hamid Karzai’s economic advisor is an Afghan Hindu.
During the Taliban 1996 to late 2001 rule, Hindus were forced to wear yellow badges in public to identify themselves as non-Muslims so they would not be punished for not going to mosques during prayer times. Hindu women were forced to wear burqas, ostensibly a measure to “protect” them from harassment. This was part of the Taliban’s plan to segregate “un-Islamic” and “idolatrous” communities from Islamic ones.
The decree was condemned by the Indian and U.S. governments as a violation of religious freedom. Widespread protests against the Taliban regime broke out in Bhopal, India. In the United States, Abraham Foxman, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, compared the decree to the practices of Nazi Germany, where Jews were required to wear labels identifying them as such. Several influential lawmakers in the United States wore yellow badges with the inscription “I am a Hindu”, on the floor of the Senate during the debate as a demonstration of their solidarity with the Hindu minority in Afghanistan.
Indian analyst Rahul Banerjee said that this was not the first time that Hindus were singled out for state-sponsored oppression in Afghanistan. Violence against Hindus has caused a rapid depletion in the Hindu population over the years. Since the 1990s, many Afghan Hindus have fled the country, seeking asylum in countries such as India, Germany and United States.
A 5th century marble Ganesha found in Gardez, Afghanistan, now at Dargah Pir Rattan Nath, Kabul. The inscription says that this “great and beautiful image of Mahavinayaka” was consecrated by the Shahi King Khingala.
* Picture: Daulat Raam and his family – one of only a handful of Hindu families in Kandahar at the end of 2002