Afghanistan is an Islamic country, predominantly Sunni (with a 15 percent minority of Shi’a), of 30 million people, but against all odds, some 2,000 Hindus and Sikhs have survived in the country, reports German scholar Manfred Hutter (Bonn University) in an article in Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft (dated 2009/2, but actually published this summer).
These two religions have a long history behind them, but their future in Afghanistan looks uncertain. While there had been a strong Hindu (and Buddhist) presence in Afghanistan in the first millennium, the advance of Islam had erased it entirely. A permanent Hindu presence started again in the 18th century, not without a number of restrictions. After 1945, these were removed and both Hindus and Sikhs could prosper with their own community networks and places of worship, as well as having regular contacts with India. In the early 1990s, at the end of the civil war that had started with the Soviet intervention, there were some 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, mostly in cities.
A peculiarity of Afghan Hinduism is veneration of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, considered as a Hindu saint, thus encouraging Sikhs to visit Hindu temples on occasion. There were already some signs of hostility against Hindus and Sikhs in, for instance, the attack by mujahideen against the Sikh temple of Jalalabad in 1989 (57 people killed). When the mujahideen came to power in 1992, the situation started to worsen for religious minorities. Echoes of Hindu activism in India (e.g. the destruction of Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992) reinforced such tendencies and were used to legitimize anti-Hindu actions by Islamic militants.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, persecution became even fiercer and increasing numbers of Hindus and Sikhs saw no other way but exile. When the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, no more than 1,000 Hindus were left in the country. Some returned in the following years. However, the fall of the Taliban has not meant a return to the pre1992 situation. The 2004 Constitution states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” and that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.”
Hindus and Sikhs experience various restrictions, for instance in the exercise of their funeral rituals. Conversions to Islam are encouraged, while there are difficulties in educational and professional areas. Not being able to enjoy the same rights as Muslim citizens, Hindus and Sikhs who had fled from Afghanistan feel reluctant to return, despite important Indian investments (and strategic interests) in the country, and tend to settle permanently in India or in the West: today there are six Afghan-Hindu temples in Germany.
(Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, diagonal-Verlag, Alte Kasseler Strasse 43, 35039 Marburg, Germany; http://www.diagonalverlag.de)