Sanmeet Kaur shares her personal experiences of life as an Afghan Sikh in the UK
When you type the words ‘Afghan Sikh’ into a search engine, you will most likely be presented with the following headlines: ‘Why are Afghan Sikhs desperate to flee to the UK?’ ‘Afghan Sikhs: one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world’. In August 2014 the plight of this small community hit national headlines when thirty-five immigrants were discovered stowed in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks in Essex. One man was found dead whilst others were taken to hospital suffering from severe dehydration and hypothermia. I remember reading the story and feeling a horror that I hadn’t felt in a while. It was reminiscent of my own journey to the UK. A story of being stowed away in similar circumstances and being detained even though we had committed no crime other than to run from the devastation orchestrated by the very countries now desperately trying to close their borders. This is the story of my people and it is one that remains largely untold.
Growing up in the UK, I always struggled to understand my heritage. How could I be Afghan if the majority of the Afghans were Muslim? How could I be Afghan if I spoke Punjabi, a language spoken by Sikhs with its roots in India? If religion played such a huge factor in deciding which diaspora I belonged to, it made most sense for me to turn to the Punjabi community as we shared the same faith of Sikhism. However I found this was complicated by the fact that my spoken Punjabi did not match theirs. Unlike most Sikhs, Afghan Sikhs speak a unique dialect known as ‘Kabli’, which is an amalgamation of Persian Dari and Punjabi. Over time I learnt to stop looking outwards and to instead focus on the Afghan Sikh diaspora as one that stood its own ground. I came to realise that the Afghan Sikh community faced dual persecution as Afghans fleeing decades of wars waged on their land and as Sikhs fleeing religious persecution as one of the smallest religious minorities in the country.
My family came to the UK when I was 5 years old and growing up I did my best to ‘assimilate’. Until recently I hardly ever thought about my background. I was too busy trying to be ‘British’. I would insist on only listening to English music, refuse to go to Southall because it was full of ‘freshies’ and hated every time I had to wear traditional clothes. As I reached my twenties and became to question my identity and place in the world, it struck me that nobody knew about my people.
Having studied history at university, I threw myself into research but was disappointed to find little other than a few articles on our journeys to the West. To the outside world it is almost as if we didn’t exist until we landed here. My questions about my community’s history remain largely unanswered. For now, I have only the stories that my family recount to me. Often these stories speak of events that affected the Sikh community as a whole, such as the 1984 Sikh massacre in India. My dad recalls how the murder of thousands of Sikhs in their own homeland affected those outside of India and hardened the perception of the Indian state as one that does little to respect minority rights.
At other times, his anecdotes are unique to the Afghan diaspora. For example, one of my favourite facts about my dad is that he can speak Russian. My dad was 10 years old when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. His most formative years were spent under Soviet rule so it came as no surprise when he reached working age that he took frequent trips to Moscow where he worked in the trading industry. Quite amusingly, to my grandparents’ generation the word ‘Russian’ is synonymous with ‘foreign’ so whenever I speak English around them, I’m often asked to translate from ‘Russian’ to ‘Kabli’.
As a religious minority in Afghanistan, Sikhs face severe persecution. Treated as second-class citizens, few attend mainstream school and many frequently face verbal and physical attacks, their un-cut hair and proud turbans instantly marking them out as different. As a teenager, my mum recalls going to the Gurdwara on Vaisakhi, a key event in the Sikh calendar, when the Afghan guardsmen at the gates revealed the guns hidden underneath their shawls and began to indiscriminately shoot at the crowd. She had grabbed her baby brother and lay on the ground pretending to be dead. I have tried to search for any official recording of these events but again nothing appears. Their suffering does not exist on paper.
That is not to say the good times did not exist. For me, my parents’ wedding video is perhaps the best testament to this. My parents got married in Gurdwara Karte Parwan, one of the few Sikh temples remaining in Kabul. Neighbours, both Muslim and Hindu, came along to festivities held at my grandparents’ house. My favourite image of Kabul is that of a car adorned with flowers driving my parents home from the Gurdwara, with the Hindu Kush Mountains visible in the background and the popular 1992 Bollywood song ‘Kabhi Bhoola Kabhi Yaad Kiya’ accompanying the scene.
The Afghan Civil War (1989-1992) and the advent of the Mujahedeen and later the Taliban, brought along a new wave of persecution and terror that would see hundreds of Sikhs fleeing their homes. The horrors of the war had been accompanied by a rise of fundamentalist ideology, which forced many to mark themselves as different in public. Although the rights of minority religions are protected under the Afghan constitution, the Taliban made Sikhs and Hindus publicly identify themselves by wearing yellow patches on their clothing as well as having to mark their homes, businesses and places of worship with a yellow flag.
In the years since my family left, the rising intolerance towards the minority group has seen attacks on the Sikh funeral custom of cremation. As cremation is a practice forbidden in Islam, Sikh funerals have been a focal point of dispute, with protestors frequently disrupting funeral processions. Alongside this homes and land have been illegally confiscated, leaving an already weakened community facing near-extinction. Although no official census exists, community leaders estimate that in the 1990s nearly 50,000 Sikhs lived in Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 400 families remain.
As the refugee crisis came to the fore in 2015 I remember watching in despair at the humanity afforded to the most vulnerable minorities in our country. Afghan refugees in particular are amongst those now most likely to have their requests for asylum rejected. Although the country is now deemed ‘safe’ by the Home Office, a UN report released in July 2017 revealed that the number of civilian deaths in the Afghan war has reached a record high, with the Taliban’s homemade bombs resulting in 40% of civilian causalities in just the first sixth months of 2017. For minority groups such as the Afghan Sikhs, this is compounded by the fact that their religion makes them an instant target for other forms of violence. In 2012 the Guardian reported on the distressing case of 23-year-old Afghan Sikh, Baljit Singh, who was deported to Afghanistan by the British government. Upon arrival he was taken aside by Afghan officials and imprisoned for 18 months without a conviction. His crime, he was told informally, was that he was falsely claiming to be Afghan. In prison he was verbally and physically attacked; his turban kicked off his head and at one point he even had boiling water thrown in his face. After months of appeals, he was finally allowed to return to the UK.
In Britain, the majority of Afghan Sikhs live in London and often come together in Southall, where the local Gurdwaras act as a focal point. The customs of home have continued into a foreign land. At weddings Afghan music blasts from the speakers and guests wear a mixture of traditional Indian and Afghan clothing. At home we regularly eat Afghan food including ‘bolani’, a baked flatbread with a vegetable filling, to my favourite, ‘mantu’, a meat-stuffed dumpling. My dad still listens to the songs of Ahmad Zahir, a popular Afghan singer often referred to as the ‘The Elvis of Afghanistan’ whose gravestone was reportedly destroyed by the Taliban shortly after they seized Kabul in 1996. As much as I grew up confused about my Afghan heritage, all these things make it hard for me to reject my roots.
When a close family member passed away last year, one of the first thoughts that ran through my mind was that he never had the chance to return to his homeland. He left Afghanistan not knowing he would never return. But his story lives on through us: the Afghan Sikh community.
The account is of Sanmeet Kaur who is a recent history graduate and aspiring writer from London. She has written for gal-dem zine and enjoys all things books, politics and intersectional feminism. Twitter: @sanmeeet