Police investigators revealed this weekend that a group of 35 men, women and children found inside a shipping container at a port in Essex are understood to be Sikhs from Afghanistan.
The plight of these so-called ‘Afghan Sikhs’ was shocking to many, not least because Sikhs are not commonly associated with Afghanistan but also due the success and prosperity associated with the Diaspora Sikh community.
Sadly, this group of so-called Afghan Sikhs are the latest to leave a country that their ancestors first settled hundreds of years ago, joining a steady trickle of minorities fleeing persecution and discrimination in Afghanistan.
Many of the Sikhs (and Hindus) used to call cities like Ghazni, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Kabul were once extremely prosperous traders, bankers and moneylenders but have since fallen victim to the near-ceaseless turmoil that has gripped Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
From a high of more than 200,000 before the invasion, it is believed that less than 100 Sikh families currently remain in Afghanistan.
After the Russian military juggernaut retreated, having laid waste to vast swathes of the country, the American-backed Mujahedeen government took over and things began to deteriorate rapidly for Afghan Sikhs and other religious minorities, including the country’s sizeable Hindu community.
Sikh Gurdwara’s and Hindu temples were attacked and destroyed in apparent retatliation for an attack by Hindu extremists on the Babri Masjid mosque.
In 1996 the even more militant Taliban took over Afghanistan. They offered some stability after nearly two decades of brutal conflict but forced the Sikhs to go underground.
Prayers were held in secret. Girls were forced into secret schools. Religious burials were a particular problem. Their prosperity also meant that the Sikhs of Afghanistan were an easy target for the notorious kidnappers who raised money for the innumerable clans that governed their fractured country.
The exodus continued with many leaving for India whilst others sought asylum in Europe, North America and Australia, often by undertaking long arduous journeys that ended much like the one taken by those who were put inside a shipping container at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge and discovered at Tilbury Docks, east of London.
London, in fact, is home to a sizeable Afghan Sikh community: many are well-established traders in Southall.
The highlands of Afghanistan have for centuries been home to Sikhs who established trading routes from their ancestral homes in present day Punjab right the way up to Central Asia: from Shikarpur in present day Sindh (in Pakistan) all the way to Turkestan, in contemporary Tajikistan), the Northwest Frontier Province to southern Iraq.
Whilst some scholars maintain that the first Afghan Sikh immigrated from India proper, others posit they are part of the indigenous population who aligned themselves with the teachings of the founder of Sikhism who is believed to have travelled extensively throughout the region and beyond.
Following the partition of India in 1947, whilst many Sikhs fled present day Pakistan, many others, particularly in the regions surrounding the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) decided to stay put having faced no recriminatory attacks by Muslims.
However, the rapid Islamization of the region post-Partition soon began to threaten their lives and livelihoods. As a result, some chose to move east to India, whilst others chose to travel westwards across the border to join their well established peers in Afghanistan.
The country, whilst never having enjoyed any notable economic prosperity, nevertheless enjoyed more than four decades of relative stability under the learned and urbane Mohammed Zahir Shah who ruled from 1933 to 1973.
Following the ouster of Shah in a military coup and the arrival of the soviets later that decades resulted in relative stability for the Sikhs as the communist Russian occupiers forbade any form of discrimination on the grounds of religion.
The triumph of the Mujahedeen however, meant another epoch of struggle for the Sikhs. At first they fell victim to the destruction that was brought on by the ferocious fighting between the various militant clans and groups that vied for control of different parts of Afghanistan.
The groups’ hardline Islam also meant that the tolerance that had been practiced under Zahir Shah and the Russians also began to evaporate.
Hence even though the arrival of the Taliban was welcomed by most Afghans who yearned for some semblance of stability, it would prove to be the death knell of the country’s Sikh community.
The Taliban not only enthusiastically imposed often barbaric punishments on all those whom they considered to have violated their austere interpretations of Islam, they also took the view that infidels and idolaters had no place in the Islamic ‘paradise’ they were attempting to construct in Afghanistan.
Muslims at large were ordered to stop using Sikh shops and ever more efforts were made to convert Sikhs to Islam with encouragement giving way to verbal threats and eventually, kidnappings and murder.
The overthrow of the Taliban by the American-led coalition in 2002 brought some respite to Afghanistan’s Sikhs. Some Sikhs – much like Afghan Muslims and Hindus – even began returning to Afghanistan.
Asylum seekers in Britain and elsewhere were told that they had no grounds to seek refuge in the west as circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan had “improved significantly”.
The stability however, proved to be a mere honeymoon.
The departure of coalition forces from Afghanistan in recent years has meant that that historically familiar sense of foreboding has returned for the handful of Sikhs who remain in the country.
Many campaign groups in Europe and elsewhere say that the situation for minorities in Afghanistan remains bleak: a stance that will doubtless help in those found at Tilbury docks gaining asylum in the UK.
According to some estimates, these individuals would have each paid more than £10,000 to human traffickers for the long and arduous journey to Britain, through Iran, Central Asia and Europe.
For a community that has lived in Afghanistan since before the arrival of Islam, the struggle to live and work in their home continues. And the exodus will only continue.