The recent discovery of 35 men, women and children in a shipping container at Tilbury docks in Essex is shocking for many reasons. Few had known that people were being brought into the UK in shipping containers and even fewer knew the kind of dangers these people face in the process. But it has also brought a little-known community to public attention – the Afghan Sikhs.
Questions are now being asked about who this group is and why they would risk death to flee their country. The truth is, Afghan Sikhs have been persecuted for decades. In the past they were pushed to convert to Islam and, these days they face threats of kidnapping for money.
The Afghan Sikhs are indeed a small community, but they are well established. One of the few pieces of research about them explains how this group has maintained a presence in Afghanistan for more than 500 years.
The majority are the descendants of members of the indigenous Afghan population who aligned themselves with the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, during his visits to Kabul in the 15th century. The Afghan Sikh population grew in 1947 as Sikhs from the Potohar region of the newly formed Pakistan arrived fleeing persecution following the partition of India.
There was a Sikh and Hindu population of as much as a quarter of a million people in Afghanistan in the early 1940s. Both religions were well represented in trade and government administration. The Sikhs particularly prospered during the 1933-1973 reign of Zakir Shah and during the strongly secular period of Soviet rule.
But the withdrawal of the Russian forces and arrival of the Mujahedeen placed the Sikhs of Afghanistan in severe difficulty. Their situation became worse still when the Taliban swept to power in 1994.
Hindus and Sikhs were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing and, research suggests, “ever more vigorous efforts” were made to convert them to Islam. They were required to make financial contributions to the jihad and threats to their families if they didn’t.
In a 2010 interview with the BBC World Service, Afghan Sikh Anarkali Kaur described how her community had significantly dwindled in numbers since 1991, with only 3,000 people remaining. A mass exodus of Sikhs from Afghanistan had begun in 1992 and continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s as a result of the persecution of non-Muslims by the Taliban.
One of the biggest problems faced by Afghan Sikhs when trying to assert their rights is that Afghans regularly view them as immigrants from India. They have struggled to articulate their status and not been able protect their rights.
The personal security of Hindus and Sikhs in general remains a problem in Afghanistan, especially in the form of kidnap threats from unknown gunmen who believe that all Sikhs and Hindus are rich (even if most of their businesses have now closed down).
The problems faced by Afghan Sikhs in their country has caused them to leave for some years and fresh instability has left them vulnerable again. There is a growing presence of Afghan Sikhs in a number of European countries as a result, including Sweden and the UK. The Afghan Sikh community in Britain is largely concentrated in Southall, West London, where its members have established the gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar (Afghan Ekta Society). Viewing Afghanistan as their homeland and speaking Pasto and Dari, the Afghan Sikh community differs in a number of ways from the mainly Punjabi speaking Sikh community which settled in the UK throughout the 20th century.
We do not know if this is where the people found in the shipping container in Essex were heading. One of these people died and will never make it to his destination and it is unclear what will happen to those that survived. These are a people indigenous to Afghanistan but with the decades of repression they have faced and a struggle to assert their heritage, it’s little wonder they don’t want to go back.
Dr Jasjit Singh is a postdoctoral research fellow based at the University of Leeds. His research focuses on the religious lives of British South Asians, in particular young British Sikhs.