I have seen more than a few visitors to the city of Nankana Sahib become confused after interacting with the town’s Pashto-speaking Sikh community. Conventional history books and media portrayals have conditioned us to view Sikhs as a Punjabi people and Pashto speakers as Muslims. Most Pakistanis and Afghans I know are oblivious to the fact that the majority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus have been speaking Pashto and Dari as their first languages since long before the genesis of modern nation states in South Asia. Thus, I was excited to start reading Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a Thousand Years by Inderjeet Singh, hoping to understand more about the origins of a vibrant community that has largely been ignored by historical scholarship and is sadly now on the verge of extinction in Afghanistan.
To counter the modern view that Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are primarily the descendants of merchants who migrated from Punjab at the time of the Sikh empire’s expansion two centuries ago, the book starts with narratives from contemporary historical accounts that point towards the presence of large communities of Hindus residing in Afghanistan around the time of the first millennium AD. Singh offers historical evidence that Hindus served as officers as well as physicians at the court of Mahmud of Ghazni. The book also sheds light on other indigenous faiths that thrived at the time, indicating that Afghanistan was historically a region where diverse spiritual traditions interacted creatively with one another.
The book traces Afghanistan’s first contact with Sikhism to the travels of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith and the first of 10 gurus, as recorded in the Sikh Janamsakhi [birth stories] traditions. According to these, Guru Nanak passed through Balkh and Kabul in Afghanistan while on his travels during the reign of the Mughal emperor Babur. A stream near the Afghan city of Jalalabad marks the location where Guru Nanak and his companion Bhai Bala miraculously aided a local shepherd who was dying of thirst. At the Arghandab River, a Muslim fakir is said to have submitted to the wisdom of Guru Nanak’s spiritual message. The book also narrates stories of the Afghan devotees of the later Sikh gurus including Guru Amar Das, Guru Arjun, Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh.
A must-read for those among us willing to critically re-examine our ideas about the past, sets the record straight about a vibrant and often misunderstood community
I was inspired by the story of “Kabul Wali Mai”, an Afghan lady from Kabul who was a follower of the third Sikh guru. She led the Sikh spiritual centre at Kabul in the 16th century and rose to prominence through her devotion to public service. Modern generations of Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians should be able to look up to her as an example of a courageous woman who defied the patriarchal norms of her day to contribute to the wider society.
A chapter in the book on Sahajdhari Sikhs and dual-belief Hindus raises thought-provoking questions about modern Afghan Sikh identity. It focuses on the Sahajdharis, people of Hindu backgrounds who adopt the basic spiritual tenets of Sikhism without ascribing to the outward appearance of Sikhs. The book argues that while the Sahajdharis of Punjab were rapidly integrated into the fold of mainstream Sikhism within the last century, the boundaries between Sikh, Hindu and dual-belief Hindus remained fluid among the Afghans until recently. Perhaps because of their status as a tiny religious minority in Afghanistan, the country’s turbaned and non-turbaned Sikhs and Hindus maintained ties as a close-knit community who frequented each other’s places of worship.
In the preface to his book, Singh writes “I have resisted from providing any analysis and offering new theories as I want readers to form their own interpretations.” His book provides sufficient references from reliable primary sources to make the case that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus have as much right to be regarded as natives of Afghanistan as other communities. The book appreciates the complexity of their past by linking their origins to the broad networks of trade, diplomacy, politics and conquest prevalent in the region over the centuries. Singh hints that the history of Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs is as diverse as that of Afghanistan itself. However, as the majority of Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus do share last names with families residing in the subcontinent, I would have enjoyed reading more of the author’s subjective views on the patterns of migration that could explain their geography and demographics in Afghanistan.
Singh forces readers to reckon with entrenched ideas about religious and national identity. The most insightful chapters in the book are also the hardest to read. In these, the author discusses in painstaking detail the cycles of bullying, violence and majoritarian tyranny that forced the vast majority of Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus to leave their homeland after the 1980s. Pakistan still has a sizeable population of Hindus and Sikhs, many of whom are Pashto speakers with close ties to the Afghan Sikh and Hindu community. Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a Thousand Years is a must-read for those among us willing to critically re-examine our ideas about the past to build empathy, kindness and respect towards our Sikh and Hindu citizens.
The reviewer is founder of the Indus Heritage Club, an Islamabad-based travel company working to promote Pakistan as a destination for Sikh heritage tourism
Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a
By Inderjeet Singh
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 18th, 2019