AFGHANISTAN-INDIA: Afghan Sikh refugees want a slice of globalising India

AFGHANISTAN-INDIA: Afghan Sikh refugees want a slice of globalising India

December 14, 2006: Manmeet Kaur was four years old when her family fled Afghanistan. Today, this 18-year-old Afghan Sikh refugee calls Delhi her home, avidly watches ‘L’il Champs’ – a hugely popular show on one of India’s myriad satellite television channels for young, aspiring singers - and dreams of carving out a niche for herself. “Here, you have freedom! I would like to establish my own identity, achieve something in life and be self-reliant,” she said.

Manmeet is one among the 9,000-odd Afghan refugees in India, 90 percent of whom belong to Hindu or Sikh faiths - religious minorities in Afghanistan.

Physically Manmeet is in exile. But in words and attitude, the teenage girl is barely distinguishable from millions of urban youngsters in small towns and cities in the country readying themselves for a slice of the India’s burgeoning new economy of information technology, entertainment and lifestyle-related services.

“If I was in Afghanistan, I may not have been allowed to study further. My family would have been scared. One reads and hears of violence and insecurity there. Here, there are so many opportunities! I am improving my English, taking computer classes and learning music. Maybe, one day I will be a playback singer for Bollywood movies!” she said.

Kuljeet Kaur, Manmeet’s friend, who also attends computer classes and dresses like any other middle-class teenage girl in Delhi, wants a job in the front desk of a hotel or in a call centre. The 16-year-old keenly follows the goings-on in Afghanistan by watching world news on television and would love to visit Kabul one day, but only as a tourist, out of curiosity.

The here and now – such as the vocational classes run by Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society - are the immediate priorities. The Welfare Society, a Delhi-based NGO, is dedicated to the welfare of Afghan refugees who fled their homeland over the past few decades following the turbulent, and often violent events in that country. Most of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugees in India sought asylum after 1992, following the fall of the Najibullah regime.

“I vaguely remember our big garden in Jalalabad. My father was a businessman. We had a swimming pool. My teacher was very strict,” recalls 21-year-old Harmohan Singh, another Afghan Sikh refugee. Harmohan runs the Welfare Society’s “Self-Reliance Programme” in Delhi. The emphasis is on equipping the young refugees with skills that are in demand in India’s new economy.

From time to time, they organise contests between the various refugee settlements in Delhi and its neighbourhood to spur youngsters to work harder, adds Singh, who is preparing for a bachelor’s degree through a correspondence course. The qualification, he hopes, will get him closer to a “really good job in a good company in India.”

For the elders among the Afghan Sikh refugee community, mostly shopkeepers, India’s new economy is a world far removed from the one they left behind or the one they know best, but India - old and new - provides a better cultural fit than Afghanistan, they say.

Manmohan Singh, President of the Welfare Society, was among the first batch of Afghan Sikhs to leave Afghanistan for India. He came to Delhi in the late 1970s, leaving behind a flourishing business. Today, a part of him still lingers behind in the land of his birth. “I was born in Jalalabad in 1949, two years after India became independent. My parents came from Northwest Frontier, now in Pakistan. In my family, those who lived closer to the Indian border fled to India. My parents were close to the Afghanistan border and fled to Jalalabad…

On the wall in his office in West Delhi, there is a 1958 photograph of an Afghan Sikh delegation from Jalalabad who met Zahir Shah.

But photographs and mementoes are things of the past, admits the Welfare Society president. For most of the younger generation among the Afghan refugee community in India today, Afghanistan is increasingly a hazy memory and naturalised citizenship in India, the best long-term solution, he points out.

“We do not see the likelihood of many of these refugees going back to Afghanistan because of the enormous challenges facing education and healthcare in that country. More and more Afghan refugees are showing interest in becoming naturalised Indian citizens,” say officials from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Delhi. But the process is long and complicated. To be eligible, a refugee must have lived in India for 12 years or have been married to an Indian for seven years. The length of stay must be supported by documentation – a Residence Permit issued by the Indian government – for it to count towards naturalisation.

UNHCR's local partner, the Socio Legal Information Centre (SLIC), a Delhi-based NGO, has helped nearly 1,600 refugees to fill in application forms while the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society tries to push the process forward by lobbying the government. “We now have a whole generation of Afghan Sikh refugees who grew up in Delhi. Their future is in India,” says the Welfare Society’s Singh.



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