India is home to about 9,000 Afghan refugees, most of them Afghan Hindus and Sikhs who have shown interest in applying for Indian citizenship. But because the process is tedious, many find it hard to land gainful jobs.
An Afghan Sikh family sits near Bukhari during a prayer in a temple in Kabul
Sixty-two year old Ardit Singh fled Kabul in 1992 for Delhi, after the fall of the Moscow backed-government and soon after civil war erupted. At that time, he says there were around 20,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan. After the Taliban took over in 1997, there was a greater exodus, and today only a few hundred Hindus and Sikhs are left in Afghanistan.
Ardit Singh says he has had a tough time getting Indian citizenship. 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 naturalization.
"There are so many who are poor and many have not got citizenship," says Ardit Singh. "I applied for one in 2003 and applied personally. I applied for four people in my family. My daughter, son and I have got it but not my wife. There are many cases like this."
Kandahar is considered a stronghold of the Taliban
Support from NGOs
Many of the Afghan Sikhs who fled to India owned farm lands, vineyards, big houses and were a thriving business community in east Afghanistan. But now, hundreds of families find they cannot even conduct a legitimate business because of their indeterminate status.
At a non-governmental organization set up in 1998 by Sikhs from Afghanistan, Singh tries to help the poorer families. "We have opened up the Khalsa Diwan for educating poor children. We pay for their school fees through this organization. The Khalsa Diwan is old, it was there also in Afghanistan."
The never ending wait
The incredibly long process for citizenship deters many from applying. Once an application for naturalization is filed, the applicant is not allowed to leave India until the end of the process. There are some families where the women have applied and the men have not, keeping open their option to return to Afghanistan should the opportunity arise.
"The process is slightly long," explains Nayana Bose from the UN refugee agency UNHCR. "It takes on an average 2 to 3 years after the forms have been submitted because it has to go through various government authorities – at the Delhi level, the district and central level and so on."
Many Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are disappointed with the Indian government
Desire to become Indian
Assimilation to Indian society is easier for the refugees. There is a greater sense of identity being familiar with the language and culture.
Narender Singh, who fled Kandahar after the Taliban takeover, says many families have stayed afloat in India through sheer determination. "Our community has worked hard. We are not scared of anything. Be it day or night, we can toil and take on any work. We have been here for 18 years, I have not asked for alms. But I am disappointed with the Indian government."
Though many refugees still cherish memories of the famous dry fruits and the streets of Kabul, most have decided to make India their home. Their only desire is to become Indian citizens.
Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Grahame Lucas