Human rights continued to deteriorate, as government officials, security forces, local militias, and militant groups were all responsible for committing gross human rights abuses in violation of international law. The plight of minorities and women was particularly concerning, as these vulnerable groups remained marginalized and subjected to violence, discriminatory laws, and social prejudice and harassment. Freedom House gave Afghanistan a ‘not free’ designation and noted that the Hindu and Sikh community “has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its former size due to emigration in recent decades.” (Freedom House, 2020)

Although the Afghan government has granted Hindus and Sikhs public lands for cremating their dead and assured security, cremations continue to be attacked. Hindu and Sikh children are harassed and bullied in school for their religious beliefs. Parents hesitate to send their daughters out alone because of fears that they may be kidnapped and forcefully married to a Muslim.

Hindus and Sikhs have also been targeted in multiple terrorist attacks. On March 25, 2020, a six-hour long terrorist siege at a Kabul Sikh temple killed 25 people and injured eight. This large-scale massacre came less than two years after a convoy of Hindu/Sikh leaders were attacked by a suicide bomber in Jalalabad on July 1, 2018 that killed 19 and injured 10. These incidents led Hindus and Sikhs to leave the country, and following the March 2020 attack, at least 180-190 more fled to India (some sources put the number higher), leaving only a few hundred Hindus and Sikhs left in the country. In December 2019, the Afghan government issued national identity cards called tazkera to émigré Hindus and Sikhs in order to facilitate their travels back to Afghanistan, as well as to help them sell their remaining properties. (Basu, 2019)

Hindu and Sikh refugees in India still face socio-economic challenges, while asylum seekers in Europe continue to face the specter of deportation. Several advocacy groups, including HAF, have been advocating for the U.S. to provide refugee/asylum protection to Afghan Hindus/Sikhs.

History / Background

Throughout its history, Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of civilizations and empires emanating from the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and Central Asia. It has seen the growth and establishment of various religions including early Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam, though at this juncture the country is predominantly Muslim.  (Dalyrmple, 2013)

Notwithstanding the recent decline, Afghanistan is considered one of the oldest centers of Hindu civilization and was once home to a thriving Hindu population. Hindu/Vedic history in Afghanistan dates back thousands of years with some of the earliest settlements of people now identified as Hindus. Moreover, archaeologists have found remains of several ancient temples and numerous icons of Hindu deities throughout the country. (Kochhar, 2000) A Hindu tribe, known as the Daasa, lived in Afghanistan in the third millennium BCE. (Akkoor, 2011)

Between the second and seventh centuries CE, Afghanistan was a center of Buddhism that incorporated many aspects of Hinduism, and from the end of the sixth century CE to the end of tenth century CE, the “Hindu Shahis,” a series of small dynasties of Hindu faith, ruled Kabul and most of southeastern Afghanistan. (Akkoor, 2011) Muslim expansion into Afghanistan began in the seventh century CE and eventually supplanted the Hindu Shahis entirely by the end of the tenth century. (Asa’Mai Hindu Temple, n.d.)

Sikhs have lived in Afghanistan for more than 500 years and are descendants of the earliest converts to Sikhism who were moved by the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and the religion’s founder. (The Conversation, 2014) A large number of Sikhs also migrated to Afghanistan in 1947, fearing religious persecution in the newly created Pakistan’s Potohar region after the partition of British India. (The Conversation, 2014) Both communities were historically present all over Afghanistan, especially in the cities of Nangarhar, Logan, Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul and Kandahar. (Dixit, 2019)

Hindus and Sikhs established themselves as merchants and money lenders, as well as dominated the niche business of selling herbal remedies, known as Greek or Yunani medicine. (Shalizi, 2016) After a period of prosperity from the 1930s until the 1980s,  Hindus and Sikhs began to emigrate abroad during the civil war that began under Soviet occupation and escalated through the early 1990s. (Najibullah, 2014) Before 1992  there were approximately 220,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan. (Tolo News, 2016)

The current exodus, however, began with the arrival of the Taliban regime, which forced Sikhs and Hindus to wear yellow patches as visible identifying markers in public, thus rendering them vulnerable to social ostracization. (Arbabzadah, 2010) The regime also banned non-Muslims from holding any public office. (Sharma, 2016) The migration continued after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban regime, despite a few families having returned to Afghanistan. (Friel, 2007) The external migration to India, the historical homeland of Sikhs and Hindus, as well as European countries, especially the UK, Germany, and Sweden, was accompanied by an internal migration to a few major cities in Afghanistan.

Although their exact numbers are not known at present and there are varied estimates, it is evident that the intertwined communities of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have nearly disappeared. For instance, the U.S. Department of State estimated that only 1,300 Hindus and Sikhs, comprising 245 families (0.3 percent of the total Afghan population) still remained in Afghanistan in 2018, (U.S. Department of State, 2018) while 200 Hindus/Sikhs fled the country in 2019. (U.S. Department of State, 2019)

The shrinking number of places of worship, specifically Hindu mandirs and Sikh gurdwaras (the community often shares a worship space), further reveal how the minority is disappearing. Estimates range from only two operational gurdwaras and one mandir to twelve gurdwaras and four mandirs remaining in the country. (U.S. Department of State, 2018; U.S. Department of State, 2019; Wyeth, 2018) The remaining functioning gurdwaras and mandirs often serve as a refuge where poor Sikh and Hindu families live. (Wyeth, 2018)

The most prominent Hindu mandir is the Asamai temple located at the Koh-i-Asamai hill in Kabul, which is believed by Hindus to have an uninterrupted diya (sacred votive flame) for 4,000 years when Hinduism was the dominant religion of Afghanistan. (IANS, 2005) The intertwined nature of the Hindu and Sikh community is demonstrated by the temple’s enshrined holy scripture, the Bhagawad Gita, being in the Sikh ecclesiastical language of Gurmukhi. (Shukla, 2019)The temple was looted and burned during the 1990s civil war and reopened after the Taliban regime fell in 2001. (Pitzer, 2001) Although the Afghan government allocated $650,000 in 2020 for renovating gurdwaras and mandirs across Afghanistan, given the small size and location of the community in just two cities, more is required to protect the safety and security of these temples. (WION, 2020)

Status of Human Rights, 2019-2020

Religious Freedom

While the post-Taliban Afghan constitution of 2004 theoretically grants Hindus and Sikhs the same human and civil rights as other Afghans, Article 2 declares Islam as the “sacred religion” of the State, while Article 3 states, “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” (The Constitution of Afghanistan, 2004)

Although the Constitution also provides that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law,” (The Constitution of Afghanistan, 2004) this provision is meaningless as it contradicts and is subordinate to the Articles providing preference to Islam. Moreover, the Constitution explicitly fails to protect the individual right to freedom of religion and provides that “fundamental rights can be superseded by ordinary legislation.” (The Constitution of Afghanistan, 2004)

Afghanistan has further criminalized apostasy (conversion) and blasphemy as capital crimes, (U.S. Department of State, 2019) which makes the risks of any public display of non-Islamic religions, let alone any proselytizing efforts, prohibitive. These laws are often enforced through mob justice. (Freedom House, 2020) There are several other discriminatory laws in place, including restricting the official registration of marriages to Muslims only, unless non-Muslims either utilize a Muslim marriage ceremony or refrain from publicly expressing their faith. (Freedom House, 2020)

In addition, the legal system restricts certain federal public offices, such as the Presidency, to Muslims, while all federal ministers must swear an oath to “protect the Holy religion of Islam.” (The Constitution of Afghanistan, 2004) Similarly, members of the Supreme Court must swear to “attain justice and righteousness in accordance with tenets of the Holy religion of Islam…” (The Constitution of Afghanistan, 2004)

A report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees noted that judges often use Hanafi Sunni Islamic jurisprudence to guide them in situations where the Constitution or codified laws do not apply, even when a matter involves religious minorities and women. (UNHCR, 2018)

The few legal protections that do theoretically exist in the Constitution have been inadequate in protecting the rights of minorities to practice their faith freely and openly. For instance, the legal system has failed to prevent the illegal appropriation of Hindu and Sikh properties, and they do not even approach the justice system for redress when such appropriation is initiated by politically powerful individuals. (U.S. Department of State, 2018)

Social & Institutional Discrimination

Social prejudice and institutional discrimination against non-Muslims is commonplace in Afghanistan. Hindus and Sikhs, for instance, face societal hostility, harassment, poverty and unemployment, discrimination, and are particularly vulnerable as small non-Muslim minorities. (Aqa, 2014) Government authorities and law enforcement officials have failed to protect Hindus and Sikhs from such harassment and discrimination.

The small Hindu and Sikh minority has faced pressure from both the Taliban and ISIS. In Lashkargah in Helmand province, for example, Hindus and Sikhs have faced incessant threats from the Taliban and demands for extortion money.

The treatment of Hindus and Sikhs by other Afghans has deteriorated over the years. At present, most Sikh men hide their distinctive traditional turbans in public and Hindu and Sikh women go out in public wearing burqas in order to avoid harassment by Muslims. (U.S. Department of State, 2018) The community’s children do not attend public schools because they are bullied for not being Muslims. (Dixit, 2019) Cremating the dead, a core tenet of Hindu and Sikh beliefs, remains controversial because Islam prohibits cremation: thus, funerals face threats and attacks to an extent that the government allocated land for cremation grounds distant from urban areas and provides police protection. (U.S. Department of State, 2018)

In terms of political representation, certain government positions are still restricted to Muslims, such as the Presidency and all Federal Ministers who must swear an oath to defend Islam. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2004) Although Hindus and Sikhs can be directly elected to political office, this has taken place only once when Dr. Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh dentist, became the first non-Muslim woman elected to the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly) in 2010. (Mustafi, 2010) The other route to political office is through by appointment. For example, President Hamid Karzai appointed Ganga Ram, a Hindu, as a member of the Meshrano Jirga (the upper house of the National Assembly) in 2010. (Sharma, 2016) And Dr. Honaryar was also appointed to the Loya Jirga, the Afghan grand council, which was formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 in order to choose an interim government. (Mustafi, 2010)

To increase the political representation of its minorities, Afghanistan created one reserved seat in its parliament (of 250 members) for Hindus and Sikhs in 2016. The reservation was established after years of appeals by the community and efforts to block it by various legislators. (Sharma, 2016)

Extremism & Sectarian Violence

Alongside daily harassment and discrimination, the primary and lethal threat comes from violent attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups. Several attacks and attempted attacks have been carried by the Islamic State on Hindus and Sikhs in the past two years.

On March 25, 2020, a six-hour siege by ISIS terrorists of a prayer meeting being held at a Kabul gurdwara led to the death of 25 people, which included one Muslim, several women and a child. (Mashal & Abed, 2020) There had also been other failed and attempted attacks, which included a failed bomb explosion during a public cremation ceremony and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) placed near a gurdwara that was discovered before it exploded. (Tanzeem, 2020) During this time, members of the community also received threatening phone calls from persons claiming to belong to ISIS who told them to leave Afghanistan within ten days or face more such attacks. (Hindustan Times, 2020)

And previously on July 1, 2018, ISIS launched a suicide terror attack on a convoy of Hindu and Sikh community leaders who had gathered to meet President Ashraf Ghani in Jalalabad. The attack killed 19 people and wounded 10 others. (BBC, 2018) Among the dead were Avtar Singh Khalsa, a Sikh man who was running in the parliamentary elections of October 2018, as well as Rawail Singh, a civil society leader of the community. (Ghazi & Mashal, 2018)

While ISIS, formally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—Khorasan Province (ISKP), claimed responsibility for these terror attacks on Hindus and Sikhs, intelligence reports point to the involvement and logistical support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as ISI sponsored groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban; and the Haqqani network. (Anand, 2020; Baghchi, 2020) The motives for such an attack were allegedly the religious riots in India that occurred after the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which extends a path to citizenship for persecuted non-Muslim minorities who sought asylum in India prior to 2015 from the surrounding countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. (Baghchi, 2020)

The following are just a few examples of other recent incidents targeting Hindus and Sikhs:

  • Nidan Singh Sachdeva, a community leader, was kidnapped in Chamkani, Paktia province on June 22, 2020 and wasn’t released until July 18. (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 2020)
  • A Hindu woman identified by her first name Pardika, who had recently returned from a trip to India, was robbed and brutally stabbed to death in February, 2020. (Sadat, 2020)
  • Police were accused of neglecting the investigation of the kidnapping and murder of Arjit Singh, a twenty year old shopkeeper who the police buried without identification in Kabul’s municipal cemetery in March 2019. (Shaheed, 2019)
  • Kulraj Singh was kidnapped for ransom by the Taliban and held captive at a site within Kabul for forty days: after being released, he fled to India with the help of the Hindu and Sikh community. (Rana, 2015)

Although Afghan political leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani, have offered public support and promised justice for the Hindu and Sikh community in the aftermath of violent attacks (Ashrafi, 2018; Press Trust of India, 2018), the government and law enforcement have repeatedly failed to provide adequate security and protection to Hindus and Sikhs.


Despite suffering religious persecution in Afghanistan and meeting the criteria for refugee status under international law, Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have faced several challenges in Europe and North America. For example, Germany deported a Hindu, Samir Narang, back to Afghanistan in 2017, which led to demonstrations by the Afghan Hindu and Sikh community in the city of Cologne. (Deutsche Welle, 2017) Similarly, the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s policy recently stated that the community neither faced a risk of “persecution or ill-treatment” that would “entitle them to grant of international protection” nor did the “cumulative impact of discrimination” reach “the threshold of persecution.” (United Kingdom Home Office, 2019)

On a positive note, in 2019, after persistent appeals by Sikh organizations, Canada approved the emigration of Hindus and Sikhs only under the assurance that refugees would be sponsored by private individuals who would assume legal responsibility and support the refugees’ resettlement process. (News Agencies, 2018; Sikh Channel, 2019) Several Hindu and Sikh organizations, including HAF, are also seeking asylum status for Afghan Hindus and Sikhs in the United States by advocating to Congress and the State Department. (Donati & Amiri, 2020) The President can pass an Executive Order granting asylum to these groups.

By and large, the vast majority of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have fled to India, where they have also faced socio-economic challenges such as admitting their children in public schools and buying homes. (Press Trust of India, 2019)

Conditions are expected to improve for those refugees who arrived in India prior to 2015 with an expedited path to citizenship under India’s CAA. And on July 18, 2020, the Indian government announced that it would grant legal entry and asylum to any Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and other persecuted religious minorities currently fleeing Afghanistan.  (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 2020) At least 180-190 Afghan Hindus and Sikhs have thus far fled to India in 2020 (some groups assert the number is higher), though the current status of their visas is not clear. Moreover, it is critical that the government provides infrastructure and/or works with NGOs to provide housing, health/medical care, and other assistance to the refugees.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Given the current state of security and instability in Afghanistan, conditions for minorities remain precarious. The legal system’s clear preference for Islam and Muslims further subordinates the rights of minorities, leaving them increasingly vulnerable.  Moreover, they are at continued risk of violence, leaving them in a state of fear and insecurity and forcing many to flee to other countries. As a result of legal discrimination, social prejudice, harassment, and recent violent attacks, the dwindling Hindu/Sikh community is on the verge of extinction, with only a few hundred Hindus and Sikhs remaining in the country.

The Afghan government must therefore:

  • Work to reform its legal system and constitution, with assistance from international legal experts, to provide greater safeguards for religious freedom and human rights.
  • Provide greater security and support for those remaining Hindus and Sikhs to allow them to worship freely and without fear of violence, harassment, forced conversions, and societal discrimination.
  • Ensure the protection, preservation, and repair (with government allocated funds when necessary) of Hindu and Sikh religious sites and crematoriums.

The international community also has an important role to play in assisting Afghanistan, especially with the impending withdrawal of US and NATO troops from the country. Furthermore, the US and other countries, including India, should continue to invest in developing Afghanistan’s civil society, infrastructure, and democratic institutions. The US should also ensure that any agreement that results from the ongoing peace process between the US, NATO, Afghan Government and the Taliban includes guarantees for the rights and safety of religious minorities and women, and the protection of non-Muslim religious sites.

Finally, those countries that have Afghan Hindu and SIkh refugee populations must provide legal status, a pathway to citizenship, and socio-economic assistance.


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Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Type of Government
Unitary Presidential Republic

652,230 sq km


Official Religion

Religious Demography
Muslim (80% Sunni; 10-19% Shi’a, including Ismailis), 98.99%
Other (Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian), >1%

Ethnic Groups
Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, other (includes smaller numbers of Baloch, Turkmen, Nuristani, Pamiri, Arab, Gujar, Brahui, Qizilbash, Aimaq, Pashai, and Kyrghyz).

Note: current statistical data on the sensitive subject of ethnicity in Afghanistan is unavailable, and ethnicity data from small samples of respondents to opinion polls are not a reliable alternative. 

Afghan Persian or Dari (official language, although much of the population is bilingual), 50%
Pashto (official language), 35%
Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen), 11%
Thirty minor languages (primarily Balochu and Pashai; Kabli, a dialect of Punjabi that is the primary language of Afghan Sikhs), 4%

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