IWPR, July 28, 2011
Afghan Sikhs and Hindus Face Discrimination at School
But is separate schooling the right solution?
By Hejratullah Ekhtiyar
Afghan education officials have promised to take action after members of the small Hindu and Sikh communities said their children were being forced to drop out of state schools because of bullying. Opinion is divided, however, on whether separate minority schools are the best way forward.
“When our children go to the government schools, they face problems,” Ravinder Singh, a Sikh community leader in the capital Kabul, said. “The children of our Muslim brothers don’t know who we are. They hate our children. For instance, some of them cut off our children’s hair, while others make fun of them. They regard them as strangers, not as Afghans.”
Given its proximity to India, Afghanistan historically had substantial Hindu and Sikh minorities, estimated at 20,000 before the factional civil war in 1992-96, followed by Taleban rule under which they were subject to discrimination rules.
With most community members long gone, the total number of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan is now estimated at around 3,000.
Ravinder Singh said between 500 and 550 children in Nangarhar, Helmand, Kandahar, Ghazni, Baghlan, Laghman and Kunar provinces were being deprived of an education because of bullying.
He emphasised that in other areas of life, such as dealing with government offices, Sikhs and Hindus did not face discrimination – it was only among schoolchildren.
“We have good relations with other Afghans. We share their joys and sorrows,” he said. “I ask my Muslim brothers and sisters, parents in particular, to bring up their children not to mistreat or insult Hindu children in the schools or on the streets.”
“I used to go to the Muslims’ school, but I left. There were lots of Muslims and they made fun of us,” nine-year-old Kuljit Singh said. He attends a Sikh prayer house in the southeastern city of Jalalabad that has been turned into an unofficial school.
Another pupil, Jagjeet Singh, 11, described similar experiences, saying, “Many of our children stop going to school after going for a few days, because the other students harass them, cut their hair and even beat them. They don’t respect us.”
Jagjeet’s horizons have been limited by dropping out – after completing sixth grade at the informal school, he will not have any recognised qualifications and will be unable to study anywhere else.
“I want to become a shopkeeper,” he said.
Ikbal Singh, who runs the teaching facility, wants the government to set up fully-recognised special schools where Sikhs and Hindus can complete the full 12 years of primary and secondary education. Nangarhar alone has almost 200 Hindu and Sikh children in need of schooling, he said.
“We want to serve Afghanistan like other Afghans, but unfortunately, we are not given the chance to take part because our children are deprived of education,” Ikbal Singh added.
Asef Shinwari, spokesman for the education department in Nangarhar province, of which Jalalabad is the main town, said the authorities would be prepared to set up special schools, but the problem was ensuring such a scattered community could meet the minimum criteria.
“The primary conditions are that the school structure should consist of at least two classes, with 100 pupils enrolled,” he explained.
Shinwari promised that the community’s problems would be solved, noting that “legally, they have the same right as other Afghans to study at any public school”.
A spokesman for the national education ministry, Abdul Sabur Ghofrani, also said the dispersed nature of the Sikh and Hindu communities was an obstacle, but insisted, “One of the priorities in our future plans is to establish special schools for the [Hindu and Sikh] minority, because they too are Afghans, they have a right to study, and the government must provide them with the facilities to do so.”
In Kabul, Ravinder Singh voiced disagreement with the idea of separate schooling, arguing that this could end up marginalising the community.
“In my personal opinion, it isn’t right to demand separate schools, because we don’t want to become separated from our Muslim brothers,” he said. “There’s a danger our children would be left ignorant of Muslim culture and traditions. We’re Afghans too – our children should be aware of all cultures and traditions in Afghanistan.”
Hejratullah Ekhtiyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar
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