KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban said Tuesday they will require Hindus to wear identity labels on their clothing to distinguish them from Muslims, a proposal sharply denounced by India and the United States.
The Taliban said the measure – which would also require Hindu women to be veiled for the first time – was aimed at keeping non-Muslims from being harassed by religious police enforcing Islamic law.
Hindus in Afghanistan have not been the target of persecution and have been allowed to practice their religion without interference, even using music, which is otherwise banned. However, over decades of war, the number of Hindus has dwindled from a high of about 50,000 during the 1970s to 500 in the capital and small pockets elsewhere.
The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, must still approve the law as he does all edicts. The head of the religious police, Mohammed Wali, told The Associated Press it would be implemented soon.
The proposal – reminiscent of Nazi policies forcing Jews in Europe to wear a yellow Star of David – brought quick condemnation from Washington.
A U.S. State Department spokesman called the requirement “the latest in a long list of outrageous oppressions” by the Taliban.
“We want to make quite clear that forcing social groups to wear distinctive clothing or identifying marks stigmatizes and isolates those groups and can never, never be justified,” spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.
Hindu-dominated India also denounced the measures. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Raminder Singh Jassal told reporters in New Delhi, “We absolutely deplore such orders which patently discriminate against minorities.”
Dozens of protesters marched down a busy thoroughfare in the central Indian city of Bhopal carrying an effigy of a bearded Taliban soldier. “Taliban, die!” shouted some of the marchers, members of the Hindu fundamentalist movement Bajrang Dal.
There are around 500 Sikhs and Hindus living in Kabul, the Afghan capital. There are Hindu populations in other Afghan cities, but no reliable figures on exactly how many.
Anar, an Afghan Hindu in Kabul who uses one name, said he does not want to wear a label.
“It will make us vulnerable and degrade our position in society,” he said.
In March, the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddha statues they said were forbidden by Islam. That also raised international condemnations – on top of longtime criticism of the Taliban for banning education for girls, beating men for trimming their beards and other rules in the name of Islam.
The Taliban’s Bakhtar news agency said the latest measure was intended “to prevent disturbance to non-Muslim citizens” who might be stopped by the religious police. Unlike Muslim women, Hindu women in Afghanistan have not been forced to wear the head-to-toe covering called a burqa.
Wali, the religious police minister, said the restrictions were required by Islam. “Religious minorities living in an Islamic state must be identified,” he said.
However, other Islamic nations – including Iran and Indonesia, which have many minority groups – have not required such a step.
Most of the Islamic world, including pro-Taliban Pakistan, has differed with the Taliban’s narrow interpretation of Islam and say the militia is tarnishing Islam’s image.
It has also not yet been decided what sort of identity label Hindus would have to wear, Wali said.
He said the new order would be meant only for Hindus because there are no Christians or Jews in Afghanistan, and most Sikh men can be easily recognized by their turbans and distinctive beards. However, at least one Jew is known to live in Kabul and there may also be some Christians.
There is precedent for the Taliban move. Islamic law requires protection for religious minorities and assigns them certain rights and responsibilities. So Islamic rulers have at times in the past tried to distinguish minorities from the Muslim population. The Ottoman Empire required Jews and Christians to wear distinctive clothing.
The general secretary of Pakistan’s Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami praised the Taliban move. “Providing protection to religious minorities is a must in any Islamic country and this step seems in line with this concept,” said Munawaar Hasan.
The rules on Hindus are the latest restriction imposed by the Taliban. Some have said the heavier hand is in reaction to U.N. sanctions that bar their leaders from traveling abroad, freeze their foreign assets and keep them from importing weapons to fight their civil war.
The sanctions were imposed because of the Taliban’s failure to hand over Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden, accused of terrorism by the United States.
The Taliban has closed four of six U.N. political offices in Afghanistan to protest sanctions.
Hindus and Sikhs first came from India to Afghanistan in 1747. They numbered some 50,000 in the 1970s, but most left after the Soviets sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979. Fighting in 1992 destroyed five of the seven temples used jointly by Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul.