denizens of the city talk of the ubiquitous Kabuliwallahs- traders who would
bring carpets, dry fruits, and saffron from Afghanistan. (Express Photo by
have been present in Delhi as far as living memory goes, and possibly well
beyond that. Many of the monuments that Delhiites see on their daily commutes,
such as the Qutub Minar (modelled on the Minaret of Jam in the Ghor province of
Afghanistan), and Siri fort were built by rulers of Afghan origin.
denizens of the city talk of the ubiquitous Kabuliwallahs- traders who would
bring carpets, dry fruits, and saffron from Afghanistan.
restaurants in Lajpat Nagar are well-loved for their mouth-watering kebabs and
pulaos. The CAA relegates Afghans who are part of the fabric of this city to
different futures on religious lines, without any regard for the reasons that
forced them to leave their country.
former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s claim that “there are no persecuted
minorities in Afghanistan… the whole country is persecuted,” the persecution of
Hazara people, a Shia ethnic minority, is well documented. Karzai is, of
course, right that all Afghans have suffered and so far India has provided
refuge, albeit flawed and inadequate, to all Afghans irrespective of ethnicity,
gender, religion, and class.
Afghans started arriving in Delhi in large numbers after the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in 1979, the GOI was very resistant to the idea of giving them
‘refugee statuses. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) started
issuing refugee certificates to Afghans.
The MHA and
MEA discovered this only when an Afghan man, Mohamed Maiwand, sought visa
renewal on the ground that he is a ‘UN-recognized refugee’.
to the UNHCR’s repeated appeals from 1980 to 1983 for de jure status in India
and permission to open an office (separate from UNDP) to assist Afghans, the
MEA took the stand that “there are no Afghan refugees in India”. They insisted
that the UNHCR refer to Afghans under their protection as ‘Afghan transients’,
rather than ‘refugees’. Although there were reportedly anywhere from 50,000 to
100,000 Afghans in Delhi at the time of the Soviet invasion, the GOI remained
intractable on the question of granting refugee status to the 5000 or so
Afghans who arrived after 1979.
At the time,
MEA officials cited ‘security concerns’ and ‘law and order problems’ as the
reason for their opposition to the UNHCR extending assistance to refugees. In
internal MEA communications, particularly between the UN and Pak-Iraf (now
called IPA) divisions that were most involved with the ‘Afghan question’,
officials shared their fears about Pakistani ‘operatives’ entering India in the
guise of Afghan refugees. They also speculated that Afghans would start coming
in even larger numbers if the UNHCR offered them assistance, especially
subsistence allowance (around Rs. 200 per month).
The MHA was
directed to ask the Indian embassy in Kabul to clamp down on issuing visas and
some Afghans who arrived at Palam airport without visas were deported. However,
no drastic steps were taken against Afghans arriving in India or even the UNHCR
which continued to assist Afghans despite the government’s lack of cooperation.
Almost 40 years later, the UNHCR has established a permanent presence in India
and has around 30,000 refugees under its mandate, although it continues to
operate on a de facto status.
Afghan restaurants in Lajpat Nagar are well-loved for their mouth-watering
kebabs and pulaos. (Express Photo by Kajol Rustagi)
stand on Afghans has to be viewed in relation to India’s close relationship
with the Soviet Union at the time. In fact, India’s approach to refugees has
always been motivated more by political and diplomatic expediency than
humanitarian concern. The CAA does not break with this tradition in any way.
According to an Intelligence Bureau report, the CAA will positively impact only
about 31,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who are
non-Muslim by making them eligible for naturalisation. The nexus of the CAA and
NRC that has been written about widely, establishes that the CAA has very
little to do with refugees and only invokes them as pawns in a larger political
displaced people differently based on their religion, the CAA diverges from
India’s earlier apathetic approach to refugees. One particular incident during
the negotiations between the MEA and the UNHCR over the status of Afghans in
the 80s illustrates this break.
In a 1981
meeting between R.N. Mulye (Joint Secretary of the UN division of the MEA), Jan
Huyser (Resident Representative of the UNDP), and De Souza (a UNHCR official)
the question of ‘ethnic Indian among Afghans’ came up — it is fair to assume
that ‘ethnic Indians’ here refer to Hindu and Sikh Afghans. Perhaps hoping to
get the uncooperative GOI to extend financial support to at least this
sub-group among displaced Afghans in Delhi, Huyser and De Souza claimed that
unlike most Afghans arriving in India, ‘ethnic Indians’ were not rich and less
likely to treat India as a transit location.
recent violence against Muslims in Delhi which started as retaliation against
anti-CAA protests puts to rest all speculation that the Act is motivated by
humanitarianism towards refugees. (Express Photo by Kajol Rustagi)
implication was that Hindu and Sikh Afghans may stay on in India even after the
conflict in Afghanistan ends and the GOI should support them. Writing to his
MEA colleagues about this proposal, Mulye argued against giving ‘ethnic
Indians’ any special consideration. Even though their number is reported to be
less than 1000, Mulye asserts that such special consideration would set a
dangerous precedent given the substantial size of Indian diasporas across the
“While the UN may merely look to them in the context of the Afghan situation,
we have to look at the situation in the overall context of our policy on ethnic
Indians who were non-Indian nationals scattered all over the world”. Thus, the
MEA’s approach towards Afghan refugees although unsupportive and apathetic did
not discriminate among them based on religion. With the CAA, India has broken
with this practice. To be a truly pro-refugee nation, we would not only have to
reverse the CAA but pass an asylum bill that will open up a path to legal
residence and naturalisation for all those fleeing persecution.
violence against Muslims in Delhi which started as retaliation against anti-CAA
protests puts to rest all speculation that the Act is motivated by
humanitarianism towards refugees.
call for the right of Indian Muslims to live peacefully in their homes,
neighbourhoods, and this country, can we also spare a thought for Afghan
refugees who are part of the fabric of Delhi and imagine a similar future for
them? (Express Photo by Kajol Rustagi)
of arguing for state recognition of Afghan refugees who are predominantly
Muslim, in the context of this violence is not lost on me. But when violence
against Muslim citizens of the country go unpunished, what recourse to justice
will those completely outside the realm of citizenship have if tomorrow they
become the easy targets of mobs?
the US-Taliban “peace” deal comes to into full effect, it will make return or
deportation to Afghanistan a death sentence for many Afghans who sought refuge
in India because of the persecution they faced on account of their ethnicity,
religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation and activism at the hands of the
Taliban or other elements affiliated with it. As we call for the right of
Indian Muslims to live peacefully in their homes, neighbourhoods, and this
country, can we also spare a thought for Afghan refugees who are part of the
fabric of Delhi and imagine a similar future for them?
Rajan is a Doctoral student and Instructor at the Department of Gender, Women,
and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota (USA) and an alumna of Jamia
Millia Islamia. Her research is in the fields of Refugee Studies and Feminist
Studies and focuses on Afghan refugees in Delhi.
Headline: Afghans in Delhi: Remembering
the past, rectifying the future
Source: The Indian Express