Out of 60,000 Afghans who applied for e-Visas, India granted visa to 200 of them

As India is engaging with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and as we are serious about regaining lost ground, we can get off to a flying start by coming to the aid of stranded Afghan students

Out of 60,000 Afghans who applied for e-Visas, India granted visa to 200 of them

S.N.M. Abdi

It’s crystal clear that India and Pakistan are earnestly complying with the Ceasefire Agreement at the Line of Control (LoC) clinched by the two militaries in February 2021. But some observers attribute the uncharacteristic, 15-month-long lull at the LoC to a clandestine grand bargain that New Delhi and Islamabad struck keeping the whole world in the dark.

They claim that Pakistan agreed to stop firing light machine guns, mortars and howitzers in return for India’s exit from Afghanistan - which Islamabad has been vehemently demanding for as long as anyone can remember - plus a solemn assurance to never return.

There are even assertions that besides silencing Indian and Pakistani guns the secret pact has stopped Pakistan from massing troops at the LoC in tandem with “iron brother” China to the great relief of the Narendra Modi government.

But appearances can be very deceptive. It is so easy to get misled and arrive at a fallacious conclusion. Kite-flying is rampant in the strategic community but nobody takes ownership of cleverly argued hypothesis which falls flat on its face.

As New Delhi starts to undo last year’s lock, stock and barrel withdrawal from Afghanistan with J. P. Singh, Joint Secretary in charge of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran (PAI)-led team’s visit to Kabul on June 2 – the first official Indian visit to Afghanistan after the Taliban captured power last year – it’s amply clear that India had not surrendered to Pakistan and was merely biding its time to re-enter Afghanistan.

It is now evident that India did not strike any Afghanistan-centred deal with Pakistan to buy peace at the LoC and Islamabad’s good behaviour in the “most dangerous place in the world” is due to several other complex reasons.

Very frankly, I’m impressed by India’s timing. It’s re-entering Afghanistan when Pakistan is governed by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party with whom New Delhi has done business before and has good equations with. India’s security and diplomatic establishments have solid ties with them.

There is good institutional memory on both sides. Modi enjoys a personal rapport with the Sharif brothers. Nawaz Sharif, the most powerful Pakistani today and elder brother-boss of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, attended Modi’s first swearing-in while Modi made an unexpected detour to attend a Sharif family wedding shrugging off grave security concerns, revealing the depth of their bond.

Besides a friendly regime, the Pakistani Army is presently preoccupied with its chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s retirement and the thickening suspense over his successor. There couldn’t have been a more propitious time for India to push the envelope. Obviously, Singh’s short flight to Kabul was in the works long enough to achieve the best results.

The reception accorded to Singh’s team by Taliban Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Mottaqi, matched India’s expectations. But another Taliban leader – notches higher than Mottaqi – Mullah Yaqoob; Defence Minister and son of late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar; is on record recently saying that good diplomatic and political relations between India and Afghanistan will ultimately lead to defence relations!

Of course, there is no question of diplomatic recognition at present. No country in the world – not even Pakistan – has yet accorded the Taliban regime that privilege. While the tone and tenor of Yaqoob’s assertion - along with Mottaqi’s exceedingly warm welcome - is good tidings for New Delhi, it is bound to cause heart-burn across the Durand Line.

I think that India caught the Taliban’s fancy as late as February this year after Pakistan – its strongest pillar of support – alienated United States-led Western nations by tilting towards Russia under the guise of neutrality. Afghanistan badly needs Western financial aid to tide over its humanitarian and economic crisis but Pakistan could no longer argue its case internationally.

Moreover, Ukraine appropriated the sympathy and attention of the world’s wealthiest nations diverting humanitarian aid and relief assistance from Afghanistan. Suddenly Ukraine became the world’s new priority leaving the Taliban in the lurch.

Not surprisingly, Suhail Shaheen, Afghanistan’s UN ambassador designate, started appealing to New Delhi to reopen its embassy in Kabul and promised fool-proof arrangements for the security of Indian diplomats. New Delhi instead promised to send 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat through Pakistan leaving Islamabad with no option but to allow India to use its territory for transporting aid in an unprecedented climb down.

Till date, India has already dispatched 20,000 metric tonnes of wheat, 13 tonnes of medicines, 500,000 doses of Covid vaccine and winter clothing earning Afghan appreciation and gratitude.

So far, so good. At present, there is no question of a full reopening of our embassy or consulates, the return of Indian diplomats to Afghanistan or recognising the Taliban government. The need of the hour I think is to make arrangements for issuing visas to Afghans generously and speedily.

We blotted our copybook and it’s high time we make amends if we seriously want to return centre-stage in Afghanistan powered by the love and affection of its ordinary folks.

After Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021 and our withdrawal two days later, Afghan students and patients have been the worst victims of our myopic visa policy. We are guilty of discriminating on religious grounds – embracing Hindus and Sikhs and shunning Muslims. This must immediately stop.

First of all, we cancelled all unutilised visas issued before August 15, 2021 citing security reasons, and introduced a new emergency e-visa. Figures in December 2021 revealed that out of 60,000 Afghans who applied for e-visa, only 200 were granted! We rebuffed Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule. We rudely shut the door on them.

Afghanistan’s ambassador Farid Mamundzay blurted out: “When the United States evacuated 150,000 to 160,000 Afghans, when the European Union evacuated closer to 100,000 Afghans – and the US is smaller by three to four times than India in population, and is at a distance which is 10 times more than the distance from India to Afghanistan, India has granted only 200 e-visas.

"The population of Afghanistan is 40 million. Two hundred visas means that only four to five visas were given for every million. The entire population can’t have turned into Taliban overnight.”

Just last month, hundreds of students demonstrated outside our embassy in Kabul demanding e-visas. Media reports reveal that at least 2500 Afghan students are desperate to return to educational campuses in India and attend classes. They had applied for e-visas no sooner it was introduced. And after waiting endlessly, they took it out to the street.

As we are serious about regaining lost ground, we can get off to a flying start by coming to the aid of stranded Afghan students.

(S.N.M. Abdi is former Deputy Editor of 'Outlook' magazine and one of the targets of Pegasus spyware attack on journalists. Views are personal)

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