At this critical moment, India should not shut doors on Afghans
Representative photo: iStock

At this critical moment, India should not shut doors on Afghans

The situation in Kabul, along with the pace of events unfolding, seems to have put the Narendra Modi-led government in a fix. When it comes to rescue and repatriation, it’s clear that the government was in two minds on its policy to open its doors — for whom and how.

First, India hinted it would shelter Hindus and Sikhs, fleeing Afghanistan. Later, the government made it clear all Afghans associated with India could apply for emergency e-visas, and religion is no bar.

With hordes fleeing amid rising violence and protests, there seems to be a fresh move to tighten the visa regime for Afghans.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the broad message going out of New Delhi seems to be that only Hindus and Sikhs are welcome and that India is not sure how to deal with the transition in Kabul. The ruling BJP is caught between the compulsions of larger governance/foreign policy and its electoral Hindutva agenda — a wrong and muddled message which needs to be fixed fast.

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said India’s historic ties with Afghans would continue, but many diplomats like former foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan have criticised the move to withdraw the Indian embassy from Kabul. For sure, India needs to be tread cautiously.

Also read: Reality strikes: India’s options after withdrawal of US from Afghanistan

Imagine if India had explicitly sent out a similar message in 1971 after the Pakistani military crackdown that our doors are only open for Hindus and Buddhists. We would have walked into the Pakistani propaganda trap and the Bangladesh Independence movement would have just fallen apart.

A secular country since 1947, India does not believe in the primacy of one religion in state formation. Its attraction as a friend and ally for nationalities battling Pakistan’s hardline Islamist but Punjabi-dominated political structure or similar majoritarian governments in South Asia (including Myanmar) was its openness, pluralism and tolerance which not only helped it resolve domestic unrest like the Mizo insurgency but made it a role model of democracy and federalism in the entire region.

If we don’t accept Jinnah’s Two-Nation Theory, we need to welcome Muslim Afghans with open arms as we welcomed Bengali Muslims in 1971, Sri Lankans Tamils in the 1980s, Tibetan Buddhists after the 1950s and Chakma Buddhists from Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, again in the 1980s.

India’s intrinsic appeal as the safe land for all persecuted people in South Asia, which draws all battling ethnicities to it, cannot be compromised by the domestic compulsions of Hindutva politics.

If Baloch, Sindhis, Mohajhirs or Pashtuns (of Tahafuz movement) rebel against Pakistan, especially its military dispensation, it is not because they are any less Muslim in practice than the Scotch-drinking Rawalpindi generals. They are upset when they cannot uphold their ethnic identity and get economic justice and end up as victims of internal colonization and are denied their rightful share of returns on local resources.

Bangladesh was born out of one such revolt, but its belated success as an independent nation inspires the Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi and the Mohajhir rebels. Pakistan’s hardline Islam and its nuclear-enabled military have failed to quell these irredentist tendencies and the country’s failing economy has only aggravated the problems.

Also read: Endgame in Afghanistan rattles everyone in the region and beyond

By contrast, India’s ethnic rebellions in North East have petered out as New Delhi moved decisively to address the development and democracy deficit. Kashmir simmers but only just about, often influenced by trans-border dynamics, the victim of a volatile neighbourhood.

In Afghanistan, India’s soft power (read Bollywood, cricket) has gained much ground, much of it due to its 500-odd development projects which “touched all aspects of Afghan life” as in claimed by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar.

Most Pashtuns and the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras see India as a harmless benign giant, a friendly land that has welcomed generations of Kabuliwallahs and sanctuary-seeking political dissidents.

Warlords opposed to the Taliban and close to India stitched together the Northern Alliance. Vice-president Amrullah Saleh, a fiercely pro-Indian former spy chief, has taken to the Panjshir valley to join Ahmed Shah Massoud’s son to fight the Taliban. Many former government bigwigs, friendly to India, have joined Saleh in the ‘valley of resistance.’

If the BJP government overplays its Hindutva domestic agenda and cannot prevent its spillover into cut-out foreign policy, it could cost India dearly. We stand to lose many assets and cards they hold for us.

Some crucial mistakes have already cost us allies in the region.

The Rakhine rebel group National Unity Party of Arakans (NUPA) was cultivated by Indian intelligence for a decade. They helped prevent the use of the Arakan coast for weapons smuggling by North East Indian rebel groups. But in 1998, during the first BJP government’s tenure, the Indian Army liquidated seven NUPA leaders and interned more than 20 of them in an act of betrayal after luring them to the Andaman Islands. Seemingly this was to please the Burmese military junta and develop close ties with it. The junta hardly delivered on India’s security concerns as it drew close to China but India lost the trust of the Rakhines. NUPA withered away but its successor organisation, Arakan Army, is very hostile to India and has been disrupting New Delhi’s signature Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport project through the Rakhine (former Arakans) province. India, to quote a Bengali proverb, lost the mango as well as the sack.

Also read: How India worked with US to airlift citizens from chaos-hit Kabul

In 2001, the BJP backed the BNP-led government (in which the pro-Pakistan Jamaat e Islami was a partner) over the traditional ally Awami League. Until evidence surfaced about Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s son Tareque meeting ISI operatives and terror don Dawood Ibrahim in far-off Dubai, the Vajpayee government tried to develop relations with the Begum Zia government, pursuing NSA Brajesh Mishra’s policy of ‘not putting all eggs in one basket’ (read Awami League).

Modi has not repeated that mistake and backed the Hasina government strongly but its NRC/CAA drive has rattled the Awami League government. The ruling party always looked up to India as a secular democratic role model but its Islamist detractors never fail to pin it down these days, citing India’s march towards Hindutva. India will lose many friends and allies in the region, especially in Muslim-dominated countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, if that feeling were to persist.

(Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC and Reuters Correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts).

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).

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