At the Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand, on the other side of the world this weekend, External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar visited an exhibition commemorating the 1915-1916 Gallipoli campaign and mused how “Indians have helped shape the modern era through their sacrifices and endeavours.”
The tweet was a reminder that India, both 100 years ago as well as today, had participated in “global battlefields” — even though it had got “less than its due” — which enabled it to look at the world through fresh and clear eyes.
Jaishankar’s sentiment also resonated in Washington DC about the same time, as Petroleum & Natural Gas minister Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters that “India will buy oil from wherever it has to.” The message was simple—India will first look after its national interest, without allowing old or new friendships to come in the way.
But there is one country where India’s national interest seems a bit muddled, and that is Afghanistan. More than 15 months and several desperate protests by Afghan students later, the Indian government is still refusing to give visas to 2,500 Afghan students to return to India and resume their studies in Indian universities.
The situation is becoming so dire that it is beginning to affect the India-Afghan relationship. In Kabul, Afghan students recently met deputy prime minister Mullah Abdul Kabir to request him to put pressure on the Indian government, while in Delhi, Afghan ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay has met a variety of stakeholders on the subject.
But no one has been able to answer the question: Why are Afghan students, both on scholarships given by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), an arm of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), as well as thousands of self-paying students, not being allowed back into India?
Also read: Can’t return to Taliban, can’t stay in uncertainty in India—Afghan students’ woes only rise
Jaishankar recently told an Afghan student in Vadodara, Gujarat, that “no one can doubt India’s feelings for Afghan people,” adding that the Afghan students must “wait for a level of trust and efficiency” to be restored before visa approvals can be resumed.
But the Afghan students are getting desperate. Several have told this reporter that their universities in India have mailed them to say that if they don’t return soon to their classes, their seats will be cancelled. The students say they stare at a difficult, uncertain future ahead.
Mamundzay told this reporter that he had raised the question of “security concerns” with a wide variety of stakeholders in India, but received no clear response.
He said that he had offered to the MEA that as a compromise, female Afghan students be allowed to return, but that suggestion too had been met by a cold silence.
“The unavailability of Indian visas to ordinary Afghans since August 2021 has caused a great deal of frustration and has disappointed many people. The Afghan students enrolled in Indian universities require help on an urgent and exceptional basis to avoid any further and costly delays in their studies,” Mamundzay told ThePrint.
Indian officials say that all Afghan visas were cancelled last year when the Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August, because it was feared that the agency holding their passports would fall into the wrong hands and the visas could be utilised by malevolent forces – namely Pakistan.
But one year on, as India reopens a mission in Kabul and about two flights a week carry medicines, foodstuff and other cargo to the Afghan capital and back, the fact is that these flights remain about 95 per cent empty.
This reporter took one of these flights to and from Kabul last month and found that the few people travelling on them were either expatriate Afghans (with passports other than Afghan) or Indian officials. You could count the Afghans on the fingers of one hand.
Also read: ‘What about my future?’ — Afghan students on Indian grant caught between Taliban & visa rules
An issue Delhi can’t ignore
Certainly, the Afghan student visa issue will affect New Delhi’s tenuous relationship with the Taliban if it is not quickly resolved. The matter has been raised by the Afghan students with a variety of Taliban leaders, including its powerful Interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani who controls Kabul.
The Indian government realises that Afghan students constitute an extraordinary soft weapon in the battle for influence in this difficult part of the world. Thousands have studied in India in the last two decades and returned with incredible goodwill for India – which is in the process of being lost as this unavoidable issue continues to fester.
Before Covid, it was estimated that about 20,000 Afghan students, both on scholarship and self-paying, were studying all over the country.
In Kabul, Afghan students say the Taliban government has now assured them that if this matter isn’t resolved soon, they would now begin to talk to other countries, such as Pakistan, so that the Afghan students can complete their education there.
“My father has even sent a letter to the MEA saying that I am not a threat to India’s security,” Ali Murtaza, the holder of an ICCR scholarship, told ThePrint.
Habib Sadaat, who is paying for his own education at Lovely Professional University, Punjab, told this reporter that the university has ended online classes and was refusing to cut any slack for any student.
“We have to continue to pay the university, otherwise they won’t keep our seats. But we are not getting any visas so we can attend our classes. We regret the day that we took admission in India,” Sadaat said.
Sooner than later, New Delhi knows it will have to resolve this delicate matter. Even if it doesn’t recognise the hardline Taliban government — which has hardly done itself any credit by refusing to speak for all Afghan citizens — India understands that the Afghan student visa issue cuts across the deep divide that separates the Taliban from the previous Islamic Republic.
Moreover, it knows that its own reputation and credibility is at stake. If India can’t live up to its own promise of educating students, how seriously can the world take its regional power credentials?
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)