New Delhi: The offer from the Indian embassy in Iran lay on the table: Iqra Jamal could return to her homeland, but her Afghan husband would have to stay behind in Afghanistan. Four months pregnant at the time, in December 2021, Iqra was clear in her answer — not without my husband.
It’s a harrowing predicament for the Indian-Afghan couple, who have fought numerous odds to stay together — from Covid, to the Taliban takeover, and, now, perhaps the most insurmountable of them: alleged diplomatic red tape. But, raising their soon-to-be born baby in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan puts fear in both their hearts for multiple reasons.
“I want to leave Afghanistan before I deliver the baby,” Iqra said. “If the child is born here, it will make it harder and more complicated to get a passport for the baby because, as you know, the situation in Afghanistan is very bad. All in all, this will make going to India more complicated.”
With embassies and basic institutions in Afghanistan barely functional and with her due date fast approaching, the couple is fighting a losing battle against time. However, they are still hopeful that the Indian embassy will give them recourse.
‘Everything changed after Taliban came to power’
Iqra met her to-be husband (whom she has requested not be named) in 2012 when they were students at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh.
He was studying political science and she optometry. The couple dated for several years, but their struggle to remain together began shortly after they were engaged in a small ceremony in 2018 in India, and then were legally married in June 2021.
The first obstacle came in the form of an opportunity: Iqra’s husband landed a job as an administrative officer in the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2020, when the Ashraf Ghani government was still in power.
“It was a big deal — getting that job,” he told ThePrint over the phone. The long-term outlook was also positive. The political science graduate expected to serve out his probationary period in Afghanistan, after which he aimed to be transferred to the Afghan embassy in New Delhi.
He left for Afghanistan in July 2020, with the plan that Iqra would follow on a spouse visa and then the two would eventually return to India to start a family.
But, Covid disrupted this plan. As the pandemic worsened in India and the second wave hit, Iqra was able to secure a spouse visa only in July 2021.
This was a month after the two were legally married through a long-winded process that involved Iqra signing a marriage certificate that was couriered to Afghanistan, where it was signed by her husband, and then returned to India. The certificate, which ThePrint has viewed, has the official stamps of the Indian and Afghan foreign ministries.
For about one month, the couple basked in each other’s company after nearly a year of being apart. They enjoyed a wedding reception that Iqra’s in-laws arranged in Herat, and in August got the happy news that they were expecting a child.
“We had plans to return to India and raise the child. But everything changed after the Taliban came into power,” Iqra said.
On 15 August, Kabul fell to the Taliban. The Indian Home Ministry decided that, henceforth, Afghans could only enter India on emergency ‘e-visas’. Not even a spouse visa would allow an Afghan national entry into India.
Missed evacuation, hiding out in a parking lot, a failed trip to Iran
Iqra’s husband was a government employee and so on the evacuation clearance list, she said, but it was already too late for them when they arrived at the airport.
“The first thing we did was head to the airport in Kabul. But after it was bombed, we had nowhere to go. For some days, we hid out in a parking lot. Then we decided to head back to Herat, where my husband’s family lives,” she said.
Her husband applied for an e-visa on 28 August 2021, but the status of this application remains in limbo. As is the predicament of many stranded Afghans, his e-visa has been neither accepted not rejected, but remains “under process”.
In December last year, the couple decided to take matters into their own hands and travelled to neighbouring Iran on a one-month tourist visa. They had just one agenda: to request the Indian embassy in Tehran to allow them safe travel to India.
“We went to the Indian embassy in Iran every day for one month. However, they were only willing to allow my wife to travel to India because she is an Indian national. They said I should return to Afghanistan and come later,” Iqra’s husband said.
‘I wasn’t prepared to abandon my husband’
According to official sources, Iqra, being an Indian citizen, can catch any flight and come to India. She can also approach any Indian embassy to get emergency travel documents to be able to travel to India in case her passport has expired. But her Afghan husband can come to India only on an e-visa.
For Iqra, this option was untenable. “I wasn’t prepared to abandon my husband. I did not want to raise our child alone,” she said.
She further claimed that the couple had requested the embassy to extend her passport, which was set to expire in January 2022, but they refused.
Iqra’s husband also claimed that he had received a strange call while in Iran, sparking temporary hope for the couple.
“A few days after we arrived in Iran, we got a call from the Indian government that my e-visa has been approved. We were so happy. But when we were told to check online, it was not reflecting. My application still said it was under process,” he said.
That mystery has never been cleared up. According to Iqra’s husband, all his emails to the Indian foreign and home ministries have gone unanswered. The three special emergency numbers provided by the Indian government for stranded Afghans are perpetually switched off, he added.
After their tourist visa in Iran expired, the couple returned to Afghanistan, empty-handed.
ThePrint spoke with Iqra’s father, 59-year-old Anjum Arshad Jamal, who said that he understood his daughter’s decision to not return to India without her husband.
“Iqra made it clear that she didn’t want to abandon her husband. My wife and I respected her decision. I have been in touch with the Indian Foreign Ministry and Home Ministry but they have not given us a clear answer. We hope they will be able to come to India safely soon,” he said.
With inputs from Nayanima Basu
(Edited by Asavari Singh)