Source: The Times of India
Dharitri Bhattacharjee, TNN, Feb 27, 2011, 02.31am IST
In Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, an Afghan moneylender longs for his ‘watan’ even as he develops affection for a little girl, Mini, in Kolkata. The character of Rehmat, later immortalized by Balraj Sahni on screen, became synonymous with the Kabuliwalas who arrived in the city sometime in the late 19th century, bringing with them spices and dry fruits from Afghanistan. More than 500 Afghans call Kolkata home. They refuse to be called refugees.
The scene is a bit different in Delhi, where the number of Afghan refugees may be as high as 25,000. Only 9,094 of them are recognized as refugees and issued “blue cards” by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). Most of them feel insecure. Says Jagmohan Gulati, a Sikh Afghan: “The India government is insensitive to our problems. We get no aid. The Afghan embassy also turns a deaf ear to our problems.”
In the Tilak Nagar gurdwara, also known as the “Kabuli gurdwara,” the refugees exchange sad tales of separated families, bureaucratic glitches and long waits for India citizenship almost every day. “If I had money I could easily become an Indian citizen. It is my misfortune that I have nowhere to go,” says an old Sikh.
Since 1981, thousands of Hindus and Sikhs have come to India from Afghanistan but only 650 of them have become naturalized Indian citizens. Others are waiting for Indian citizenship. According to Nayana Bose, Associate External Relations Officer of UNHCR, more than 90% Afghan refugees are Sikhs or Hindus. She points out how for any foreigner interested in Indian citizenship, 12 years of residency in the country is a must. This applies to refugees as well. Consequently, the resettlement process for many has become a long and tiresome process.
The ethnic Afghans too have been struggling for a better life. A group of 38 men and 48 women, all ethnic Afghans, who have been provided employment by Don Bosco Ashalayam with the help of UNHCR, Delhi does not knpw what the future holds for them. Homaira Frotan (name changed on request) left Kabul for Delhi in 2006 as she was worried about her children’s future. “There were many cases of kidnapping. We are Christians. We had hidden for long in Kabul but it was no more possible. We cannot continue to live in India either. It is so expensive. We have now applied for citizenship in Canada and Australia,” says Frotan.
The situation of all Afghans in India remains precarious because India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention, relating to the status of refugees, or the 1967 Protocol. A number of Afghans in India who are officially not recognized by UNHCR as either “asylum seekers”or post a successful interview, as “refugees,” are forced to eke out a difficult unaided existence.
Money is a big problem. Salar Nader (name changed on request), who came to Delhi with his wife Asiya (name changed on request) in 2009, got his “blue cards” within eight months of their arrival and their kids started going to school, but the couple is unable to cope with life in the capital. “I have to pay Rs 11,000 for one room. I earn only Rs 20 per hour. I have two kids. How will I manage?” asks a helpless Asiya.
Nader, who has 10 years of experience in journalism and was a mixer in the 2003 documentary “Osama”has to clean beds and toilets in Afghan guest houses to earn a living. He cannot go back to Kabul, because the Taliban threatened to kill him.
For a country that is trying to make its presence felt in Afghanistan, India has done precious little. “A national legal framework for refugees would benefit both refugees and India,” says Bose. UNHCR, which was set up in India in 1981 has gone a long way in reaching out to refugees. However, operating in a country, which has no legislation for refugees, has curtailed its impact to better the lives of Afghanis who need help but cannot seek it openly.