Thirty-one Indian nationals, including 26 security force personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and four diplomats from the Indian consulate in Jalalabad returned here from Afghanistan on Monday, after the government decided to temporarily close its Consulates in Jalalabad and Herat over fears of the coronavirus and growing security threats.
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All the personnel, who were brought in on a special Kam airlines flight from Kabul organised by the Afghanistan Embassy to fly out Afghan nationals, were taken directly to the ITBP special facility in Chhawla for 14 days of quarantine, the ITBP spokesperson said. Another group of Indian Ministry of External Affairs and ITBP personnel from the consulate in Herat, near the Iranian border, are expected to return on Thursday. As The Hindu had reported on Monday, operations at the Consulate, which will be serviced by local personnel, are being suspended, and will be resumed only after a detailed assessment, given the deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan.
Bodies flown in
The widow of one of the victims in the March 25 Kabul Gurdwara attack was also flown back, accompanying the bodies of three Indians killed: Delhi resident Tian Singh, and Ludhiana residents Shankar Singh and Jiwan Singh. Tian Singh's last rites were held on Monday at a cremation ground here, amidst growing concerns over the safety of minorities in Afghanistan.
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In the last few days, both Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, and Cabinet Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal have called for the government to relocate Sikhs from Afghanistan, given the worsening security situation. Twenty-five Sikhs including a 6-year old child were killed during the attack on the Kabul Gurdwara claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province group (ISKP), which has been targetting minorities in the country, including two deadly attacks in Kabul this month.
‘Part of Afghan society’
In an exclusive interview to The Hindu , Afghanistan’s Charge D’affaires Tahir Qadiry said that while his government understood the concerns, Sikhs and Hindus remain an “integral part” of Afghan society, and added that President Ashraf Ghani is “personally monitoring” investigations. “As a nation, our minorities adorn our diverse character. And that is why various programmes have been implemented to safeguard the rights and uplift the status of our Hindu and Sikh population. In a recent decree, the President facilitated the provision of identity cards through our Embassy to all Afghan Sikhs and Hindus born in India. There’s also a provision of reservation for Hindus and Sikhs in our Parliament,” he added.
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When asked about the impact of the recent U.S.-Taliban deal on the security situation in the country, Mr. Qadiry said the Kabul attacks “warrant the pertinence of an enduring and perennial ceasefire, and the same has been stressed in the deal.” He said that the Ghani government had announced an all-inclusive negotiating team to begin talks with the Taliban, that were due on March 12, but have run into trouble over the issue of prisoner releases.
The envoy also thanked India for its cooperation during the COVID-19 crisis, and for allowing five special flights being operated this week in order to take out about 2,500 Afghan citizens. “We have continuously been engaged with Indian officials to work out modalities to evacuate all the stranded Afghan citizens in India, most of whom had come to India for tourism or to avail medical services,” he said, thanking the government for its cooperation, and Delhi police who helped bring the Afghan citizens from three different locations to the airport despite lockdown restrictions.
Q&A with Tahir Qadiry
What is the latest on the investigations in the ISKP-claimed Kabul Gurudwara attack in which 25 people, including an Indian, were killed?
The attack in the Gurudwara in Kabul is undoubtedly dastardly and diabolical. His Excellency President Ashraf Ghani is personally monitoring the investigations into this. Our National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib paid a visit to the targetted Gurudwara and met with the bereaved families. The Government has accentuated brisk delivery of all possible assistance to the family members of those who got killed.
How do you respond to the demand from leaders in Punjab that all Sikhs in Afghanistan should be brought to India?
We consider Afghan Hindus and Sikhs as an integral part of our society. As a nation, our minorities adorn our diverse character. And that is why various programs have been implemented to safeguard the rights and uplift the status of our Hindu and Sikh population. In a recent decree, the President facilitated the provision of identity cards through our Embassy to all Afghan Sikhs and Hindus born in India. Besides, there's also a provision of reservation for Hindus and Sikhs in our Parliament. All of this explains the significance we ascribe to the diversity manifested by our Hindus and Sikhs as Afghan citizens and how special their place is in our society. Afghanistan has begun the evacuation of about 2,500 tourists and travellers stuck in India.
In what ways are India and Afghanistan cooperating during this COVID-19 pandemic?
Ever since the restrictions were put in place to contain and prevent the outbreak of COVID-19, we have continuously been engaged with Indian officials to work out modalities to evacuate all the stranded Afghan citizens in India, most of whom had come to India for tourism or to avail medical services. With the generous cooperation by the Indian Government, we were able to place 5 ferry-flying through an Afghan private airline. The second flight is taking place today and three more will happen in the coming days. In addition, we have received exceptional cooperation and support from the Delhi Police, amid tight restrictions on movement, who helped to transfer Afghans from three different locations to the airport.
How far will the SAARC initiative by PM Modi, and President Ghani's contribution to the COVID-19 response fund go in countering the pandemic?
I believe it was a very innovative and timely response to propose an Emergency COVID-19 Fund for SAARC nations by Prime Minister Modi. Our Government has reiterated and underscored the call of the Indian Government to put forward the joint efforts in this hour of need to check and prevent the transmission of this deadly virus. That is why His Excellency President Ghani was prompt to announce $1 million to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Together, we can conquer this disease in the region.
India has now closed operations and is moving out staff from the Jalalabad and Herat consulates. What is the latest assessment of the virus in Afghanistan?
The Government is well-versed with the gravity of the situation right now, and as a corollary, Herat and Kabul have been put under temporary lockdown. We have adopted various strategies of equal propensity to tame the economic impact of these restrictions and to make sure that there's no shortage of food, essential services, or important commodities. Recently, with the well-meaning and kind cooperation of India, Afghanistan was able to procure 75,000 tonnes of wheat to inject into our food supply. The Government is also proactively coordinating foreign aid to check any hindrances arising in the way of running all essential services in the country. Besides, various public awareness campaigns have been launched in different parts of the country to spread information regarding COVID-19 and the best practices to safeguard oneself and others.
How do you see the security situation in the aftermath of the US-Taliban deal? In particular, what will happen to the planned Intra-Afghanistan talks?
The recent attacks in Kabul warrant the pertinence of enduring and perennial ceasefire, and the same has been stressed in the [US-Taliban] deal. Further, the Government has unequivocally asserted a comprehensive plan, as a part of a deal, to put an end to all kinds of violence festering our country. The Government has announced an inclusive negotiating team, which is working out a detailed, all-inclusive, and realistic plan that will steward all the aspirations of Afghan citizens.