Gurdwara attack may delay India’s plans to reopen embassy

Team led by Director-level official being finalised to set up consular, visa and humanitarian functions in Kabul, sources said

Updated - June 19, 2022 10:52 pm IST

Published - June 19, 2022 05:57 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site where an explosive-laden vehicle detonated amidst an attack on a gurdwara in Kabul on June 18, 2022.

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site where an explosive-laden vehicle detonated amidst an attack on a gurdwara in Kabul on June 18, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The attack on the Karta-e-Parwan Gurdwara in Kabul, in which two people, including an Afghan Sikh and a security guard, were killed in a terror strike claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) as a response to the comments on Prophet Mohammad by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons, has restarted the debate over whether India should continue with its plans to reopen its embassy in Kabul, according to a number of officials. 

In particular, Indian intelligence sources believe the IS-K is linked to Pakistan and the attack could also be a “message” from the neighbouring country to both Kabul and New Delhi, given talks with the Taliban on India’s re-entry to Afghanistan. 

The fate of the Indian embassy was discussed when a team of officials from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) led by Joint Secretary J.P. Singh visited Kabul on June 2, the first such visit since the Taliban takeover of last August. The team met with Taliban-appointed Ministers, including acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mottaqi and acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, amongst others. 

According to sources, the plans for the embassy had gained momentum in the past few weeks, and a team of diplomats led by a Director-level official was being finalised to travel to Kabul and set up base there for consular and visa functions and to coordinate humanitarian assistance to Afghans.

The MEA declined to comment on the issue, but the sources, who requested anonymity, confirmed that the team was due to travel this month to Afghanistan, pending security clearances. At present, a skeletal staff of local Afghans have been maintaining the embassy on Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw. Consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat, which were closed earlier, however, may take much longer to reopen. 

Despite previous animosity, including attacks on the Indian embassy led by the Haqqani group in the past, the Taliban regime has made a number of appeals for India to reopen the embassy, which was shut down in August 2021, and offered to guarantee security for the mission.

At least 13 countries, including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, the U.A.E., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Central Asian states, and the European Union, operate embassies in Kabul, while the U.S. has deputed Qatar to officiate on its behalf. 

“India is a historic friend of Afghanistan and the return of its diplomatic mission will certainly be welcomed by the Afghan people,” former President Hamid Karzai told The Hindu, when asked about the possibility.

However, former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Amar Sinha said that the attack on the gurdwara is a “clear warning” that Indian interests and minorities will be attacked, “despite assurances from Taliban leadership”.

“A small low-level contingent will be not very useful as they will have the dual handicap of insecurity and also lack of high-level access,” Mr. Sinha said. “Any such decision has to be with a clear understanding of what our objectives are….there can be no half measures,” he added.

During the visit to Afghanistan, Mr. Singh and Indian officials had surveyed the distribution of Indian humanitarian assistance, including wheat and medicines, as well as the condition of infrastructure projects previously undertaken by Indian companies, which the Taliban is keen to have restarted. According to experts, this may have sent alarm bells ringing in Pakistan’s establishment. In addition, concerns in Rawalpindi may have been raised after a statement by Acting Defence Minister Mullah Yaqub, son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, suggesting the Taliban could continue the practice of sending Afghanistan soldiers for training to India, and another by Hizb e Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar suggesting Taliban ties with India were strengthening at the cost of its ties with Pakistan.

The lack of any Indian presence in Afghanistan, and the introduction of e-visa system and cancellation of all pre-existing visas to Afghans by the Modi government last year, has meant that Afghans, including more than 160 remaining Sikh and Hindu minorities and thousands of students, had not been issued visas to travel to India. Many of them had made desperate calls to the government’s helplines and on social media for India to review its position, but only a few dozen e-visas had been issued until June. However, in an overnight response to the gurdwara attack on Saturday, the government decided to issue more than a 100 e-visas to the minorities.

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