For decades, Mohammad Karim Dastagir thought of India as a ‘second home’, a country he travelled to for work, and the country where he met his wife Rifaut. The 48-year-old businessman, who ran a travel agency in Kabul, which managed visas for the Indian embassy since 2002, found his world turned upside down in August 2021. While the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the closure of the Indian embassy robbed Karim of his livelihood and his sense of security, India’s decision to cancel all pre-existing visas for Afghans nearly robbed him of his family, including Rifaut and his daughter, four-year-old Hanya. What does one do when a ‘second home’ closes its doors on you, asks Karim, who fled to Türkiye in the aftermath of the Taliban’s brutal crackdown and restrictions on people.
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“I handled thousands of visas for the Indian embassy for years, but when I needed them the most, for my own visa, they forgot I existed,” he says with some bitterness, speaking to Magazine from Istanbul. Eventually, Karim moved his family to Türkiye. He shares a confirmation message that he applied for an Overseas Citizen of India card in October 2021, something he is entitled to have as the spouse of an Indian national, but he has received no response from the Indian embassy yet. When he telephones officials he knew earlier in India, they often don’t take his call, and when they do, plead helplessness. The online status simply says “under-process” 18 months later, and Karim says his savings from his once flourishing business are now running out.
Who is affected by India’s visa ban for Afghans?
No fairytale ending
Karim isn’t alone. According to officials, among more than an estimated 60,000 Afghans who have requested visas for India are a large number of those married to Indian nationals. Many couples met each other while they were studying, as India ran a generous programme for Afghan students from 2002-2021, offering seats at different universities and scholarships. Others came as traders and businessmen, much like Tagore’s Kabuliwala, and built up flourishing trade between the two countries. Many others came and fell in love, but today are separated from them due to circumstances, and a cruel visa regime.
For 33-year-old Fahim Raihan, Kaifee Siddiqui came as a god-send when he visited Delhi in 2017 with an ailing relative. Kaifee, now 32, who was working at the Max Hospital in Delhi, helped him navigate medical procedures and seek doctors’ appointments. Over a number of waiting room meetings, and then later, when he visited Delhi for business, their relationship blossomed, and Kaifee and Fahim got married and settled in Delhi. They ran an auto parts business.
That should have been the fairytale ending to their romance, but on August 15, 2021, fate intervened. Fahim, who was in Kabul for a short visit, was heading to the airport to catch his flight to Delhi, but was stopped from leaving by armed guards who sent him home. Ever since then, he has tried in vain to secure a new visa as mandated by India. In Delhi, Kaifee says she has been running from pillar to post, from the Ministry of External Affairs to the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Afghanistan embassy. “Every night, Kaifee calls me to ask just one question, when will I come back?” says Fahim.
Sadia Khan and her 10-year-old daughter also have the same question. In 2007, Sadia married Ghazanfar Khan, an Afghan who had come as a tourist to Delhi. The two had met and grown closer as they shared an interest in ancient monuments and architecture, and Ghazanfar stayed back. Since 2021, the couple has been separated, living a hand-to-mouth existence as they wait for an Indian visa for Ghazanfar, who had returned to Kabul briefly to meet his ailing mother.
“My 10-year-old daughter and I have to move often, as rents become unaffordable, and she has not been enrolled in a school for two years because of this,” says Sadia. Her husband is now in Iran. Ghazanfar says he has waited for hours together at the Indian embassy in Tehran, but has not been able to make officials take note of his case. “There’s no job here, but back in India I used to manage a guest house, I had a shop, I even worked as a translator. Now everything is gone, I depend on the money my family sends,” he says.
An endless wait
In Istanbul, Shamimullah Mehmoodi, who earlier ran a dry fruits business in Delhi, has to now contend with the difficulties his sons, aged five and seven, face over language at the local school. Shamimullah says that while his family is with him, they all miss their home in India.
While many have been able to leave Afghanistan for a third country while they wait for visas, those that remain have a more difficult time eking out an existence in the middle of a country in chaos. Abdul Hamid Nawab, 39, says he has been reduced to cleaning dishes at a local hotel in Kabul while he waits for a visa so he can see his wife and four children again.
The Ministry of External Affairs has declined to respond to a number of requests for comments on when visas may be available for Afghan nationals. When asked about the Modi government’s policy to shut out tens of thousands of Afghans, including students, professionals, and even those married to Indians, officials are unable to help.
“I was told a divorce would be easier”
(*Names changed on request)
They also deny that the policy is discriminatory towards Afghan Muslims, but point out that Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan were at greater risk for their lives and thus were evacuated sooner. During a public lecture in Vadodara in October 2022, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told a group of Afghan students who petitioned him that “nobody could doubt India’s feelings for the Afghan people”. Alluding to security concerns, he added that visas can only be restarted when a “level of trust and efficiency” grows.
For thousands like Shamimullah, Ghazanfar and Sadia, Fahim and Kaifee, Karim and Rifaut, and their children, the doubts are indeed growing as they stare at an uncertain future with the ‘second home’ they have loved for years seeming more distant from them every day.