Unable to return to Afghanistan or gain Indian citizenship, Afghans remain stuck in a precarious state of limbo.

In 2018, then 17-year-old Nargis left war-torn Afghanistan and came to India with hope that things would improve and she would soon return to her homeland. For the last three years that moment never arrived; and on Sunday as the Taliban entered Kabul, whatever hopes she had left were shattered.

"Now there is no hope of going back. I think I may have to live here (in India) till I die. If I return to my homeland, who knows what might happen to girls like me," Nargis told TRT World in the Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood of New Delhi, where many Afghan refugees reside.

Nargis is among more than 10,000 Afghan refugees officially living in India, the number of which is expected to increase in the coming days.

The Taliban once again seized power in Afghanistan two decades after they were toppled by an invasion led by US forces in 2001. Nargis fears the worst is yet to come for Afghans, especially those who worked with the Afghanistan government or US-led foreign forces.

"Those people who have been in any capacity associated with the government are trying to flee and come to safer countries like India. Also, those who oppose Taliban ideologically have no hope of survival in Afghanistan," Nargis told TRT World.

Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood in India's national capital, where many Afghan refugees live.
Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood in India's national capital, where many Afghan refugees live. (Danish Pandit/Hanan Zaffar / TRTWorld)

On Sunday evening, an Air India flight carrying 129 passengers from Afghanistan arrived in India, which included more potential refugees, including parliamentarians.

Afghan refugees in India say while they are wary of the Taliban back home, they are uncertain about their future in India. For Akbar Farhad, a 42-year-old doctor-turned-artist from Kabul, while India provides a safe space for his art, he is not sure about the future of his daughters.

"I cannot go back to Afghanistan as my art would be never acceptable to the Taliban. But here in India, my children can't get enrolled in a school as they are refugees. Even if I teach them in schools run by the Afghan embassy, they won't get any jobs later. We can never lead a normal life," Farhad told TRT World.

Most Afghan refugees face problems accessing facilities in India because they lack citizenship. "We have to struggle for basic amenities like a SIM card or cooking gas cylinder. We have to struggle for every little thing," Farhad said.

Afghan nationals first migrated to India during the Soviet war in late 1970s and early 1980s, and many more escaped the Taliban regime in the mid-1990s. 

Most of them, like Nargis and Farhad, however, never got citizenship but continue to live in the country on long-term visas provided by the Indian government. This is because India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, nor does the country have its own specific law on refugees.

An Afghan refugee sitting on a shop perch in New Delhi.
An Afghan refugee sitting on a shop perch in New Delhi. (Danish Pandit/Hanan Zaffar / TRTWorld)

Then in 2019 the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was introduced that makes it almost impossible for Afghan refugees to attain citizenship in the near future. 

Under the new law, the process for getting Indian citizenship would be expedited only for non-Muslims from neighbouring countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most of the refugees from Afghanistan, however, are Muslims.

According to India's Ministry of Home Affairs, those seeking citizenship will additionally have to prove that they have been in India on or before December 31, 2014.

"So there is no question of anyone obtaining Indian citizenship," Dr Mohammad Reyaz, Head of Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Aliah University in India, told TRT World.

"India also doesn’t allow dual citizenship. Many western countries give Afghan nationals an opportunity to remain an Afghan citizen even if they resettle in that country," he added.

Reyaz believes that obtaining citizenship isn't the aim of most Afghan refugees living in India as they see India as a “transit place” before settling down in the west.

"The people fleeing Afghanistan (to India) are the educated middle class. They are mostly artists, filmmakers and government employees who are threatened by the Taliban. The life expenses are similar to Kabul in Delhi which isn’t the case in any European city. So they stay here in India until they figure out where to go or until they get their asylum in western countries," says Reyaz.

However, many Afghan refugees like Nargis feel they have little means and contacts to move beyond India.

"Even here we face a lot of issues. We can't work in any formal setting. My younger brother works in a restaurant. I also used to work in a pharmacy but after coronavirus they suffered losses and I lost the job. I am not even working anymore," Nargis said.

"We don’t know much about availing citizenship either," added Farhad.

Nargis with her little sister in New Delhi.
Nargis with her little sister in New Delhi. (Danish Pandit/Hanan Zaffar / TRTWorld)

Interestingly, on Tuesday the Indian government said it would prioritise taking in Hindu and Sikh Afghans, which many critics link to the CAA.

"We are in constant touch with the representatives of Afghan, Sikh and Hindu communities. We will facilitate repatriation to India of those who wish to leave Afghanistan. There are also a number of Afghans who have been our partners in the promotion of our mutual development, educational and people to people endeavours. We will stand by them," India's Ministry of External Affairs said.

S Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, also said on Twitter: “We are in constant touch with the Sikh and Hindu community leaders in Kabul. Their welfare will get our priority attention.”

Critics of India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party questioned the government's intention in singling out Hindus and Sikhs.

"There are people leaving Afghanistan for fear of Taliban persecution who are not just Hindus and Sikhs, but Hazara, Tajiks, women, civil society members and other secular people,” Kavita Krishnan, member of the politburo of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), told TRT World.

“For the Indian government, singling out Hindus and Sikhs is to basically tell the domestic audience that India essentially remembers the CAA.”

Source: TRT World