When my sister developed heart complications in 1982, the advice of doctors in Kabul, Afghanistan, was unanimous: get treatment in India. She traveled to New Delhi and I followed her a year later at the age of 13. I was struck by how ethnically, religiously, and economically diverse and yet peaceful Indian society was. Based on watching Indian movies for years, I was expecting a lot of violence on streets of New Delhi. But to my surprise, during my one-year stay there, I did not see a single fistfight.
Educated and urban middle class Afghans have looked for decades to India for modern medicine, education, and technology. The last two decades of political crises in Afghanistan have however complicated Indo-Afghan ties, which may be resolved by the formation of a moderate, multi-ethnic and stable government in Kabul.
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL ROOTS
The roots of the relationship between the people of India and Afghanistan run centuries deep. The reverberation that the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhist statues caused in India is a testimony to the shared history of the people of India and Afghanistan. The Buddhist religion expanded from India into Afghanistan and through it to China. The Bamiyan Buddhist statues were built during the Kushan period (1-7 A.D.) whose kings ruled over parts of India and Afghanistan for about seven centuries. Long before that this was known as Gandhara, the land of Gandhari of the Mahabharata and her wily brother Shakuni.
Another famous common ruler was Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznavi who introduced Islam to India on a large scale in the 11th century. Sher Shah Suri was another ruler from Afghanistan whose empire in the 16th century included major parts of India. Of course, the most well-known empire that stretched across the two countries was that of the Mughals, founded by Babur in the 16th century. Babur died in Agra but according to his wishes was buried in Kabul and the empire he established lasted until the 19th century.
During the more recent modern era, India and Afghanistan shared a common border prior to the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. The relationship between India and Afghanistan was probably the warmest during the 1970s when many young Afghans studied in Indian universities and when Afghan urbanites were most influenced by the Indian arts. Afghans were exposed to the Indian arts and cultures through Indian cinema. Theaters in every major city of Afghanistan screened Indian films making film stars like Dilip Kumar and singers like Mohammad Rafi household names in Afghanistan. Indian movies were so popular in Afghanistan that prior to the introduction of VCRs in South Asia, Pakistanis would cross into Afghanistan to watch Indian movies as they were banned in Pakistani cinemas. Even out of Afghanistan and in places such as Little Kabul in Fremont, watching Indian movies in the local theater and renting Hindi movies are favorite pastimes of Afghan families.
The ties between Afghan and Indian cultures had been strengthened by the presence of over 40,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghan cities and rural areas prior to the start of the on going crisis in Afghanistan. Although relatively small, the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs were instrumental in establishing close commercial and cultural ties with India. Most of the Afghan-Indians were engaged in import-export business and in currency exchange.
On the other hand, a large number of Afghans, in particular Pathans, who accompanied Afghan rulers such as Babur and Sher Shah Suri have settled in India. Names such as Amjad Khan and Shahrukh Khan signify Afghan lineages. In fact, the designation Pathans signifying Pashtuns developed in Patna district of India after some ethnic Pashtuns settled there in the 12th century. Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore immortalized these Afghani men who lived in Indian cities far way from their homeland in his story of Kabuliwala.
On the diplomatic front, too, Afghanistan and India have had a close relationship throughout most of the last half century. Both countries were the founding members of the movement of the non-aligned countries during the Cold War. They also shared a “friendly” tilt towards the Soviet Union at that time and championed the rights and grievances of the third world countries in the international arena.
The relationship between the two countries was further cemented by their respective border disputes with Pakistan. Just as the dispute over Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, the border issue of the Durand Line, drawn more than 100 years ago by the British government of India, has caused tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was due to this problem that Afghanistan tried, though in vain, to block the entry of Pakistan into the United Nations in 1947.
The introduction of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent diplomatic support that India provided to the Soviet occupation became a turning point for the Indo-Afghan relationship. As more than 100,000 Soviet soldiers brutally occupied Afghanistan with the help of a puppet communist regime, the Indian government did not object to the occupation to the dismay of Afghans. Instead India subscribed to the official position of the Soviet Union that the “independent” government of Afghanistan had invited Soviet troops to defend it against Western and Pakistan conspiracies.
India also established close economic and political ties with the puppet regime in Kabul. While the majority of the countries at the United Nations called for a withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, India preferred to ask for an end to “foreign interference” in Afghanistan, a term also used by the Soviet Union to justify the presence of its troops in Afghanistan.
The Soviet presence in Afghanistan and the U.S. and Pakistani support to the Afghan mujahideen shifted the balance of the Indo-Afghan relationship. External strategic factors, namely, the importance of the Indo-Soviet ties and the historical Indo-Pak rivalry sidelined mutual historical and cultural ties between India and Afghanistan. India supported the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan because the Soviet Union was her strategic partner in the region to counter the close Pak-Sino relationship. Further, the Indian government was wary that Pakistan would expand its influence in the region as western and Arab states poured in weapons and billions of dollars in aid into Pakistan. In order to check Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan, India supported any regime there that opposed Pakistan. Hence the Indian government provided political and economic support to the Afghan communist regime from 1978 until its demise in 1992. In 1996, when Taliban took over Kabul with the backing of Pakistan, India supported the rebel Northern Alliance that resisted the Taliban rule. The Taliban had also given sanctuary to Islamic militant groups fighting against the Indian rule in Kashmir causing a direct security threat to India. In fact when Islamic militants hijacked an Indian airlines plane in 1999 they flew the plane to Afghanistan. There the Taliban allowed it to land and exchange hostages for some militants who had been jailed by the Indian authorities. So backing the Northern Alliance, the only force militarily resisting Taliban, served the security interests of India.
According to Uma Shankar, a political science lecturer at the University of New Delhi, India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan would be served best by “[a] broad based, secular and all ethnic representative government.” Such a government, she suggests, would be independent, sovereign, stable, and non-aligned which would be essential to the regional balance of power. So peace in Afghanistan, she states, is vital to regional and international peace and security. Currently, Afghans are in the process of forming a broad-based and multi-ethnic representative government that would replace the Taliban hardliners. Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah has proposed convening an Emergency Loya Jirgah (Grand Council) to form an interim moderate and representative government. Similar and complementary efforts are underway by Afghans in Pakistan and in western countries to form a united front for the formation of such a government.
India’s long term policy objectives towards Afghanistan may not be met by supporting only the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance has proven to be resilient against Taliban, but is not in a position to lead a future national government in Kabul because of its limited support within Afghanistan. India can ensure a friendly future government in Kabul by supporting a national process that would lead to the formation of a multi-ethnic, moderate and stable government. A more inclusive Indian policy would also win the support of Afghans.
Kawun Kakar is a graduate UC Hastings College of the Law and a member of the Institute for Afghan Studies.