Nobody can doubt India’s feelings for Afghans, says Jaishankar on student visas

Nobody can doubt India’s feelings for Afghans, says Jaishankar on student visas

As Afghan students protest visa denial, EAM Jaishankar cites security concerns, trust and efficiency of visa system

No one can doubt India’s “feelings” for Afghans, said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, facing a question on the cancellation of visas to Afghan students who were pursuing their studies in India, and have been unable to return since the Taliban takeover last August.

At the time, New Delhi had revoked all pre-existing visas issued to Afghan citizens, and announced a new “Emergency e-visa” (Em-X-Misc e-visa) process. However, officials say that of the tens of thousands of applications that were received last year, e-visas have only been issued to less than 300 Afghans, most of them Hindus and Sikhs fleeing the Taliban, while none of the 2,500 students remaining in Afghanistan have been issued any. The denial has prompted formal protests from the Afghan Ambassador in Delhi as well as a recent demonstration outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul that reopened in June.

“We had a situation where we had to pull out our embassy, we did not even have a presence on the ground to verify what is what. At that time there was lot of uncertainty about whose passport was whose, whose visa was whose…these are real issues out there,” said Mr. Jaishankar, speaking at a session in Vadodara on “Rising India and the World” where Afghan student Mohammad Ali Irfan, studying in Gujarat asked the question “on behalf” of the 2,500 stranded students, many of whom had gone to Afghanistan when their classes were cancelled due to Covid. 

“India’s feelings for Afghan people, nobody can doubt,” Mr. Jaishankar added, referring to India’s aid consignments of wheat, medicines and vaccines to Afghanistan despite a “lot of problems”, and asked the students “to wait for [a] level of trust and efficiency” to come up to allow visas to be restarted. 

Facing pleas from the students both in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan students in India who can’t return home for fear they won’t be able to return to complete their education, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay says he has raised the issue on several occasions with officials in the Ministry of External Affairs. In addition, the Afghan embassy, which represents the previous Afghanistan Republic and not the Taliban regime, has also requested the MEA to issue visas at least for the female students amongst the applicants, as they especially face the brunt of the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education.

“We have not received any convincing reason so far for why the visas to Afghan students, who were pursuing studies in India have not been given,” Mr. Mamundzay told members of the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM) grouping in Delhi. 

“No Afghan citizen has ever carried out any major terror attack in another country…so these students should not be unnecessarily suspected on security grounds,” he said in response to a question from The Hindu about New Delhi’s stated concerns about security.

When asked, MEA officials said the question of the Afghan Emergency X-Misc visas is handled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and out of their purview. Government officials didn’t respond to questions about whether the decision to only issue visas to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus was linked to the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that has not been implemented yet, but makes a case only for fast-tracking citizenship for refugees from neighbouring countries belonging to non-Islamic faiths.

Despite the logjam for new visas, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which comes under the MEA, has decided to continue its annual policy since 2005, and granted Afghan students in India 950 scholarships for the upcoming 2022-23 session. 

Since the scholarships cannot be offered to Afghan nationals outside the country for the foreseeable future, the ICCR has given them to Afghan students already in India for studies, Afghan refugees from 1996-2001 as well as others who came to India before August 2021 and couldn’t return, as well as military cadets who have graduated from NDA but would like to continue to study in India. 

At present, an estimated 14,000 Afghan students are believed to be in India, studying at 73 universities like the M.S. University of Baroda where students questions Mr. Jaishankar from. Some like Farhad Shaheedzada, a PhD student who was in the audience said he would like to express his gratitude to India, but also hoped the government would relax the visa system soon, so he can visit his family in Afghanistan, whom he has been unable to see since 2019. 

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