Driven Home By Covid, Stranded During Taliban Takeover, Hundreds Of Afghan Students Await Return to India

KANIKA GUPTA
 
07 Mar 2022 14 min read  Share

The education of more than 2,500 Afghan students is in limbo, six months after India cancelled visas—soon after the Taliban seized control of that country—and now ignores their emails and messages. Hundreds have scholarships that may lapse unless they get visas. Others struggle to attend online classes because they cannot afford Internet access, and with colleges in India opening up, these students are likely to fall further behind.

Students protesting outside Indian Embassy in Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul, Afghanistan on 2 Feb 2022/PHOTOGRAPHS BY MUJEEBULLAH DASTYAR

Kabul, Afghanistan: It was in the middle of the second Covid-19 wave in April 2021 that Ameena Safi, a 22-year old studying business administration at KLEF University in Andhra Pradesh, was asked to return home, as indeed were all other international students across India.


“They said that the hospitals are full, and we cannot help you if something happens,” said Safi, an ambitious student who aspires to use her education to help her country and family back home. Her father, director of national security in Sar-e-Pol in northern Afghanistan, had four other daughters and supported her decision to get an education abroad. 


Home was a flight from Vijayawada to Delhi, another to Kabul, then another to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth largest in Afghanistan and a three-hour long car ride from there, an overall journey of more than 2,600 km northwest to the province of Jawzjan along that country’s northwestern border with Turkmenistan. Left with no choice, Safi left for home on 2 May 2021. 


Safi, a first-year bachelor of business administration student, who came to India to access a quality of education she could not get in Afghanistan, did not realise it would be a one-way journey.


As she reached home, her education visa had already expired. More than three months later, on 7 August, Sheberghan, the provincial capital of her province, fell to the Taliban.

 

As she anxiously watched the Taliban make sweeping territorial gains, gaining one province after another, Safi quickly tried to get her visa renewed at Indian missions in two Afghan cities, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul.


Each time, the conflict reached before her. 


‘Every Second, Every Hour, Every Minute, I Wait’

Safi first  travelled 135 km on the back of a pick-up truck amid tense conflict for more than 2 hours to reach the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif in the neighbouring province of Balkh on 8 August 2021. A call from the consulate the next day told her to come the following day for her visa process. 


By the time she reached their office the next day, India had pulled out most of its staff and closed the consulate. She was turned away.


Shafi then travelled a further 426 km, making a perilous journey alone as the Taliban inched closer to the capital Kabul, fighting government forces along the way. 


“I was scared that if they stopped the bus and asked me where my mahram (a male chaperone for women mandated by the Taliban) was, I wouldn’t know what to say,” said Safi. 


A firefight raged on the highway, so the bus stopped. Safi and the other passengers were asked to hide behind large boulders on the side of the road to avoid being hit by rockets. “They were so consumed by the fight that they luckily didn't ask me about a mahram,” she said.


A journey of nearly eight hours took nearly 12 hours for Safi who reached the Indian embassy in Kabul on 13 August. Since it was a Friday, she was asked to return on 16 August, Monday, to get her visa stamped because the embassy closes over the weekend. 

 

But the Taliban rolled into Kabul on 15 August, and India hastily evacuated its mission, severing diplomatic ties with Afghanistan indefinitely. 

 

“Every second, every hour, every minute I am waiting for my visa because I don't have any other plan than to go to India,” said Safi.


More than 2,000 Afghan students like Safi have since found their dreams and careers in a state of uncertainty. Most student visas have either been suspended or cancelled, many Afghan students told Article 14 in conversations from home.


Six months after the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan, Afghan students do not know how they will  return to their colleges and universities in India, where the government has said nothing about reissuing visas and has largely been ignoring emails and messages from worried or stressed Afghan students.


Hundreds have scholarships that may lapse unless they get visas. Others struggle to attend online classes because they cannot afford Internet access, and with colleges in India opening up, these students are likely to fall behind in their academic work unless they get visas.


Six Months & Waiting For Visas

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) cancelled all existing Afghan visas, including those awarded to Afghan students for their studies in Indian universities, and established an e-visa programme


On 27 August, the MEA said that more than 1,000 visas issued by the embassy in Kabul were stolen from the embassy’s official outsourcing agency, a charge denied by the agency’s CEO via a Facebook post


Six months later, Afghan students are still waiting for an update from the MEA and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), an autonomous body under the administrative control of MEA, founded in 1950 to promote cultural exchanges between India and other countries. 

 

As many as 4,000 students arrive in India every year from Afghanistan to pursue higher education; the ICCR awards more than 1,000 of them scholarships.


Some of these students were either asked by college administrations to return home or decided to return voluntarily due to the deadly second wave of Covid-19 in April 2021. Like Shafi, they find no way to return.


Article 14 sought comment on 14, 15 and 16 February over email and Whatsapp from Rajesh Uike (director external publicity division), official MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi and the MEA helpdesk about Afghan student visas. None of these requests were answered. If there is an answer, we will update this story.


Education Restarts, But Without Afghans

Under guidelines issued on 11 February 2022 by the University Grants Commission, Indian colleges and universities could resume teaching, either offline or use a combination of in-person and offline instruction. 


These latest developments have exacerbated the concerns of Afghan students, who closely monitor news from India and fear they may miss out on their education. 


Karimullah Karim, 27, from the eastern province of Khost explained how he was awarded an ICCR scholarship to join Pune University’s MES Abasaheb Garware College for a Master of Science (computer applications) programme for the academic year 2021-22. 


Karim earned a Bachelor in Computer Applications (BCA) between 2016 and 2019 from Osmania University’s Nizam College in Hyderabad, Telangana. After he returned home in 2019, Karim was excited at the prospect of returning to studies. 


News of visa cancellation hit Karim hard.  “All the students stranded in Afghanistan are in depression, including me,” he said.


“I swear, I can’t sleep at night because I am worried that I might lose my scholarship, if I don't arrive in India on time,” said Karim. The scholarship conditions say he must arrive “latest by 14th July [2021] at the regional office (of the ICCR) with all the original documents”. That date has long since passed. 


“Everyone I know is suffering from anxiety and stress,” said Karim. “Why are we being treated like  terrorists?”


Their frustration rises because there is silence from the Indian government. 


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The Taliban Wait For Word From India 

On 2 February, some students staged a protest outside the now defunct Indian embassy in Kabul to draw attention to their situation.

 

“We don't want our education to suffer because of politics,” said a student protestor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are tired of waiting. My university has even stopped responding. I think they have cancelled my admission.”

 

According to some students, Taliban officials have reached out to the Indian authorities to request for visas for stranded students in Afghanistan. 


Abdul Qahar Balkhi, an Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, confirmed to Article 14 that the Taliban government had indeed requested the Indian government to resume issuing visas and scholarships to Afghan students. 

 

“India unfortunately has so far deferred (sic),” said Balkhi.


Such A Sweeping Order Unfair: Former Foreign Minister

India’s former finance and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, told Article 14 that it was “unusual” for India to delay visas for this long. 


He attributed the student-visa delays to a policy issue, either related to the administrative pressure of processing thousands of applications seeking visa extension or an uncertainty within the government about its Afghan policy.


“We have always maintained friendship with the people of Afghanistan and we should do nothing which will alienate them from us, irrespective of the regime in control of Kabul,” said Singh. “Therefore, such a sweeping order (to cancel all visas) is obviously unfair. The Taliban take over in Kabul does not mean that all Afghans have become Talibanis.”


Farid Mamundzay, the Afghan Ambassador in Delhi, said in a statement to Article 14 that the embassy was “working closely” with the foreign ministry to resolve the visa issue. 


“We are working closely with MEA to resolve the visa issues of all bonafide and stranded Afghan students, so they could return back to India and continue with their education at their respective universities at the earliest possible,” said Mamundzay. 


“In the recent weeks we have been able to bring back a few PhD scholars to New Delhi from Kabul, yet the larger number of these students remain in Afghanistan,” said Mamundzay. “India has been a steadfast partner of our people in every sphere, and the education sector has been at the top of their development agenda since 2001.”


The Waiting Game 

Despite many attempts to reach officials in India, Afghan students complained that they could get no clear answers about their e-visa applications.


A*, a 35-year-old from Laghman in eastern Afghanistan, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, said frantic attempts to get answers through Whatsapp numbers posted on the MEA’s website were met with muted responses of either “awaiting updates from the ministry of home affairs” or no response.  


‘A’ was to join Gujarat University’s Maharaja Sayajirao College as a PhD student in the department of journalism and mass communication. He was scheduled to fly out on 16 August 2021, but the events that unfolded the day before led to the closure of the airport. 


A day later, India announced the cancellation of all existing visas. 


Karim recalled sending 10 emails to various authorities, including the MEA, ICCR Pune, and the e-visa support team but getting no useful response. 


“The only time they [ICCR] got in touch with us was an email on 17 November asking for passport details,” said Karim. “I replied the same day with all the information. I haven’t heard back since then.”


According to a 3 February 2022 MEA media briefing, the issue of Afghan visas has been transferred to the ministry of home affairs.

 

According to a Dec 2021 report by the United Nations Development Program, Afghanistan is on the brink of economic collapse due to decades of war and sanctions. 


With the situation in Afghanistan worsening, and the students in limbo for six months, Karim said he wanted the Indian government to clarify if their scholarships were still valid.

 

“At least tell us what is happening with our scholarships,” said Karim. “If they have cancelled it, I would have no other option but to try to go to Europe illegally. There is only a 50% chance that I’ll reach there. But in Afghanistan, the alternatives are either one or none.”


Other students explained how their suspended education would wreck their ambitions.

 

‘They Never Reply’

Khatira Azizi, 24, from the central Afghan province of Bamiyan was admitted to a BBA programme with an ICCR scholarship at Andhra University’s School of International Business. She said she aspired to use her degree to start a business that would revive Afghanistan’s handicraft industry. 


Azizi said she did not even receive session login details for online classes that began on 15 January 2022 because she was required to come in person to India to confirm her admission. 


The ICCR’s latest guideline, issued on 8 October 2021, says students who have been accepted to the ICCR scholarship programme must be physically present in India to confirm their admission.


Like almost every other Afghan student, there has been no reply to her emails, requesting news of her visa, from the ICCR, her university, and the Indian embassy. 

 

“This is my only chance right now for a stable future,” said Azizi. “If India does not give me that chance, I will wait till my situation is stable and look at other colleges abroad.”

 

Iqbal Ihsas, 22, from the central province of Wardak, also a student with an ICCR scholarship for an MA in public administration at Punjabi University, Patiala, said that he applied for his visa on 18 August, but it had not yet been issued. 


Ihsas has put together a list of 2,500 students like him currently waiting for their visas. That list has been sent to the MEA for an update on their applications. There has been no reply from the ministry.


Another email sent by Iqbal on 22 September to the ICCR also went unanswered.


“This is very frustrating. I may have sent them a dozen emails but they never reply,” said Ihasas.  “Students here are losing hope every day, and the situation in Afghanistan keeps getting worse.”


A source in the ICCR, speaking on condition of anonymity since she was not authorised to talk to the media, said they were waiting for MEA approvals, which she hoped would come “very soon”.


Dire Straits

As these students await news on their visas, some have been missing classes, as universities begin opening in India and classes move offline. Some universities do not have online classes for Afghan students who cannot be there. 

 

In any case, with an economic crisis growing in Afghanistan, many students said they could not even afford Internet services required to stay connected to their online classes.  Scholars awarded ICCR scholarships are entitled to monthly stipends for daily expenses. But as they wait to go to India, they have not been paid these stipends.


Mohammed Shafiq, 22, from Kabul, a second year 4th semester student of Bengaluru’s Jain University, said he was fortunate enough to attend classes online for his BBA programme (after which he hopes to launch his own startup). 


“At first we had online classes, but I didn’t have a proper Internet connection, so I couldn’t attend,” said Safi, the student quoted at the start of this story. “But now the classes will start offline, and I will miss every single one of them because I am still in Afghanistan waiting for my visa.”  

 

Last Hope For Afghan Women

For female Afghan students who were awarded scholarships in India, time is running out, as the Taliban restrict their rights and talk of preventing travel abroad without a male escort. 

 

Sohaila Sadat, admitted to an MA programme in public administration at Kurukshetra University, was also working at a travel agency authorised by the Indian Embassy when she received her visa on the morning of 15 August 2021. 


The Taliban arrived the same day, and two days later, Sadat’s visa was cancelled.

 

“You know how it is for women here,” said Sadat. “Women don't have any rights in Afghanistan. The Taliban want to stop us from studying, working, going out. What future do I have in this country? It is like a prison. When my visa was cancelled, I couldn't even breathe. I don't have any plans other than going to India to finish my studies.”


Sadat had been attending her classes online—which was difficult because of the spotty Internet and electricity—since her programme began but that ended when classes moved offline. Her exams start on 5 March.

 

“My syllabus is still incomplete,” said Sadat. “I am so stressed. I just want to come to India and continue my studies.”

 

The Taliban have announced that universities and schools will reopen for everyone in accordance with the sharia and have enforced gender segregation. On 27th Feb, the Taliban official spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that they would not allow women to travel abroad without a male chaperone.

 

“Based on Islamic values women are not allowed to travel without an accompanying male,” said Mujahid, adding that the Taliban government was considering ways to ensure that the requirement did not affect female students who had scholarships to study abroad.

 

Women said they feared the worst.

 

“The Taliban have brought women back to zero,” said Homeira Qadri, PhD, an Afghan professor and author. “One of the worst treatments of women by the Taliban is that they have closed the gates of schools and universities… girls who were supposed to start their school year abroad are severely confused.” 


Sadat expressed concern that the Taliban would not let women like her leave the country, even if they had a visa, but she said she hoped India would end the visa suspense.  


“For us India has always been a friend,” said Sadat. “But the critical situation that we are in right now is very disappointing.”


(Kanika Gupta is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi, currently working out of Kabul, Afghanistan. She writes on human rights, culture, and women’s rights from conflict zones.)