October 2, 2003
For Indians visiting Afghanistan, there’s comfort to be found among their own. In Kabul, the city’s most popular restaurant is Anaar, owned by an enterprising Dilli-walla called Sumeer Bhasin. Diplomats, international aid workers and wheeling-dealing businessmen congregate here every evening.
In Kandahar, there’s India’s consul general Om Prakash Bhola, a calm, courteous IFS officer. He serves the best masala chai in town and lives in a charming, flower-filled chalet in Now-shahar or New Town, with the only well-paved road in the city.
He asks if I would like to dine at the consulate the first evening I arrive, and, before that, attend the evening service at the local Sikh temple. Of course I would.
There are 25 Sikh families in Kandahar now. There were many more. They fled to India during Taliban rule but some have returned. It’s their home, and better than the squalid refugee camps in India. They look like Afghans, some even wear skull caps, speak the local language, run small shops. They only worship differently.
The temple is like any other Sikh temple in India. There’s the Granth, beautifully festooned with brocade and flowers. The bhajans are the same, the karah prasad tastes the same as that offered at my gurumandir in Bombay.
But this temple is crowded. It is perhaps the only evening outing the community has. There are lots of children, and they squeal and chatter though the bhog ceremony. We step out when it is over. The community elders warmly invite us to the langar dinner. We decline, but they hospitably press us with melons, grapes, Pepsi and some roti-sabzi. The Sikhs don’t get too many visitors.
The young teenaged girls, intensely pretty and modest as only women in Afghanistan can be, gather around and ask me, ‘‘We watched you pray, and we wished you were our sister.’’
My response is spontaneous: of course, I already am. Yes, I am joined to them in spirit. But their lives are not as sparkling as their smiles. The elders later explain that there’s no schooling for the Sikh children here. They used to go to local schools and were exempted from Koranic studies. But under the Taliban they had to study the Koran, and then there was no school allowed at all.
Now there’s still forced Koranic studies, so Sikhs prefer to keep their children at home. They’ve asked Sikh organisations in India for help, but so far not much has transpired. Consul General Bhola has been trying to help.
The evening fills me with compassion and, strangely, with the joy of being able to worship a different faith freely in an Islamic country. It is the way Afghanistan used to be in the old days — a confluence of cultures, the crossroads of Asia. A centre of learning, where Buddhism flourished.
Nigel Allen, a geographer and expert on the cultures of the Hindukush at the University of California in Davis, has been traveling the region for several years. He thinks Afghanistan, as a land of passes, can again become and succeed as a transit economy, like Dubai.
But he says the remote mountain culture will always have to be subsidised. He compares Afghanistan to Himachal Pradesh, where almost all of the 16,000 or so villages have a telephone and are reacheable by a three-hour walk on a road. But this is subsidised by the central government. ‘‘There can be a decent life for people in the mountains, but it has to be subsidised,’’ says Allen.
It isn’t only India’s mountain states that Afghanistan can emulate; it’s India’s democratic model too. In June 2004, Afghanistan will hold its first ever free election. The draft of the constitution will be made public soon. The people have been invited to give their views, but no one knows what the constitution will contain — Islamic law, which will bring back the terror of Taliban rule, or a liberal document that will enshrine the values of a modern state.
Few Afghans have participated in the process of building their own nation. The processes are being put in place by foreigners, the United States and the United Nations.
The experience of the developed world would not serve Afghanistan well. For like India, Afghanistan is poor, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious and multidimensional. All these parts must have a voice — that’s what has made India survive as a united nation.
Agreed, it’s taken India 50 years to reach this level, bumbling and muddling through to become the noisy, chaotic, proud democracy it is. India started with the advantage of having leaders of vision, like Gandhi and Nehru. Elections have ensured long-suppressed lower castes, voiceless for centuries, are finally finding a place on the national stage. There are few astute grassroots leaders like Laloo Prasad Yadav, who have risen to public office through the ballot, to be found anywhere from China to Chad.
Afghanistan doesn’t have such leaders, nor a unified vision. It will have to endure growing pains. Its ancient culture has regressed into infancy again from countless wars and lack of political nourishment.
But it can leapfrog some of the more painful learning by adopting India’s inclusive model. For instance, under current legislation in Afghanistan only those who can sign their names can vote. In a country with eight per cent literacy, how will a fair election be held?
India has mastered the process of voting for its illiterate millions with the use of symbols and the thumb print. Why not bring in India’s upright and tough election commissioners? No one in power in Kabul I met had given this much consideration.
Of course India is not perfect. Women are still fighting for their rights, the lower castes are still suppressed, minorities still get the wrong end of the stick. But the field of equality is wide open to them and they will eventually get there. India offers hope. On the return flight from Kabul, I arrive in New Delhi and look at the airport with new eyes. I feel like I’ve landed in the 21st century after being in the seventh century time warp that is Afghanistan. Home feels like heaven.
Perhaps some day Afghans will feel that way about their country too. One day, Kandahar will teach Buddhism again. The Kabul river will flow again in Kabul. The European-style houses that flank it on either side will be restored. The pretty blue and yellow ancient mosques will welcome visitors. The poets will reappear. And Kabul will be the centre of central Asia again.
But it’s going to be a long, long wait for Afghanistan.
Part I: Come home to Kandahar
(The author is India bureau chief for BusinessWeek)
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