THE A343 Kam Air flight that departed New Delhi Thursday afternoon carried a motley group of passengers, but not enough to fill even half the 300-seater.
Among the 90 or so travellers: Afghan students returning home; a doctor on leave from her hospital in New Delhi to visit her ailing mother and hoping to return to India after a month; a man who had managed to get a medical visa and was returning home after his treatment; a clutch of aid workers, mostly Indian, working at the UN and other humanitarian organisations based in Kabul.
Also, an Indian professional who had departed from Kabul on the Indian Air Force plane on August 17 last year and was returning to “assess” the situation. Plus an MEA delegation that was met on the tarmac by some officials of the Taliban regime.
Scheduled to take off at 1 pm, the flight left two and half hours late because a massive amount of cargo had to be loaded. It was being sent by the government. Weary of questions about the delay, airlines ground staff hazarded the guess it could be a consignment of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan — food and medicines.
Kam Air, an Afghan airline company, restarted Kabul-Delhi flights once a week from mid-June. Thursday’s flight was its eighth round trip. Ariana, the main Afghan airline, may also resume flights to India.
A year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the plane to Kabul offered a small glimpse into New Delhi’s tentative efforts to build a relationship with the Taliban, without recognising the regime. The official line, as laid out by National Security Adviser Ajit K Doval at the fourth Regional Security Dialogue in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in May is that India has a special relationship with Afghanistan and its people, and this would continue to guide its Afghanistan policy, but also that the Taliban must form an inclusive government that provides representation to all its peoples. That it respects women’s rights and allows girls to return to school and removes restrictions on women including on their employment. India has also repeatedly said that Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for cadres of terrorist groups to plot attacks on other countries.
Following more than a dozen countries, India recently reopened its embassy in Kabul in June with a small group of officials headed by an IFS officer who is officiating as deputy chief of mission.
The tarmac reception to the official delegation created a buzz in the bus ferrying the other passengers to the terminal.
The Indian professional, who did not want his identity revealed, said he would “assess” the situation and take a call on whether he could return to work in Kabul. Last year, he, his wife and their child were among the hundreds who caught the first IAF plane sent by India to evacuate its nationals.
He recalled those final hours in Kabul just a year ago and the nerve-racking bus ride to the airport from the Indian embassy. Both he and his Afghan colleague, who dropped him off at the Indian mission, were in tears, he recalled.
His wife had pleaded with him not to make this trip, he said. But he had told her that he would, at least, collect his original documents and certificates that he had left in safekeeping in trustworthy hands.
An Afghan doctor, who obtained her post-graduate qualification in gyanaecology and obstetrics and is now employed in a New Delhi hospital, said she had taken leave from her work as her mother had suffered a stroke and her family members had insisted that, as a doctor, it was her duty to come back and look after her mother.
She hoped she would get a visa to return after a month to her home in south Delhi that she and another Afghan woman have rented together. She had mixed feelings about going back. Her brothers had told her Afghanistan was now entirely safe. But she was apprehensive, and worried about the loss of freedom for women, and the restrictions that she would have to observe.
“But Afghanistan is my home, that is where I must finally live,” she said, trying to brush off her apprehensions.
An Afghan couple living in Australia transited through Delhi to catch the flight, as did another expat Afghan family. They hoped to return back to Australia within a couple of weeks.
An Afghan businessman, who came back to Kabul from his long-time home in the US recently, had decided to visit India to meet friends and was returning after a satisfying week. He travelled on a long-term visa that he had obtained some years ago in the US. It had been cancelled during Covid but had been restored recently, he said.
One man was returning to Kabul after medical treatment in New Delhi. Asked if Afghans were now getting visas to travel to India for medical reasons, he said: “Some have got the visas, I was one of the lucky ones”. Since last year, India has issued about 200 emergency visas in response to online applications.