Abdul Basir Azimi runs a large chemist shop in the bustling lanes of Lajpat Nagar II. He started it in 2000, when he came to Delhi from Afghanistan. Business, he says, has flourished. Azimi owns two more shops, a hotel, and a guesthouse, he says.
Five years ago, Azimi took Indian citizenship.
“My family owns two markets in Kabul. But I came to India because of the constant violence there. Here, I can work in peace, my daughters can go to school without fear.”
There are two helpers in his shop — both Muslims who fled Afghanistan in 2019. “They came for the same reason I did. I at least had money enough to start a business here, it’s more difficult for them,” says Azimi. The men smile, but don’t speak. “They follow Hindi, but can’t hold a conversation.”
Does he think the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), by offering citizenship to Afghan minorities, makes the road to becoming Indian citizens more difficult for Muslim refugees? Will that impact how he votes in the upcoming Delhi polls?
Azimi grins. “They don’t want citizenship in India. People come to India because it’s easier to get visas to Europe or Canada after spending a few years here. It’s impossible to get to the West from Afghanistan directly, unless you walk or take one of those dangerous dinghies.” The men are by now standing behind Azimi, nodding in agreement.
“People of all religions are suffering in Afghanistan. Many want to get out. But job prospects are none too great in India. In the West, job opportunities and unemployment doles, both are better. India is a good place to learn English, register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).”
Then why did he take citizenship? “Oh, Indian authorities offered it to me. I am an asset, I pay lakhs in income tax. And I like India,” Azimi says. But does he think the CAA is discriminatory? “It is unnecessary. The government should be focussing on the economy. CAA won’t help refugees if they are jobless.”
In his 20 years in India, which government did he like best, at the state or the Centre? “I voted for BJP in the Lok Sabha polls. Oh no, sorry, it was the Congress. I closed my eyes and pressed a button. I haven’t thought too much about the Assembly polls. We are businessmen, what do we care about politics? Arvind Kejriwal has done some good work, but the shop sealing episode was bad,” says Azimi.
A little way from Azimi’s shop, in a basement in a residential area, runs a small Afghan Christian Church. On Saturday evening, a bunch of refugees has come to meet Pastor Adib Maxwell. The pastor came to India in 2008. The other six arrived between 2006 and 2014. They all have refugee cards issued by the UNHCR.
“In Afghanistan, we lived under the threat of arrest, attack, killing. Conversions are illegal. Family members disown you when they hear you have renounced Islam. Neighbours report you,” says Pastor Maxwell, who is from Mazar-i-Sharif.
Others have similar stories. “I liked making statues. I would make figures of animals for children’s parks. But to the Taliban, even that was idolatry. They threatened to chop off my hands, videos of people having their fingers cut off would be sent to me. You can imagine what they do to people who worship idols,” says a man hailing from south Afghanistan.
Asif, a student who came to India in 2016, says: “Some of us would meet in secret at another Christian’s house. A suicide bomber attacked us, two people died.”
What made them embrace Christianity amid such risks? “Call of faith”, “peace”, there are murmurs. “Some people came to know of Christianity through White soldiers stationed in Afghanistan,” says Pastor Maxwell.
“For some years I lived in Pakistan, where my wife’s German teacher was a Christian,” says a man who identifies only as Aziz.
Are they happy the CAA offers them citizenship?
“How will that help? There are no jobs here,” is the chorus. Still, they would have some stability, the right to vote. “That wouldn’t really help if there was no note here, would it,” the Pastor smiles, patting his pocket.
“I own land in Afghanistan. If I took up citizenship here, I would have to renounce my Afghani citizenship,” says Aziz. “A long-term visa works better for me, I can’t give up everything I have in Afghanistan.”
So what’s the plan?
“Most of us want to move to Europe. The UNHCR helps, but it is a very slow process. India has been good to us, it’s a safe place to live out the wait,” says the statue-maker.
“Not everyone realises we are not Indians. People keep asking me how the snowfall is in Kashmir,” says Aziz. “He is assumed to be from Manipur,” he points to his neighbour.
Are their lives impacted by the party in power? “People are generally friendly. However, under Kejriwal, government schools are doing better. Most of our kids go to government schools. We have seen improvement,” says Aziz.
Do they know of anyone who has taken citizenship? “A Sikh friend’s family has. They came to India in the 1980s,” says Aziz.
Afghani Sikhs too have chemist shops in Lajpat Nagar. At one such shop works Gagandeep Singh Kakkar, who fled Kabul in 2016. “Four of my family members were killed in a terror attack. Unlike Christians, we aren’t converts. Sikhs have been living in Afghanistan for generations. But you never feel safe,” says Kakkar.
He has missed the CAA deadline of 2014. Does he wish he had come a few years earlier? “I would like to go to Canada, actually. The economy is better. More opportunities,” he says.
Another person walks into the shop. “His passage to Canada is almost booked. Lucky fellow. Sikh associations there help refugees immigrate. But in Afghanistan, even availing such help is difficult,” says Kakkar’s boss.
Are they happy the BJP brought in CAA? “It will definitely help those who can’t make it to the West. For that, we are thankful,” says Kakkar.
Do they know of anyone who has taken citizenship in India? A man outside the shop, Kamal Sidhu, provides a phone number. “Half the people inside that shop were Afghanis, even those pretending to be Indians. That’s one of the reasons India is a preferred destination. Easy to blend. This number is of a friend of mine. They have been settled in India for long,” says Sidhu.
A woman answers the call. “I took Indian citizenship in 2009. But that’s because I have family here. My sister married an Indian,” says Juhi Gill.
Will the CAA impact the Delhi elections? “Indians who have never interacted with a refugee might get influenced by it. But people like us care more about who can give us a peaceful life. We have seen conflict. So more than emotive issues, we will vote keeping in mind positive action on the ground.”
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