New Delhi: About 700 Afghan nationals, who completed their educational programmes through Indian scholarships earlier this year, find themselves in a state of uncertainty. With their homeland now under Taliban rule and severely hindered by visa regulations, they are trapped in a state of limbo, unable to return or proceed with further studies or get work.
India usually offers over 1,000 scholarships annually to Afghan students. However, this year, no relevant announcements have been made, plunging these individuals’ lives into turmoil.
Having recently concluded their studies, they are reluctant to return to an Afghanistan governed by the Taliban, who pose significant challenges for their education and careers. Even if scholarships aren’t forthcoming, many students are not averse to funding their own courses. But universities are hesitant to admit them without approval from the Union government.
Among the 700-odd students, nearly 200 are women, who face being confined to the four walls of their houses if they go back to Afghanistan.
Twenty three-year-old Ruma Mohebi completed her Bachelors of Business Administration earlier this year. Since then, she has been shuttling between Pune and Delhi, working with other compatriots in a similar situation, in an effort to catch the ear of any relevant authority.
“We have been sending emails, and contacting and meeting anybody who we think can help us. There has been no response so far,” said Mohebi, who met The Wire in a central Delhi lane outside the headquarters of Ministry of External Affairs’ cultural wing, Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
She, along with a group of 20 to 30 other students, had come to ICCR to meet with officials to persuade them to understand their situation. She was not too hopeful.
“There has been no response. It is not safe to go back to Kabul. You know how it is for girls out there. I won’t be allowed to do anything. It is not safe,” she said, tugging at her white scarf. With her visa set to expire next month, time is running out.
According to the UN, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school and effectively barred from political participation. Afghan women are now mostly restricted from working outside the home, they must cover their faces in public, and they have to be accompanied by a male chaperone when they travel, it noted.
Last week, around 100 Afghan women who had secured education scholarships in UAE were not allowed to leave when they arrived at the airport.
Parwana Hussaini, a 25-year-old who completed her masters in sociology in Chandigarh, is also at her wit’s end. “I know from my friends who had finished and gone back earlier before the Taliban came back that the situation is very difficult…they can’t leave the house at all. They are all trapped. I know that I can’t go back,” she told The Wire on phone.
With her visa running out in December, she still has a little bit of time to remain in India. But such a temporal buffer is not a cause for celebration to her. “One of my teachers suggested that I apply for a course. I know that I may not get in as it is already too late, but that may help me to stay on,” she said helplessly.
India had used the scholarships as a way to leverage influence in the years of the Afghan Republic. It used to give 500 scholarships per year, which increased to 1,000 from 2012-2013.
In his 2017 book on India’s involvement in Afghanistan, Avinash Paliwal described the higher education scholarships offered by New Delhi as a diplomatic tool “co-opt provincial Afghan politicians”.
Less than a year before the Taliban rolled into Kabul, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had boasted about the Indian education scholarships for Afghans. “More than 65,000 Afghan students have studied in India under various scholarship programmes and while I speak 15,000 students are presently [at present] studying in India. Three thousand scholarships so far have been granted to young Afghan women to pursue higher studies in India,” he told a donors conference in November 2020.
Many of those who got these scholarships are now left stumped by the silence of the Indian government.
Most have spent the last few months on repetitive rounds of visits to local ICCR offices, lawmakers, the Afghan embassy and the MEA. In Delhi, particularly, students say they have had multiple meetings with ICCR officials. But that has shed little clarity on their situation.
“They tell us that no scholarships will be given this year. That’s the decision till now, but that could also change. Then they also tell us that we should go back as the situation is now normal. How can they say that it is normal there, when we know the ground situation. How can the women students be told to go back with the knowledge of what is happening there?” asked Ishaq Sarwari, who completed his masters from Punjab University.
Sarwari, who is coordinating the lobbying efforts of the students, highlighted that they are finding it impossible to get admission on their own anywhere. “In my own university, I told them, ‘Give me seat and that I will finance it myself’. But they said that they can’t give it to an Afghan till there was clearance from government. Is our studying illegal?” he asked.
For the majority of the students, their financial situation was so dire that a scholarship was key to funding their further studies. Most of their families in Afghanistan are facing their own challenges to survive back home.
“Those who could leave Afghanistan have left. It’s only those who don’t have money who are trapped in here,” said Mohebi.
With every passing day spent without a response from the Indian government, the students lose more time from the brief window to apply for courses in this academic year.
“We don’t have work permits. We don’t have visa. Our future is completely dark,” said another student, Mustafa Bahadurzada.