South Asia

India's New Visa Policy for Afghans Is in Limbo, Leaving Thousands Tense

Students, those needing to travel for medical treatment and others feel short-changed by the new emergency visa system which sources say has so far churned out only a tiny fraction of all the previously issued visas that were cancelled.

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New Delhi: As the Taliban was swiftly advancing and conquering Afghan provinces in early August, Sadya Popalzai, an airline professional in Kabul, had to deal with another personal crisis when her father suffered an ischemic stroke.

Just like thousands of Afghans, she turned to India for her father’s medical treatment. After all, he had undergone a heart surgery in a Faridabad hospital six years ago. With visas stamped in their passport, seats were booked for her father to fly out of Kabul on August 15 to Delhi, where he would be treated at Max Hospital.

On that day, the Taliban entered Kabul to complete their re-conquest of Afghanistan – and in a blink, everything changed. Getting to the airport and boarding a flight became an impossible task.

Ten days later, she got another shock when New Delhi announced that all visas of Afghan nationals not in India were immediately cancelled. The airport was still non-functional, but repairs were ongoing and international civilian flights were on the horizon.

Popalzai, who works for Ariana airlines, has been at her wit’s end.

“There are no proper facilities for his treatment in Kabul. Everybody is crying at home. And you know the situation in Afghanistan. Everything is happening at the same time,” she said.

Popalzai and her family also applied for the newly introduced ‘e-Emergency X-Misc visa’ two weeks ago. Her application receipt says that the processing time will be 72 hours. She is yet to hear back.

“Please help us. We need to come to India,” she said on the phone from Kabul, her voice breaking.

Popalzai’s tale, unfortunately, is not unique. The Wire spoke to other Afghan nationals worried about India’s decision to cancel all visas and the silence over issuing a special category of e-visas.

Najiba, a gynaecologist, has accompanied her mother for her oral chemotherapy in AIIMS every three months since last September.

“I was distraught when I heard that all Indian visas had been cancelled. Please restore our earlier visa. We never faced problems ever. I don’t understand why it was cancelled,” she told The Wire, speaking in Hindi.

India has financed over $3 billion worth of development projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

New Delhi also made a substantial investment in people, with a generous visa policy for medical treatment, Afghan students, professionals for capacity building and connection. These were implemented over the years to build bridges after India’s near absence from Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

In a recent article published in The Times of India, India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Jayant Prasad, appealed, “With a new regime in Afghanistan, it is vital to prevent a break in contact with ordinary Afghans and preserve previous gains.”

The background for the rising concern has been the silence from the Indian government over the implementation of the visa policy on the ground.

On August 16, India’s first official response had been to state that it will facilitate “repatriation” of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs. About the rest, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that many Afghans had been “our partners in the promotion of our mutual developmental, educational and people to people endeavours”. “We will stand by them,” he committed.

A day later, India announced the new emergency e-visa category for Afghans just two days after the fall of Kabul, it was welcomed with high praise. India’s announcement was especially noted in the early days when global TV channels were filled with scenes of desperate Afghans besieging military planes, and Western countries struggled to get their evacuation programmes off the ground.

Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies and author of a book documenting India-Afghan relations, noted that it had been a significant “political signal” from New Delhi.

“This came when many countries of the world cannot accommodate many Afghans or do it selectively. That is when India’s decision to at least temporarily open the visa scheme, irrespective of faith, was a powerful signal. Also, from a domestic perspective, there has been so much debate related to the CAA [Citizenship (Amendmend) Act]. It has some kind of domestic political resonance by opening the door, in principle, to all Afghans coming in. That was an important decision,” Paliwal told The Wire.

As news spread of the new e-visa through Facebook and Telegram channels, there was a huge rush to apply for Indian e-visa.

While the praise that it garnered may have implied that India was ready to accept many Afghans, the contours and structuring of an emergency visa scheme meant from the start that India would accept only a fraction of the physical visas that had been cancelled.

Despite questions at media briefings, the Indian government has never stated how many Afghans have applied online under the new category.

It is learnt that around ten days ago, the number of online Afghan applicants for the emergency x-misc visa was about 15,000. This has further increased to about 25,000-30,000 currently.

Also read: What Lessons Can South Asian Nations Draw from the Afghan Experience?

The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is in charge of administering the visa policy, has not publicly stated how many visas have been given. But, according to multiple sources, the processing of online visa applications largely remains in limbo.

As per informed sources, the number of Afghan applicants who have managed to get an e-visa range from none to negligible. The Wire contacted the MHA to ask for the number of successful applicants who have been granted an e-visa, but no response has been received so far.

Among those who have applied for the emergency e-visas are the majority of those whose visas were “invalidated” by the August 25 notice.

The father of a two-year-old boy, Nawab (name changed), was to fly from Kabul to treat his wife suffering from a brain tumour on August 17. Nawab’s sister explained that the situation was “very stressful”, with no proper medical facilities, and her sister-in-law was struggling with her illness. “I don’t understand why the visas were cancelled, especially now that we don’t have any update on what is happening on travel to India,” she said.

“Why did India cancel previously granted visas?”

It is not clear to observers why India decided to cancel all fully vetted processed visas of Afghan nationals who were not in the country. A former government official with years of experience dealing with Afghanistan, who did not want to be identified, termed it a “very short-sighted and knee-jerk” move.

At a weekly media briefing on August 27, the MEA spokesperson had said that when the situation had “deteriorated immediately” after August 15, there were “reports of groups of people who had access, or who raided one of our outsourcing agency, where Afghan passports with Indian visas were there”.

“So in the light of the loss of Afghan passports containing Indian visas, our authorities were in a state of high alert. You will also recall that we were moving to the e-emergency visa system,” he said.

His answer was in the context of a question over the deportation of an Afghan member of parliament when she arrived in India on August 20, first reported by Indian Express.

But this explanation is also informally cited by official sources to be behind the decision taken by MHA to cancel all visas by officials.

On the same day that India issued that previous visas given to those not on Indian territory were invalidated, CNN-News 18 reported that Afghan passports with Indian visas were “stolen at a private travel agency in Kabul after it was raided by an armed group of Urdu speaking men backed by Pakistan ISI between August 15 and 16 soon”.

The Wire asked the MHA spokesperson about the decision to cancel earlier granted visas and whether passports had been stolen from the authorised outsourcing agency in Kabul. While he declined to answer and only referred to the August 25 press note, he also pointed out that the communiqué had only mentioned that some passports had been “misplaced”.

For the last 12 years, India had outsourced the collection of visa applications to Shahir Travel Agency, which had a large office in the downtown Shahr-e-Now neighbourhood.

Three days after the MHA notice on visas, the CEO of Shahir Travel Agency, Mohd Karim Dastagir, wrote on his firm’s Facebook page that reports in the Indian media about the agency being raided and items stolen was “not true and totally fake”.

“We have only been provided security by personnel in charge, all property are secure and our office is open and functioning. We look forward to begin accepting visa applications on behalf of Indian Embassy as soon as the Diplomatic Mission recommences operations again,” the Facebook post, dated August 28, stated.

Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan August 18, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Before the fall of Kabul, the travel agency collected visa applications in person at their office five days a week from Sunday to Thursday. At the time of the application, the biometrics and photographs of an applicant were captured if the candidate was applying for the first time.

The outsourcing agent then uploaded all information regarding the application, biometrics and photographs into the MHA’s ‘Immigration, Visa and Foreigner’s Registration & Tracking system’ on the same day. This network, which tracks foreign nationals from their visa application to their stay in India, links the outsourcing agency to the Indian embassy and Ministry of Home Affairs.

All the collected passports were sent to the embassy, which took ten working days to process the visa. This entailed verifying the two references given in both Afghanistan and India and other allied documents.

At the end of ten days, the passports, with or without visa stickers based on the decision of consular officers, were sent back to the outsourcing agency for distribution.

Over the last year, 300 to 400 Indian visas were granted daily to Afghan nationals, out of which around 70% were for medical treatment.

Also read: India and the Taliban: The Case for Constructive Engagement

The travel agency took applications on the last working day before the Taliban takeover on August 12. Just before the Indian embassy packed up, the last batch of passports was returned to the agency on the evening of August 15.

In total, Shahir Travel Agency had around 2,000 passports ready for distribution when the Taliban walked into Kabul. Of them, about 1,800 passports have been distributed so far.

Dastagir also claimed that the Taliban had visited the travel agency, just as it did with other commercial establishments in Kabul. “But nothing was taken, and we are functioning as normal. In fact, we are more concerned about the risk to our employees now, as they may get annoyed with us for such false reporting in the Indian media.”

Speaking to The Wire, the head of the Shahir Travel Agency said that it would be prudent to at least reverse the decision on cancellation of visas, which had been granted after a verification process. “The IVFRT system is a very robust process. The chances of misuse of visas by a third person is highly unlikely given that biometrics and photographs have been already uploaded into the system.”

He also called for the government to release the emergency e-visas at the earliest, even as he pointed out that it would be difficult for the Indian government to have the same amount of scrutiny as it did for visa processing in Kabul. “The ones that were granted by the embassy had their biometrics captured, and in-person interviews are done. I don’t know how it will be done for the e-visas.” With granting an emergency e-visa that is essentially a visa on arrival, personal knowledge of an applicant would become paramount.

Experienced observers of India-Afghan relations also pointed out that most Afghans travelling to India usually already have plans to apply for refugee status in the US or European countries when in Delhi, which means that providing them shelter is a relatively short-term proposition while retaining goodwill.

What about Afghan students in India?

Another policy decision that the Indian government has to take still is about Afghan students. There are around 2,200 students on Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) scholarships, while there are approximately 5,000-6,000 students who are self-financing courses.

India started to give out special scholarships for Afghan nationals through the ICCR since 2002.

Among those on ICCR scholarships, there are currently 400 Afghan students whose course ends on August 31. Usually, they are given an additional month till their visa period ends, and they have to leave. However, most don’t want to go back right now.

As per sources, they have been informally told that they can remain in India if they can get admission to another institution.

Another group of about 300 ICCR scholars are in Afghanistan. They had gone back due to the COVID-19 lockdown and participated through online classes. With Indian educational institutions opening up and the precarious security situation at home, nearly all of them have applied for e-visas to return to India to complete their courses. “On the issue of reaching India, the students say that will be their responsibility, and they want extensions even if there are no civilian flights yet,” said an official.

This category includes Fatima Yusufi, who is in Kabul, and pursuing a masters in international relations and area studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University through an ICCR scholarship. She shared emails sent to JNU authorities as far back as February, asking for an authorisation letter to apply for her Indian visa. However, she didn’t get any response – and now her situation is even more dire.

The largest group of 800 Afghan scholars are in the middle of their academic courses and currently reside in India.

ICCR, MEA’s cultural diplomacy wing, has been inundated with communications from Afghan students of all categories inquiring about the status of their visas. But they cannot give a clear response, as no decision has been taken so far on their fate.

As per officials, with the MHA preferring to view it with a narrow securitised viewpoint, the decision on the visas for Afghans will have to be taken at the highest political level.

A senior Indian official pointed out that the matter had to be dealt with with a sense of empathy and an eye on the long-term goal.

“In general, one of the big assets that we have built up in Afghanistan was through people to people contact, through giving them visas for education and medical treatment. A restriction on visas will impact the goodwill that one has built over the years,” said former Indian ambassador T.C.A. Raghavan, who had been joint secretary in charge of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

In the last decade, a high proportion of educated Afghans who have gone through portals of Indian education institutes manned top posts in the bureaucracy, academia and businesses.

Also read: At an Afghanistan Border Crossing, People Face Uncertainty and a Long Wait

On the decisions taken by India initially to cancel visas, he said, “I don’t know why we cancelled all Afghan visas when others haven’t, but it seems a very drastic move. I hope this will be remedied by the speedy issue of electronic visas to all deserving cases and all our friends.”

Paliwal pointed out that most Afghans who have studied and trained in India are from the upper-middle or upper classes, as only they have the resources to take a flight.

“India has utilised the Afghan migrant community for strategic purposes as well. They bring in not such cultural and social connect, but basically, these are well-connected groups and individuals. That gives access into Afghanistan that perhaps you will be unable to do with an Indian travelling on the ground. Those political calculations go hand to hand,” he said.

It is also vital for India to keep faith with Afghan partners who have sought to leave home given likely risks, but their visas were withdrawn under the blanket cancellation.

“Getting Afghans who have worked with you closely, who understand how you operate on the ground is also of operational relevance for India. If you can’t help them now, you will lose assets on the ground. You burn allies on the ground and cut off options for the future, as people won’t trust you,” Paliwal asserted.