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Indian govt gave stranded Afghan cadets a lifeline last year. Now they fear being ‘handed to Taliban’

New Delhi: An Afghan flag and military uniforms hang from a dusty window of a 2BHK apartment in Malviya Nagar. Six young Afghan military cadets have been living in the cramped flat for the past two months as illegal immigrants. They discuss whether to cook something fresh for iftar or eat leftovers from the previous night. It’s likely to be the latter — they’re living on savings and jobs are hard to come by with invalid visas.

It was quite a different story last year.

In February 2022, the Indian government offered a one-year training programme in English and marketing for around 80 Afghan cadets following the completion of their courses in various Indian military academies.

The eligible cadets were already pursuing higher military education in India, studying at prestigious institutions such as the National Defence Academy (NDA), Indian Military Academy (IMA), and Officers Training Academy (OTA) prior to the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan in 2021.

One of the beneficiaries of the programme was one 27-year-old, who is now living in the Malviya Nagar flat described earlier.

When the Taliban returned to power in August of 2021, he was enrolled in the IMA in Dehradun. After completing his course in December, he was relieved when the government of India offered him a one-year, all-expenses-paid course in English and business marketing at Punjab’s Lovely Professional University, starting 7 February, 2022.

“The Indian government offered us a lifeline last year but now they have left us out to dry. The moment the course in Punjab ended in February 2023, our applications for visa extension were rejected,” he told ThePrint.

His story echoes that of many Afghan cadets whose courses ended in February but who want to stay on in India since they fear they may have a target on their backs at home. Some say their visa extension applications have been rejected, while others claim that their existing visas were cancelled by India’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). They now fear deportation.

“We are now living here as illegal immigrants. We are scared that India will give us back to the Taliban as a ‘gift’,” he said.

However, sources in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told ThePrint that this was not the case.

“We have been regularly extending visas of all Afghan nationals. Some have returned to Afghanistan voluntarily. Visas will be extended and nobody will be forced to go back,” an MEA source said.

The Indian government has not had a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, but last June a “technical” team was sent to the mission in Kabul.

Earlier this month, foreign ministry officials of the Taliban government were expected to take part in an online training course organised under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) — the leading capacity-building platform of the MEA.

There are also reports that the Taliban has begun pushing India to allow it to station a representative in its embassy in New Delhi. One of the proposed candidates is Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a controversial spokesperson for the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry who has allegedly tried to intimidate journalists with death threats.

Also read: Dropping semesters to selling tea, Afghan students in India are struggling to survive

Jobless, short-term delivery gigs

India had offered about 80 Afghan cadets training courses in English and marketing training courses last year. Some were trained at Lovely Professional University in Phagwara, Punjab, and others at Aptech Training institute in Delhi.

About 30 went back to Afghanistan after their courses ended in February due to financial constraints or family reasons, according to cadets ThePrint spoke to. A few others ended up fleeing to Iran or Pakistan, fearing for their safety in Afghanistan, they added.

Currently, 48 remain in India, all of whom say their visas have been either cancelled or requests for extensions rejected.

The cadets range in age from 22 to 28 years old and live across localities in Delhi, including Tilak Nagar, Malviya Nagar, and Bhogal.

In order to afford rent, groups of five to seven cadets usually share an apartment. For instance, seven Afghan cadets share a 2BHK in Bhogal and split the monthly rent of Rs 14,000.

“We are all paying out of our savings. Some of us tried to get informal jobs which didn’t require Aadhaar and a valid visa,” explained one of seven, who has completed three years of training at NDA and one year at IMA.

Afghan cadets' uniforms in a Delhi flat
Two Afghan cadets who trained at the National Defence Academy hold up their military uniforms | Pia Krishnankutty | ThePrint

According to him, two of his flatmates were working as delivery boys for a packaged water company but had to quit due to constraints during Ramadan.

“It was difficult for them to work eight hours a day while fasting. So, they had to quit. Also, there’s a loss of dignity when, as a military cadet, you have to stoop to doing such jobs,” he added.

Exit forms, fears of ‘revenge killing’

A few Afghan military cadets stuck in India have received exit forms, which are government-issued documents granting permission for an individual to leave the country. However, the language used in the form has left some recipients confused.

For example, one such cadet, who was part of the course at Punjab’s Lovely University, received an exit form on 9 February — two days after his course ended. It mentioned that he must leave India by 22 February.

A copy of the exit form seen by ThePrint reads: “Visa extension cannot be granted. Take exit within given time.”

“What do they mean by ‘take exit within given time’? Does it mean we can stay here indefinitely, or will they deport me?” he asked.

He claimed to have reapplied for a visa extension twice since receiving the form but received emails from the FRRO that his applications were “closed”.

The cadets have been warned by their families in Afghanistan against returning, as they are likely to have a target on their backs, they said.

In 2021, an investigation by the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch documented that within the first three months of Taliban rule, more than 100 former members of Afghan security forces were either killed or forcibly disappeared. These were viewed as “revenge killings” by the Taliban against all those who were part of the previous democratic government in Afghanistan.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: What Myanmar refugees in Delhi want from Indian govt: Official status & exit permit, but above all, dignity

Source: The Print

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