KOLKATA: The deepest cut to peace and stability in our neighbourhood in recent times ended up being inflicted on India's independence day. On August 15, 2021, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled his country, making way for the Taliban to take over the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
The tremors of the downfall of Afghanistan's experiment in democracy were felt around the world, especially by non-resident Afghans. The diaspora erupted in protest in various countries. More than 2,000 kms away from Kabul, in the city of Kolkata, many Afghans gave up food and water after Ghani's departure from Kabul.
"Many in the Afghan community considered Ashraf Ghani a beacon of hope. They cried when he left. Many stopped eating too," said Yasmin Nigar Khan, the President of the All India Pakhtoon Jirga-e-Hind. "Ghani has not tendered his resignation yet, which means constitutionally, the democracy is still upheld by the Vice President and has not been surrendered to the Taliban," she went on to insist.
Yasmin is the granddaughter of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also called 'Badshah Khan' and famously known as 'Frontier Gandhi', a devout ally of Mahatma Gandhi who led a non-violent movement for the rights of the Pashtuns in the then North-West Frontier Province.
According to Yasmin, her father Khan Lala Jaan Khan was adopted by Abdul Ghaffar Khan and made the torchbearer of the dream of Pakhtoon independence. All India Pakhtoon Jirga-e-Hind was born in 1983. Based out of Kolkata, it is the continuation of Abdul Ghaffar Khan's Pakhtoon dream and offers a stage for Afghan expatriates and visitors to unite and support each other as a community.
"My father used to take me along to his meetings and conferences since I was a child. He told everyone, 'She will lead the organisation when I am gone'. So, here I am," Yasmin said.
Defying what she called the orthodox 'Talibani mindset', she became the president of the All India Pakhtoon Jirga-e-Hind when she was just 25 years old. "Sixty per cent of our community were opposed to having a woman as a leader. But they were won over when the then Home Minister Indrajit Gupta agreed to meet me within one of two days of him assuming office and promised me his full support for the Pathans in India," Yasmin remembered fondly.
Her one and only trip as a teenager to Kabul in 1986 is still fresh in her mind. "Women would wear jeans and skirts, and go to schools and colleges. Many wore headscarves, many didn't," she recalled.
These might prove to be acts of extreme defiance in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan now. But Yasmin seeks to impart courage. "To the women in Afghanistan right now, I'd say, don't be scared. You're not alone, women all over the world are here to support you."
What about the bonds that tie Kabul with Kolkata? According to both Yasmin, as well as Amir Khan, who leads the pan-Indian Pakhtoon organisation named 'Khudai Khidmatgar', many Afghans travel to India, particularly to Kolkata, primarily to access its affordable healthcare facilities.
"The wars in Afghanistan have left the Afghans with no proper healthcare system that they can fully rely on. Kolkata promises them not just healthcare but also a community they can connect with," Amir said.
His work in Khudai Khidmatgar connects him with many Afghan travellers who come to Kolkata and they have remained in touch with him even after returning to Afghanistan.
Danish Khan, Yasmin's younger brother and the secretary of The All-India Pakhtoon Jirga-e-Hind, recalled a famous incident to emphasise the acceptance Pathans have in the City of Joy. "When Netaji famously escaped from his house arrest, he took on the guise of a Pathan. He went to Germany through Afghanistan, and the Afghans supported him in his journey."
The Afghan expatriates in Kolkata are popularly known as 'Kabuliwalas', meaning 'those from Kabul'. The term gained heightened prominence after the eponymous novel by Rabindranath Tagore and its famous feature film adaptation. The Pathan protagonist in Tagore's imagination was a dry-fruit seller who developed a fatherly affection for Mini, a child in a middle-class Bengali household. Another Bengali author and journalist, Syed Mujtaba Ali, also popularised Afghanistan in Bengali culture with his vivid, and often humorous travelogues from his teaching assignment at Kabul.
Although 'Kabuliwalas' are popularly known to be moneylenders, according to Amir, the Pathans in Kolkata are currently engaged in a variety of professions like selling clothes and dry fruits. Born and raised in the city, Amir himself runs a car dealership for used and refurbished cars.
Ruzi Khan, one of the many Pashtuns who attended Yasmin's conference on August 19, Afghan Independence Day, is a garment seller in Kolkata's Bowbazar. "We (the Afghan expatriates) have been in India for a long time now, and we are very very happy with our lives here. Our friendship with India is not new. But when it comes to our people back in Afghanistan, whose lives are in danger, we hope India will take care of them the way they took care of us," he said, teary-eyed.
The conference -- a passionate, emotion-laden affair -- saw members speak fondly of the Afghanistan they call 'home'.
"We don't want them (the Taliban), we don't accept them and we don't work for them. The new Islam is not our Islam," said Hashem Khan, on the verge of tears. "China betrayed us, Pakistan betrayed us, Iran betrayed us. America, who was our friend for twenty years, betrayed us... This was all China's and Pakistan's plan."
The gathering ended with the Afghan national anthem and slogans denouncing Pakistan and Taliban and supporting India.