Pashto and Farsi chatters, Burqa clad women, glistering restaurants adorned with linguistic signposts mark Delhi’s most thronged Lajpat Nagar market. It was not the case a few years back.
Often called ‘Little Kabul’, ‘Afghan Nagar,’ amongst other polysyllables, nomenclature twisting is the latest pastime in the vicinity. Influx of Afghanis on pretexts of medical treatment, education, trade, asylum to New Delhi (mostly to Lajpat Nagar) has alarmed the indigenous population in the area. It is transforming an identity which once was dominated by migrated refugees (Multanis and Sindhis) from Pakistan after Partition.
While the ever-growing multiplicity of ethnic Afghan restaurants and chemist shops in the dingy by-lanes of Lajpat Nagar baffles some, their nomadic stays in crowded colony houses perplex others. A diasporic Afghan community is beginning to take shape in Delhi’s southeast district colonies, perhaps, making way for future machinations.
What attracts them
From health treatments to education, India suits Afghan nationals in more ways than one. Statistically, there were more than 18,000 Afghan refugees in India as of December 2011, according to the foreign ministry. It is unclear how many more unregistered Afghans are living here. Last year, the largest number of refugees worldwide - 2.6 million in 82 countries - was from Afghanistan, according to a report released by the United Nations in June. According to recent estimates, as many as 100 Afghans come to New Delhi from Kabul everyday, most of whom are patients looking for treatment that is not available in their country. In winters when the Delhi weather becomes more amenable to the Afghans, this number increases.
‘Indian education is reputed in Afghanistan and it is cheaper as compared to other countries. Geographically, too, India is a much closer destination for Afghans,’ says Mohammed Nazari, an Afghani student studying BBA at a private university. Another favourable factor that makes India a preferred destination is the Hindi language. ‘It is much easier to understand Hindi than other languages. Many Afghans know Urdu and the two are very similar,’ he adds. The students are also familiar with the language and culture because Hindi films and TV series are very popular in Afghanistan.
Over the past five years a steady trickle of Afghan visitors seeking healthcare has also grown into a flood. Now, some large hospitals catering to foreign patients are finding that up to a third of them are from heartlands of Afghanistan, mostly desiring treatment for infertility and cancer. The Apollo hospital in the city’s southwest has translators on staff, a website in Dari, and even a separate payment desk for Afghans.
Most Lajpat Nagar residents are sceptical about the rising number of Afghans in their vicinity as it is swiftly taking away the flavour the area once rejoiced in. There are a number of issues which concerns those from the locality.
58-year-old GK Vij, a resident of Lajpat Nagar-II, whose father migrated after Partition and has spent his whole life in the area, says, ‘This area has seen immense change in the past six-seven years. The number of Afghans have increased drastically and dramatically. What irks us the most is that they enjoy government support more than us (who are Indian citizens). You dare indulge in a fight with them and chances are you will be put behind bars. They enjoy some kind of irritating and intriguing immunity.’
Adding to this, 32-year-old Nitin Kapoor, another resident of Lajpat Nagar- II who has a few Afghani friends, says, ‘I keep hearing now from my friends about fights within Afghans and between Afghans and locals. I have seen people throwing tomato cartons at each other in anger. Use of knives is not a rarity either. It was not so earlier. The air of this area has changed as you will see more Afghanis than us.’
Vij added that though they enjoy the big ‘naan bread’ which Afghans prepare, the rising number of Afghan restaurants has overshadowed the indigenous Punjabi cuisine to some extent. ‘The lane in which we stay has dozens of Afghan restaurants which has surfaced in the past two-three years,’ Vij added.
The local police, too, has a box full of complaints against the increasing influx of Afghans in Delhi.
A head constable posted at Lajpat Nagar police station who deals with criminal cases involving Afghans says, ‘They sometimes make both the public and police uneasy. Most of them visit Delhi on tourist or medical visas but don’t go back. Besides, refugees keep on coming to the city in view of the turbulent atmosphere in Afghanistan.’
The cop added that problem arises when some of them get involved in criminal cases. ‘There have been cases when a vehicle belonging to an Afghan was involved in an accident. Due to their modus operandi of not registering the ownership of purchased second hand vehicle in their names we find problems in tracing them. Apart from this, a few Afghans escape to their homeland after committing crimes here.’
A Delhi police official adds, ‘After scrutinising a few cases we have also come to know that some Afghanis when they return to India change their name to transcend their identity for a prolonged stay. This may pose a danger in future to our country. Needless to mention we have been instructed to be lenient towards them as part of our foreign policy.’