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Afghan refugees in search of Indian identity


Afghan refugees in search of Indian identity

Thousands of Afghan refugees of Sikh and Hindu faiths have lived in India for over a decade, sharing religious and cultural ties with the local community. For many, naturalised citizenship is often the best long-term solution, if they can overcome obstacles like the long and complicated application process.
19 May 2005
Unable to work legally in India, some Afghan refugees hold informal jobs selling textiles in New Delhi's Sarojini Nagar market.

NEW DELHI, India, May 18 (UNHCR) - At 21, Jagjit Kaur has spent more than half her life in New Delhi. She looks, sounds and behaves like an Indian. "My Indian friends are shocked when I tell them I am an Afghan. They say it's not possible," she says.

After spending 12 years in the Indian capital, the young refugee and her mother applied for naturalised Indian citizenship 18 months ago. "I want an identity," she says, adding that without an identity card, she feels like she belongs nowhere.

Jagjit is among the more than 8,000 Afghan refugees in India - close to 88 percent of the Afghan refugee population in the country - who are of Hindu or Sikh faiths. Many of them are culturally and socially integrated in the Indian way of life, and naturalised citizenship is often the best long-term solution.

"Our motherland is here," says Ardet Singh, 50. "We were originally Indian. Our ancestors went to Afghanistan for work generations ago. But we are Indian." Ardet has been in India for more than 14 years with his wife, son and daughter. The whole family applied for citizenship two years ago and are still waiting.

More than 3,000 Afghan refugees have expressed an interest in naturalisation, but the process is long and complicated. To be eligible, a refugee must have lived in India for 12 years or have been married to an Indian for seven years. The length of stay must be supported by documentation - a Residence Permit issued by the Indian government - for it to count towards naturalisation. UNHCR's implementing partner, the Socio Legal Information Centre (SLIC), has helped nearly 1,600 refugees to fill in application forms while the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society, a non-governmental organisation set up in 1998 by Sikhs from Afghanistan to help refugees, also tries to push the process forward by lobbying the Minorities Commission.

In a further obstacle to naturalisation, the Indian government recently proposed a substantial increase in the application fee from 2,100 rupees (US$49) to 15,000 rupees (US$347).

"My children grew up and went to school here. Our culture is the same as India," says Tian Singh, 64. "But the authorities have done nothing for us. Give us citizenship at the old rates, we are helpless people."

In addition to the proposed fee hike, the inordinately long process is a frustration that deters many from applying. While there was praise for SLIC and the role UNHCR plays in facilitating the process of applying for naturalisation, there is despair with local government bodies.

While the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has no objection to Sikh and Hindu Afghan refugees becoming Indian citizens, the bottleneck is often at the local level. At a sub-divisional magistrate's office in west Delhi, a mother and daughter spent four hours looking for their files, after which they were told to put the other files back in order. "What is he sitting there for?!" asked Kabul native Davindar Kaur, 25, pointing to a staff member.

Once an application for naturalisation is filed, the applicant is not allowed to leave India until the end of the process. There are some families where the women have applied and the men have not, keeping open their option to return to Afghanistan should opportunities beckon. Davindar's father has not applied for naturalisation, neither have Jagjit's brothers and father. Her father lives in Jalalabad and supports the family with his earnings from there.

But by and large, there is little interest to return to Afghanistan. The refugees may miss the mountains, the landscape, the famous dry fruits and the streets of Kabul, but they have adjusted to India's heat, pollution and the teeming crowds of a hot and dusty country. While they hold on to memories of the good life in Afghanistan's large houses and expansive gardens, the horrors of flight are still vivid.

"I remember how we left Kabul, stepping over dead bodies. I remember our burnt shop. I saw such sadness," recalls Prakash Kaur, 42, who has been in India since 1992 with her two daughters.

"It was terror living there," adds Ardet Singh. "The Taliban said: Give us money or become Muslims. We still have that fear and we will never go back."

Davindar Kaur, who came to India when she was 10 and is now married with a daughter, says, "What will we go back for? There is nothing worth seeing in Afghanistan. India has allowed us to stay in peace and comfort."

For many Afghan refugees, naturalisation is the logical step to take. The refugee community lives in peace with its neighbours, they have much in common in terms of religion, language and culture. "We feel we are at home here. The gurudwaras (Sikh temples) give us a lot of happiness. When we visit Amritsar, we feel very happy and at peace," says Ardet Singh, referring to the Golden Temple in Punjab, northern India.

"The best thing about India," says Tian Singh, "is its freedom of religion. No faith is suppressed here. It is a true democracy. The only problem is the heat!"

So far, just 10 cases have reached the last stage of the naturalisation process at the Ministry of Home Affairs. And though a refugee may fulfil every criterion, there are no guarantees.

India's markets are one of many informal sectors offering employment for Afghan refugees waiting for naturalised citizenship.

For many, becoming an Indian citizen brings a sense of identity and economic prosperity. As refugees, they do not have the right to work in India, though many survive by finding jobs in the informal sector. As citizens, they will be eligible for government grants and loans to set up their own businesses. They will also receive documents enabling them to travel, among other perks.

Jagjit Kaur can't wait to fulfil her dream: "I want to work in a call centre, but my parents won't let me." There are thousands of young Indian women with similar dreams and similar constraints. In the end, there is little difference between them and Jagjit, if at all.

By Nayana Bose
UNHCR New Delhi