‘We can never go back’: Taliban surge spreads fear in Delhi’s ‘Little Kabul’

They call it little Kabul and it’s not hard to see why. In this lively corner of south Delhi, the streets of Lajpat Nagar are lined with Afghan pharmacies, supermarkets, travel agents and beauty parlours, with Dari Persian signage almost as common as Hindi. Delhi’s residents will trek across the city just for the Afghan restaurants, and for a taste of the thick, steaming ovals of naan bread baked in the numerous Afghan bakeries in the neighbourhood.

But in recent days, a sombre mood has taken over this usually bustling enclave, where thousands of Afghans have settled, some as early as 1979. As Kabul fell to the Taliban last Sunday, many of those who had sought safety in India as refugees feared it sounded the death knell for them ever being able to return home.

Ashabuddin Hamdar, who has lived in Lajpat Nagar since December 2018 and runs a modest Afghan burger street stall, looked pale and anxious at the mention of the Taliban. It was threats from the Taliban in 2014, after he refused to work with them in his village, which ultimately led to him fleeing Afghanistan. He left behind his wife and six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter in Kapisa province, 100 miles from Kabul.

“I could not join the Taliban, I am no terrorist,” said Hamdar. Three weeks ago, the Taliban sent his wife a warning. “The Taliban told my wife that if I didn’t return, they would kill her and my family,” he said. “So I haven’t slept for weeks since. I see my children’s faces in all the children here. I am so worried for them. But if I go back now I will be killed.”

According to UN figures from 2020, there are about 16,000 Afghan refugees living in India, the majority of whom are living in Delhi. Lajpat Nagar was built to house refugees fleeing Pakistan after partition in 1947, but over the decades, particularly from the early 1990s when the Taliban began to emerge, it became home to the Afghan community.

Nilafur Ahmadi, 35, working behind the cosmetics counter in Afghan Delhi pharmacy, left her home in Kabul seven years ago. She had not thought her departure would be permanent, but now she says she has little hope of returning. “That’s very sad because everyone wants to return to their country some day,” she said. “People call this neighbourhood a ‘mini Afghanistan’ but it’s not the same.”

Many of its residents are here because of the Taliban. Shabir Ahmad, 18, spoke of how a letter delivered by the Taliban to the door of his parents in Kabul, both senior government employees, threatening their lives, had forced the family to leave everything behind three years ago and live as refugees in Delhi.

Mujtaba Razaei, 29, described how his whole family fled Herat for Delhi in 2012 after his sister’s husband joined the Taliban and began threatening them all, to the point where they could no longer work or go to school. They left for India without telling anyone and live a clandestine life in Delhi.

“It was very difficult for us to come here. It’s a different language and different culture and we didn’t know anyone because we kept it hidden from everyone we had gone to India,” said Razaei. “Even here we are in hiding.”

The family faced huge economic difficulties in Delhi, and Razaei mournfully recounted his father’s and mother’s deep depression since they arrived. Yet he felt the Taliban’s recent triumph sealed his family’s fate. “Now we can never go back to Afghanistan,” said Razaei. “Home is where you feel safe, and that is no longer Afghanistan.”

Across the city in west Delhi, in a Sikh temple known as the “kabuli” gurdwara, the presence of the newest Afghan refugee arrivals over the past week could be keenly felt. Since Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Indian government has prioritised evacuating Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, a move seen as partly political, playing both to the Hindu nationalist politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and to the Sikh vote, which will be influential in upcoming state elections in Punjab.

Sikhs are also seen as targets by Islamic militants in Afghanistan. Last year, 25 Afghan Sikhs were killed when an Isis suicide bomber targeted a gurdwara in Kabul. When Kabul recently fell to the Taliban, hundreds of Sikhs locked themselves inside gurdwaras.

Over 100 Afghan Sikhs have been evacuated to Delhi over the past week and about 20 of them are staying at Guru Arjun Dev Ji Gurdwara. “The situation is very bad in Afghanistan,” said Pratab Singh, president of the gurdwara, who himself fled Kabul in 1991. “God knows what the Taliban will do. Sikhs there are very scared, they are fleeing because of the Taliban and leaving everything behind.”

Yet there was also jubilance at the gurdwara. Not only were over 70 Sikh evacuees on the latest government flight from Kabul to Delhi, but so was a sacred copy of the Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, which had been rescued from an Afghan gurdwara in Jalalabad and carried to Delhi with great care. It was the third copy of the Guru Granth Sahib evacuated from Afghanistan this week, with scriptures from Kabul and Ghazni gurdwaras also safely brought over, and its entrance to the gurdwara was greeted with a ceremonial procession, chants and blessings.

Dozens who gathered at Guru Arjun Dev Ji Gurdwara, which is run entirely by Afghan Sikhs, described escaping in 1991, when the Afghan government fell last time. This recent arrival of refugees, lamented many, marked the end of the Sikh community in Afghanistan, which had once numbered 250,000. Now barely 200 are left.

“It is very sad the whole Sikh community has been driven out,” said Trilok Singh, 58, who fled Kabul to Delhi in 1991. “The Taliban attacked us and our gurdwaras. We cannot forget Afghanistan – but India is our home now.”

Additional reporting by Tripti Nath

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