India’s small acts of faith in Afghanistan

August 14th, 2008 - 7:16 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Taliban
By Manish Chand
It was a small miracle, an act of faith if one can say so, that underlined India’s mission in rebuilding Afghanistan, a country beset by mindless violence for nearly eight years. Less than 48 hours after a car packed with explosives blew up outside its premises killing two Indian diplomats and two of its security personnel July 7, the Indian mission in Kabul was back in business. Communication lines were restored, the wifi system was back, debris was cleared and the morale of the Indian mission staff serving in one of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones remained undimmed.

And exactly a week later, a surge in India-loving Afghans was queuing up outside the Indian mission for visas. In those first visa queues after the terror strike, there were many sick and ailing people for whom a passage to India meant a journey back to health and life.

The attack on the Indian mission in Kabul was indeed shocking, the first major terror attack on an Indian mission abroad. The India-educated Afghan President Hamid Karzai was quick to react. He blamed the attack on “enemies jealous of the strong friendship between Afghanistan and India” and called the bombing the handiwork of “a foreign intelligence agency”, an allusion to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

But the real story of grit and resilience was the manner in which the Indian mission bounced back in virtually no time at all. It sent a clear message that nothing and nobody could dissuade India from its mission of reconstructing a violence-scarred, traditionally friendly country and it people.

“Nothing can deter us from doing our work in Afghanistan. India is in the heart of every Afghan and they know India will not quit,” India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad told IANS from Kabul hours after the attack.

Although at least 10 Indians have been killed in Afghanistan and many kidnapped by suspected Taliban militia in the past three years, this was the first time a senior Indian diplomat and a defence attaché of brigadier rank were killed in a terror attack on Indians anywhere in the world. C. Raja Mohan, a leading Indian analyst, memorably described V. Venkat Rao, counsellor in the Indian mission who died that fateful morning, as “the first martyr of independent India’s foreign policy, especially its more ambitious version of recent years”.

“Venkat should be remembered as the first IFS officer to die abroad in pursuit of India’s national interests. Venkat lost his life for being at the very cutting edge of India’s current strategic foray into Afghanistan,” wrote Raja Mohan in The Indian Express.

The attack also put the spotlight on the multi-faceted nature of reconstruction work, ranging from building roads to hospitals to power stations and the parliament building, in which over 3,000 Indians have been engaged for several years. They have put their lives at stake and have refused to be intimidated by periodic terror attacks on them since 2005 when Maniyapppan Ramankutty, an Indian engineer, was kidnapped and killed while building the crucial Zaranj-Delaram road link.

“We hope a day will come when goods and people can move freely from India to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the overland route in Pakistan,” Karzai had said two years ago.

The road that promises prosperity to the Afghan people will reduce their dependence on Pakistan for overland access to Iran and Central Asia. It will also provide an alternative route for India to Afghanistan and Central Asia that currently is dependent on Pakistan granting overland access to relief material meant for that country. The crucial road link is now ready, and will be formally opened soon, marking the triumph of Indian policies in a country that not too long ago under the Taliban regime had become virtually inaccessible.

In the years after the 9/11 attacks when the US-led coalition dislodged the Taliban regime, India has become one of Afghanistan’s leading donors, pledging $850 million over the next few years on a slew of projects aimed at restoring the country’s shattered infrastructure. Although India has refused to send troops to Afghanistan as it did not want to be participate in any operation outside the ambit of the UN, New Delhi has been prompt in helping out in areas like education, health, power, grassroots governance and telecommunications that hold the key to lasting peace, stability and prosperity in that country.

It was a historic moment in the annals of India-Afghanistan friendship when ex-Afghan King Zahir Shah laid the foundation stone of the Afghan parliament building in the presence of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his historic visit to Kabul in August 2005, symbolising New Delhi’s commitment in shoring up democracy in that country.

“It’s an honour (to be here) as a friend of Afghanistan and a representative of the Indian people who constitute the world’s largest democracy and the oldest one in the region,” Manmohan Singh said on the occasion. “The roots of the plant are being laid that will, through your nurturing and care, grows into a sturdy ‘panja chinar’ (tree) of democracy. This edifice, when built, will be the heart of democracy in Afghanistan,” he said.

From democracy promotion and erecting power transmission lines in the north to building more than 200 km of road, digging tubewells in six provinces, running sanitation projects in Kabul, and working on lighting up 100 villages using solar energy, India has been at the forefront of rebuilding Afghanistan. India’s four consulates in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazaar-e-Sharif keep a sharp eye on coordinating diverse range of India-aided reconstruction activities and also take the lead in promoting trade and economic ties between the two countries. Bilateral trade has grown rapidly, and was estimated to be $225 million in 2006-2007.

India has crucial stakes in rebuilding a democratic, stable and prosperous Afghanistan. India’s profile in Afghanistan is growing and its relations with Kabul are becoming broad-based, straddling diverse sectors including economy, education and technology in sharp contrast to the situation over five years ago when it had practically no contact with the Taliban regime that was almost hostile to New Delhi.

What binds India and Afghanistan are not just economic and brick-and-mortar links. Go anywhere in Afghanistan, be it the historic town of Bamiyan or the bustling streets of Kabul, you will find life-size posters of Indian showbiz celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan or Aishwarya Rai.

Indian movies are hugely popular and one can find DVDs of the latest movie in just about any corner shop in Kabul, Herat or any other Afghan town that loves to soak in family dramas and fantasies in the midst of daily violence that has become their lot.

And Bollywood music in just about everywhere, it’s literally in the air Afghans breathe.

“Afghanistan claims you! The land claims you; the skies and rivers claim you. The faces claim you; the eyes and smiles claim you.” This tribute by India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood conjures up the all-too-human bonds that animate ties between the two countries.

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