Every Indian has a representation of Afghans in his mind starting from school days. Our image of ourselves has been shaped by how Indian rulers of those times responded to attacks from the northwest, chiefly from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. And our core idea of Afghanistan is based on a whole lot of niche facts from History classes.
As 7th and 8th graders we were shocked by the savagery of Afghan invaders described in our textbooks. These accounts are based on what was written down by the invaders. They could be distorted by subjectivity, translation or victor’s bias. Or maybe that’s the truth, that’s exactly how they did happen.
Apparently, nothing was recorded by those whose lives were too disrupted by the maelstrom to muster up the will to record the events.
These are some of the invaders from Afghanistan that we had to learn up a lot about in school. After plowing through a few chapters it was like watching something play on a loop on a TV screen in a hotel lobby. They all began to sound the same!
Ghazni: 10th /11th century
Ghori: 12th century
Jalaludin Khilji: 13th century
Timur: 14th century
Lodi: 15th century
Ghazni’s ruthless ransacking of temples, especially the Somnath temple that he robbed and razed 17 times, bewildered us.
And the Rajputs patiently rebuilt it each time! What drove them? Perhaps a sense of duty, coupled with acceptance of the temple’s destruction as either God’s will, the attackers’ ignorance, or a test of their own faith. Fatalism is in our genes and we do sometimes behave like automatons if we are exhausted from being hit on the head too many times. Anyway, the temple still exists.
Ghori conquered India thanks to the original Jai Chand whose name is now a pan-India metaphor for a traitor. But, as children, we felt ashamed that an Indian betrayed our country. After Ghori, his slaves, and then their slaves, ruled India for nearly 100 years! To rule only meant to exercise supreme authority. Royal qualities were not required, so it didn’t matter who sat on the throne! So, this was the oxymoronic Slave dynasty.
Jalaludin Khilji killed the last ruler of the Slave dynasty and declared himself king when he was seventy. He was killed by his nephew-cum-son-in-law, Alauddin, so he could be king. His dynasty lasted for only 30 years and is best known for destroying the Nalanda University.
The Khiljis were followed by the Turkic Tughlaq dynasty whose exact origins in the northwest are not known. But one of them provided generations of Indian school kids with much needed comic relief in the emotionally draining History classes that mostly featured cruel people and a lot of bloodletting.
Tughlaq is now a metaphor for someone who makes costly decisions that are doomed to fail, and everyone but the Tughlaq can foresee what is going to happen!
Timur: Timur captured and looted all the towns from Kabul to Delhi, killed with abandon, ruined and destroyed everything in his path, and then, on his way back, plundered the towns he had missed on his way in, like Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Jammu. He has the distinction of causing the deaths of 17 million people, i.e. 5% of the world population at the time.
He took away gold, silver and precious stones from India. I wonder what happened to all the treasure that reached Afghanistan from India. Maybe the Chinese will find it when they start digging, once they get the mining rights they’re angling for!
Lodi: Lodi was a Pashtun Afghan. He and his descendants were a harsh and bigoted lot and did exactly what their predecessors did. Ibrahim got his brother assassinated so he could occupy the throne, something we simply accepted as one of their rites of passage by the time we reached tenth grade and had been force fed this stuff for four years.
The Lodis destroyed temples and built mosques on top, another standard procedure, which made remembering facts about each of these people both easy and difficult while studying for exams, because they all blurred into one turbaned, bearded, mustachioed, sword-brandishing hulk on a horse.
So this is the historic Afghanistan-India relationship we inherited! Reviewing these events from the safety of 500-1000 years into the future makes it’s easier to talk dispassionately about them, the way historians write about Attila and Bleda the Huns’ onslaught on the Roman Empire in the 5th century, or the Norsemen’s on medieval England.
But, as school children, these stories upset us enough to prefer Amar Chitra Katha comics. Many of these comics were about kings like Prithviraj Chauhan who fought back, valiant rulers who were dismissed in one short paragraph in our textbooks. Until last month’s Tokyo Olympics India never appreciated the efforts of people who didn’t win in a competition or war!
Meanwhile, we read Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala every year from 8th to 10th grade, either in English or in Hindi. We warmed to the big Afghan as he affectionately teased the author’s little daughter. We felt his pain when he shed tears for his little girl back home in Kabul.
You might say the pen is truly mightier than the sword if one Nobel-winning Indian writer could make Indian kids forget all the terrible Afghans in Indian history for the moment, and feel compassion for an Afghan trader down on his luck in the 1890s, but honestly, coming across a normal human being from Afghanistan was a huge surprise and a great relief!
In the 1990s we felt sorry for present-day Afghans and were happy that our country was giving them refuge. At that time I was friends with the Afghan refugees who lived next door – Naaz and Nazia – and we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes.
For the past couple of decades we were glad there was peace in Afghanistan, thanks to the US presence. From 2001 India invested US$3 billion in Afghanistan to build roads, schools, hospitals, dams – and even a beautiful parliament building costing $90million.
400 infrastructure projects across the country. Nice!
Now, here’s the thing.
In 2011 we signed the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and Afghanistan got duty-free access to the Indian market. Great. But I can’t find any information regarding what India gained from this deep engagement with Afghanistan!
I typed ‘What has India gained from Afghanistan’ – worded in many different ways to make sure Google understood – in the search bar and it returned 38,20,00,000 results for ‘What has India done in Afghanistan’! It never found the answer to my question! Perhaps private investors from India prospered and that doesn’t appear online?
I would have expected the government to get some quid pro quo for this construction work, like maybe lithium for our solar energy and electric vehicle projects?
The Ministry of External Affairs says we have ‘a people-to-people relationship’ with Afghanistan. I can’t decode that. I presume there is a solid reason for investing in a country that shares only a 106 km long border with us, thousands of feet up in the Hindukush Mountains; otherwise, we are separated by thousands of km2 of hostile land.
We are currently hosting over 20,000 documented refugees from Afghanistan and several thousand undocumented ones besides. We are providing for them, obviously, despite our own impoverished populace being hit by corona and job loss. The refugees say we’ve made a bad job of it – merely saving their lives doesn’t count! Therefore, those who were stranded in a gurudwara in Kabul last week refused to come to India.
As of now, it seems to me that India helped Afghan civilians painstakingly build a comfortable nest in which parasitic cuckoos have now laid their eggs. And the US has inadvertently provided equipment for their protection. The civilians who built the nest want to go to Europe because their nest is now a ghetto. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any good comes out of what, at this point, looks like India’s vanity project in Afghanistan.