the afghans and us

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:

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:

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.

Khilji:

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.

the kohinoor diamond

The Supreme Court has disposed of a petition to bring the kohinoor diamond back to India. The Court isn’t going to interfere with the diplomatic process that this would involve.

The kohinoor was discovered in Andhra Pradesh in India in the 13th century. Or maybe it was Krishna’s legendary shyamantakamani. There’s plenty written about its sad history. In 1849, 13-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh was coerced by Dalhousie into sailing to England to give it to Queen Victoria as a ‘gift.’ All of thirteen, did the poor kid have a choice? The stone is now in the Tower of London.

Personally, I’m not sure we must try to bring it back to India. These are my reasons:

  • There are elaborate arrangements in the Tower of London for guarding it. Can we keep it equally safe here? How many crores in taxpayers’ money will that cost?
  • Excited crowds will come to view it and there will be airport level security, or worse. It won’t be fun visiting it. After standing in queues in lots of tourist places, I know.
  • There could be tragic stampedes when hordes of people are funnelled into the necessarily small display area in front of a glass case.
  • It could be a target for terror attacks.
  • It is flawed. It has yellow flecks deep inside that prevent it from shining by refracting light. It is lacklustre. Only flawless diamonds have value as far as I know. It may be just a glorified lump of carbon.
  • It is cursed.
  • It is not beautiful despite attempts over centuries to chisel it into shape, remove its flaws and place it in flattering display cases.
  • It has been through the hands of the likes of Alauddin Khilji, Malik Kafur, Aurangazeb and Dalhousie and gathered a great deal of negative energy. That’s what a crystal healer told me. Queen Victoria apparently confessed to her daughter that she disliked wearing it.

When he visited India in July 2010, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said about returning the diamond, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.” Very true! They can’t afford to return things to their rightful owners, so they won’t. ‘Finders, keepers’ is a favourite English saying, though it has its origins in ancient Roman law. The ethical – and perhaps legal – problem is in defining when something is considered ‘found.’ Just like what exactly constitutes a ‘gift!’

A diamond has to be perfect, flawless, brilliant and hypnotising to be called a jewel. Lacking all these attributes and merely being one of the world’s largest lacklustre diamonds is not enough to be a gem. Five countries want it, so there’s a demand of sorts, so nobody is going to say “the emperor has no clothes!”

Maybe we should have one of those exciting referendums that are held countrywide for every confounded issue nowadays: Indians! Do you want the kohinoor back? Yes or No?