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23 January 2011, Gateway House

Afghan students in India: different, displaced but undeterred

The Afghan students at Pune University discuss their personal histories as well as their perceptions on what Afghanistan as a country means to them.

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The generous hospitality of the Afghan students I meet in Pune starts with a greeting.  A “salaam” is softly spoken between friends when they first meet, followed by an unrushed physical embrace.  This ritual is carried out with the same sincerity for every person on first encounter.   Cheerful conversation in Persian ensues after these formal introductions.  I find myself quickly absorbed into this style of greetings, as I share the company with over twenty Afghan students during my two day stay in Pune.

I have come to Pune to talk with Afghan students about their personal histories as well as their perceptions on what Afghanistan as a country means to them.  The project I am currently working on deals with the perceptions and views of Afghanistan from the views of the Afghan diaspora.  I define the Afghan diaspora as any Afghans who live outside of Afghanistan.  This allows me to survey Afghan foreign exchange students and asylum-seekers alike.

However, after talking with many of the Afghan students in Pune, I begin to discover that most of their histories align with those of refugees and asylum-seekers.  Many have spent their lives displaced, growing up in Pakistan or Iran.  Sometimes, the students’ families stayed in Afghanistan, but experienced times when they were forced to leave their home province.  The neat distinctions between who is an Afghan student and who is part of the Afghan diaspora, therefore, become clouded, as displacement and migration has been a constant in many of these students’ lives.

Thirty years of warfare in Afghanistan and the proliferation of the Taliban and terrorism has made countries like India impose strict rules on Afghans studying abroad – even though many are on Indian government-sponsored scholarships.  “Did you register yourself with the police?”  This is one of the questions I am asked in the company of my newly-made friends in Pune.  I see panic now appear in the eyes of multiple Afghans I am sitting comfortably on the ground with them, as I think this question over: as a foreigner, did I need to register myself with the police in Pune?  All Afghan students studying in Pune must register themselves with the police within fourteen days of arrival, or else face a massive fine and potential deportation.

“One of my friends was fined 10,000 rupees for not registering.”

It is a shock when I hear this, and then when I see the stamp on the student’s passport.  Here I am, in the company of some of the most hospitable and genuine people I’ve ever encountered, wondering why they need to be kept under Indian police surveillance.

Though India is a staunch supporter of Afghanistan, and both national share much common cultural heritage, Afghan students have problems integrating into Indian society.  I am told by a staffer at the Afghan consulate general in Mumbai that about 90% of Afghan students who come to India for education find the transition too difficult to sustain, and therefore return to Afghanistan.  “Only around five to ten per cent of Afghan students who start education in India return for their second semester,” says the staffer. Still, with 1,317 Afghan students currently enrolled in the University of Pune alone, there is clearly a significant percentage of returning students.

Pune University, Maharashtra

One of the first questions I ask Afghan students in Pune is if they enjoy their education in India.  I receive a universal response by the males that starts with a monotone an unexcited “it’s ok,” while the girls I talk with say that India is the best possible thing that could have happened to them – a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” as one girl put it.  The Afghan students tell me that the primary benefit of an Indian education is safety and security, not having to worry about the threat of suicide bombing that has become commonplace in Kabul.  Where the boys focus on specific facets of their Indian education like the quality of a Pune Professor’s analytical skills or non-communicative teacher-student environment of the classroom, the girls focus on the fact that they are able to live in a society they feel comfortable in.

The most striking comment made about the poor quality of Indian education by the Afghan students is the fact that although they are enrolled in an English-medium university, Marathi is used to teach all course subjects.  “It is hard for us to understand what they are saying at times,” one student tells me, “I ask them, why are you speaking Marathi.  The professors tell me that Marathi is the national language.”  This is an unsatisfying answer to the student; “if Pune is supposed to be an international university, why are we speaking Marathi?”  he asks. Why indeed? Besides Marathi,  Afghan students have to learn the native Afghan languages (Dari and Pashto) as well as Hindi and some English.

Violent conflict has also been part of this transition.  The consular staffer tells me that the ethnic divisions and conflicts that originate in Afghanistan spill over into the student communities abroad.  Three Afghan students at the University of Pune were recently deported because they fought amongst themselves.

Consequently, the majority of Afghans who are peaceful and hard-working get stereotyped into this image of “troublemaker.”  One student tells me that he is reminded of this when he was searching for a flat in Pune to live in during college.  The landlord had told him he had no flats available to Afghans because Afghans were problematic.  Other students say it is not uncommon for them to get asked questions about their relation to radical groups such as Al Qaeda.  I am told that when some of the Afghans wanted to show the Kiterunner during a film festival at Pune, the University and students reacted against the idea.  “They claimed it showed a bad picture of Afghanistan,” laughs the one student, “because it shows depictions of the Taliban in the film.”  I proceeded to bash the University itself for missing a moment to actually engage students in meaningful discussion and add pressure upon the narrow minded.

What I find in Pune is an abundance of kindness and hospitality from the Afghan students I meet.  All the students I encounter are from the ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, specifically Tajik and Hazara.  I talk with two Tajik students initially, and am invited to spend a night at the home of a group of Hazara Afghans.  Historically, the Hazaras are the most oppressed ethnicity in Afghanistan.  The first state-builder in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman Khan (1880-1901) systematically wiped out sixty percent of the Hazara community during his reign.  Khan, a Pashtun himself, established the precedent that the state should be governed by Pashtuns.  This legacy still effects power-sharing among ethnic groups in Afghanistan, where Hazaras have been notoriously marginalized in Kabul political alliances.  As a result, the most recent parliamentary controversy in Afghanistan becomes a heated conversation during the night, drawling me in as, in their eyes, one of the many potential fact-skewing suspects reporting on Afghanistan.

The Afghan students are also closely following the drama surrounding the seating of the new Parliament in Afghanistan.  We arrive at this conversation late in the night when one of the Afghans sitting with us, a Hazara who studies sociology, claims my interview questionnaire is “biased.”  He refers to a section where I’ve copied and pasted a series of quotes by Afghan leaders posted by an Afghan diaspora group based in California.[1]  There are no examples of any Hazara leaders or political figures in this grouping, while there are ample examples of Pashtun leaders.  I explain that my intention is to figure out what he thinks about the choice of leaders and the quotes in general, since the webmaster claims these quotes reflect what it means to be a “true Afghan.”

Others, like my friend who has brought me to Pune, claim that there is not as much information about the Hazara ethnic leaders in English literature on Afghanistan.  Comparatively, this is true: the Hezb-e Wahdat (Unity Party) founded by the Hazara mujahidin commander and national hero in the eyes of the Hazaras—Abdul Ali Mazari—is given less space in the English literature on Afghanistan compared to the infamous prime minister of the Rabbani government (1992-1995), Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masud.

The recent political gridlock caused by President Hamid Karzai’s electoral review by the Supreme Court is seen as an attempt to infuse the Hazara province of Ghazni with illegitimate Pashtun leaders.  In September, no Pashtuns won parliamentary seats in Ghazni, sparking Karzai to question the results in this region.[2]  As we discussed my “biased” questions, nearly 200 elected parliamentary officials were meeting at Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul threatening to hold open parliament themselves, either in a mosque, in the hotel or on the streets of Kabul.[3]  By the end of the night the sociology student and I were able to reach an agreement: I would allow him to tell me his thoughts and feelings about the questions I had, as well as give me an accurate portrayal of Hazara history that was missing, and he would answer my questions during the interview.

Despite the understandable flare-up with the sociology student, my time with the Afghan student community in Pune is full of laughter and carefree conversation.  We spend hours exchanging stories about ourselves, describing our homes, our educational interests in school, and our ambitions for the future.  Many of the students I talk with are working toward various degrees in business, engineering and governmental studies so they can return to Afghanistan in the future to help play a role in constructing the country’s future.

The experience I had in Pune was beautiful and unexpected.  Each Afghan student I talked to welcomed me into their home as a guest, furnishing me with whatever comfort and accommodations they could spare.  I gained a perspective on Afghanistan from the conversations with Afghans who live the country’s identity and who dream its future destiny.  The histories of each student were complex, riddled with violence and displacement.  Yet, in Pune, sitting together with the Afghan students in their whitewashed living rooms or over a plate of prepared food, I witnessed strong bonds of camaraderie and friendship that I will not soon forget.

Ryan Stillwagon is a Gateway House Research Intern from Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

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[2]Joshua Partlow, “Karzai delays parliament’s inauguration as court investigates electoral fraud,” The Washington Post Foreign Service, January 19, 2011.

[3] Ray Rivera, “Afghan Political Crisis Grows as Legislators Vow to Defy Karzai and Open Parliament,” The New York Times, January 20, 2011.

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