It was around 5.30 in the evening when we reached the Darul Aman Palace, a European-style palace, now in ruins, on the outskirts of Kabul. Quite late for Afghanistan, the security guards informed our Afghan friend in Dari, a Persian dialect widely spoken in Afghanistan, that the palace was closed for the day. The area was ‘sensitive’ and hence we were asked not to take photographs.
But then, you can expect the unexpected to happen any moment in a city like Kabul. From my skin, they could guess that I’m not a native, and on discovering that I am an Indian, the guard not only allowed us to take a few pictures, he also wanted to have one taken with me. “India is one country that has selflessly been helping us,” he murmured in broken Urdu, as my Afghan friend took our photo.
The European-style symbol of modernism was built in the early 1920s by King Amanullah Khan as part of his larger vision to modernize Afghanistan. Now, only a few curious onlookers visit the site, right opposite to which the Indian government is helping build the grand new Parliament building.
Afghanistan is a nascent democracy, having failed earlier in the socialist and democratic experiments. Its tryst with the present system began only at the end of 2001/beginning of 2002, when NATO forces defeated the highly conservative, inward-looking Taliban government after the fateful event of 9/11, and installed the new transitory government under President Hamid Karzai.
I was covering the presidential election in Afghanistan, where I had gone primarily as research scholar to understand the role of the media in the election – expected to be the first peaceful transition in decades – but I also reported from the ground. As an Indian, it was a pleasurable sight to walk the streets of Kabul and talk to common Afghans, as India enjoys immense goodwill among them. Besides the West, India is one country in the region they look up to and admire.
They see both Iran and Pakistan as ‘Big Brother’ meddling in their internal affairs. Karzai called India “best friend”, and most Afghans echo this sentiment. The goodwill is largely owing to the generous aid of $2 billion that India is giving them – it helped build a children’s hospital in Kabul and an agricultural university in Kandahar. Hundreds of Afghan students come to India each year to study in different universities, and thousands of Afghans travel for treatment. The Indian government has also helped train the Afghan Security Force, Parliamentarians, government officials and media professionals.
In the suburbs of Kabul, you can still find ruins of the destruction during infighting among the Mujahideen that destroyed this once flourishing beautiful city. But the New Town – Shehar-e-Nau – and areas surrounding it, Wazir Akbar Khan and others, make you fall love with the city, with its new skyscrapers, malls, and restaurants. Afghans love to eat out.
Afghans who visit India as students, patients and tourists take Indian cultural influences back with them. The famous South Delhi hangout, Select City Walk, now has a smaller cousin by the same name in Kabul. Hindi films and television serials are an important source of entertainment in Afghanistan, although lately, Turkish serials have taken over.
However, it is not just the aid and entertainment that has earned India respect in Afghanistan. Afghans also hold Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – in high regard and appreciate its pluralistic nature. Several civil society members told me they appreciated that although a Hindu majority country, presidents, (and currently the vice president) have been Muslims, and so are several cabinet ministers (including current minister for external affairs Salman Khurshid). “And how many languages do you have?” they would often ask me.
2014 appears to be a critical year for both the countries as they are both seeing transitions around the same time. Till the last moment, apprehensions had gripped not only the Afghans, but also the Western actors, over whether President Karzai, who was not eligible to contest for a third term, would fiddle with the constitution and “do a Putin” to remain in power. By not derailing the election process, he has certainly earned the respect of his people, who are now getting nostalgic about “the achievements” of the last 12-13 years, particularly for the development of a new vibrant civil society, at least in Kabul. Several people – young students, office- going women and media professionals – in fact, did not hesitate in saying they would “miss” him.
Besides malls and buildings, the real achievement has been the rise of the new educated middle class. The warlords are all getting old (and many are already dead), and their children who have returned to Afghanistan after a stint abroad – in India, the UK, the US, etc. – on scholarships and with degrees, have a different outlook towards life and want to see their country move forward. Corruption is a big menace here too. Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world (India currently ranks 94). They talked about the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare (they often mispronounce his name as Hazara – the country’s third biggest ethnic group).
Our country has been famous for being argumentative and discourse in the public sphere is not new to us. During the reign of the Taliban, TV was banned and Radio Shariat was the only radio channel that operated. Today, they have over 75 TV channels, 175 radio channels and about 800 publications.
Today, Kabul has vibrant civil society groups and media. On the streets of Kabul, you see people holding candle-light marches, Afghans giving flowers and national flags to their security agencies as token of appreciation, and above all ‘celebrating democracy’, things that were unimaginable 13 years ago, when the Taliban was in power and the city was in tatters.
We have seen the difference. Afghans proved everyone wrong when, shunning all fears of terror attacks and braving incessant rain, about 60% of eligible voters came out to vote for the ‘celebration of democracy’ on April 5. Facebook was flooded with selfies of inked fingers.
Busy with the critical general elections, no one in India really appeared interested in the developments in Afghanistan. I hardly found any Indian reporter on the ground during the Afghan election campaign (security was a big concern at the time). When I came back to India, election fever was in full swing here too. I was excited to exercise my franchise in Delhi for the first time (I am originally from Kolkata and had a voter’s card there, though I could never use it). For the first time, I felt the privilege of a finger being inked and realised how, despite all its faults, democracy gives people a sense of participation, and thus gives the government more legitimacy than any other form.
It is when we are aboard that we realise how new democracies like Afghanistan look up to our ‘models’ and institutions and try to imitate them. Hopefully, the world’s biggest democracy remains a model for others to imitate, not merely for its economic growth but for the ideals it stands for.
M Reyaz is a Delhi-based journalist, who was in Afghanistan during the presidential election campaign. He tweets at @journalistreyaz.