Together with a crowd of BJP workers, the journalists turned the arrival of 78 people from Kabul into a Modi appreciation party.
On August 24, around 10 am, 78 Afghan and Indian citizens evacuated from Kabul landed in Delhi. Soon as any of them stepped out of the airport, a crowd of reporters from TV news channels would surround them and, as if reading off a script, valiantly get them to assign credit for their flight to one man and him alone: Narendra Modi.
Some even appeared to egg the Bharatiya Janata Party workers who had descended on the airport to chant praises of the prime minister. A Times Now journalist whispered to BJP rabble-rouser Tajinder Singh Bagga, who promptly shouted slogans in praise of Modi, accompanied by an awkward dance, eliciting a loud response. It was as if the BJP workers and the media workers were operating in tandem to turn the arrival of the evacuation flight into a Modi appreciation party. In their jubilation, they forgot that watching them, blankly, were relatives of 44 Afghan Sikhs who had arrived on the flight and, ostensibly, were the focus of the coverage.
The Sikhs were bringing along three copies of the holy book Guru Granth Sahib from gurdwaras in Kabul and Jalalabad to preserve in Delhi’s Guru Arjan Dev ji Gurdwara. One of which union minister Hardeep Puri was due to carry out on his head.
Puri arrived around 10.30 am, momentarily causing commotion among the assembled BJP workers and journalists, who ran towards the VIP gate. The TV cameras formed a canopy around the minister, reporters elbowed each other to get a comment. Puri walked with the scripture to the driveway where a vehicle was waiting to take it to the gurdwara. There the swarm of reporters tailing the minister spotted Akali Dal’s Manjinder Singh Sirsa and got talking to him.
All this while the evacuees were getting tested for Covid. The Indian Express reported this morning that 16 of them had tested positive. But the Indo Tibetan Border Police, which operates the quarantine facility in Najafgarh where the evacuees are staying, have since denied that any of them are infected.
But the evacuees seemed to be of little importance to the BJP sloganeers and the TV crews that had supposedly gathered to welcome them. I asked one of the sloganeers if he knew when the evacuees would be let out. He candidly replied, “What do I know? I came here because they called us party workers.”
After Puri had departed, there was a lull of a couple of hours. The BJP people disappeared and the media workers lounged about. Then, the three granthis who had carried the scriptures on their heads from Kabul to Delhi came out of the terminal and the commotion resumed. They had barely said a word to their waiting families when they were mobbed by the TV reporters, who shoved mics in their faces and let out a stream of mostly identical questions.
“Where there any bombings or Taliban gunfights outside where you were staying? Was it scary?” one India Today reporter asked Dharminder Singh, a young granthi who, along with some of the other evacuees, had been staying in a Kabul gurdwara before flying out to India.
“No, there was no violence there, we were safe,” Dharminder replied.
Seemingly disappointed with his answer, the reporter rephrased her question to sound more dramatic. Same answer.
Then came the poser that would be repeatedly heard over the coming hours. “Would you like to thank Modi ji for giving you shelter in this country?”
As I stood watching, a sevak from a Delhi gurdwara, which was to shelter some of the evacuees came over. “You media people are like bees around nectar,” Gurjinder Singh said, letting out a chuckle. “Surrounding whoever seems interesting enough.”
Around 5:30 pm, 20 more of the evacuees came out. But they were accompanied by a security contingent that would not let the reporters anywhere near them. They were quickly seated in an Indo Tibetan Border Police bus, which would take them to a Covid quarantine facility.
The reporters ran to the bus, banging on the windows and the sides, desperately trying to get the evacuees to speak, until an ITBP officer told them off. “Please understand how difficult and stressful it has been for them to come here,” he said. “They may break down at any moment.”
All through the commotion, Bupinder Kaur, 50, stayed seated on a bench outside the arrival gate, her hands clasped together. She was waiting to receive her to-be daughter-in-law, a Sikh girl from Jalalabad her son Jaspreet got engaged to last year. Bupinder is an Afghan. She came to India with her family about six months ago for her husband’s treatment, which was completed earlier this month. They were due to return home to Kabul before the Taliban’s takeover put paid to their plan.
“That’s my home, I have a house there,” she said of Kabul. “My husband built it with years of work in the shop. Here we don’t even have enough money to buy a small room.” The family’s women’s garment store in Kabul is now locked, along with their home and she does not know if those locks will ever be opened again.
A few yards from where Bupinder sat, Tajmeet Kaur, 30, paced outside gate 5, waiting for her father Kultar Singh to come out. Tajmeet’s father had sent his wife and five children to Delhi in 1992 – when Afghanistan was in the throes of a civil war following the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet Union – hoping they would make a better life in the foreign land.
Tajmeet is now a marketing manager in Delhi and her brother Iljeet works in a garment shop. Her other siblings are married and settled outside Delhi. Three years ago, their uncle Inderjeet Singh was killed in a suspected suicide bombing, and Tajmeet and her brother had to take in their aunt and her two children.
Tajmeet’s father always made sure to send his family whatever little he could save from his meagre earnings running a grocery shop in Kabul. Until, that is, the Taliban swept into the capital a few weeks ago, president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and his government, backed by America and its allies, collapsed.
“He closed his shop, packed a pair of clothes and came,” Tajmeet said of her father. “We have worried about his safety every day since our uncle was killed in 2018. We have been asking him to come here, but we never imagined he would have to come like this.”
Pictures by Diksha Munjal.