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Kabuliwalas of a different genre

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By Sidharth Mishra

The return of Taliban in Kabul could well have its repercussions in Delhi, even outside the diplomatic circles. It’s not just about the usual “terror-attack” kind of stories or the “miserable lives” they are portrayed to be living in the colonies of Delhi.  The Kabuliwalas (those who belong to Kabul) have long been entrenched with trade links in the national Capital and other parts of the country.

The Kabuliwalas, however, have not always, as portrayed in Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, been involved in trading just dry-fruits and carpets. Tagore’s famous story was made into a film by Bimal Roy with the same title in 1961. Balraj Sahni playing the iconic Kabuliwala. The film’s songs, written by Prem Dhawan and Gulzar, put to music by Salil Choudhury and sung by Manna Dey, Mohammed Rafi and Hemant Kumar, were an icing on the cake.

However, those covering the crime beat in the national Capital would recall that between 1996-2001, when Taliban ruled Afghanistan except the Panjshir region, a different kind of trade had flourished courtesy the Kabuliwalas in Delhi. During the period huge quantities of chemical named 3.4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone would leave the warehouse of chemical merchants from Naya Bazar and Khari Baoli in the walled city for Amritsar.

From Amritsar, gallons of these chemicals would make their way to Afghanistan largely on the solo Ariana airlines flight which operated during the Taliban 1.0 regime or through Pakistan travelling on Samjhuata Express. There was no ban on carrying the chemical but their nature turned ‘threatening’ once they reached poppy plantations and processing plants in the Afghan country.

On account of its relation to the MDxx chemical class, this chemical is listed in the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) List I of Chemicals. With the use of this chemical, poppy is processed into abusive drugs like ecstasy among others.

In no time the national Capital became the hub of drug trade. No wonder, Delhi Police’s Anti-Narcotics Cell in Kamala Market area in those days had a long guest list of the Afghan nationals. Taliban 1.0 had flourished on drug economy, which greatly affected the social life in our country too. One only hopes that it doesn’t happen again, but who can guarantee!

The other Kabuliwalas who defied Tagore’s description were dark skinned and spoke Bangla. In those days, the Afghan embassy in Delhi was not controlled by Taliban government but the Panjshir-based Northern Alliance. This embassy was an important certifying office for those seeking refugee status and rights in the country under the supervision of the UNHCR.

Around this time our relations with Bangladesh were at its worse, and the influx of illegal migrants continued in large number. There would be the usual police crackdown to arrest and deport these Bangladeshis. But the smart operators they were they found ways to evade deportation.

Most of the people those days came from Afghanistan without any travel documents, which were issued by the embassy here. The documents were issued at a price and the ‘trade flourished’ and also emerged a grey market. Touts in Jama Masjid area started to facilitate issue of such passports to even non-Afghans seeking refugee status in India; thus, you had the Bangla speaking ‘Afghan nationals’.

The Afghan desks of the security agencies found themselves into an unusual Tom and Jerry game, trailing and tailing Bangladeshis enjoying refugee rights in the city as Afghan nationals. Today the threat of illegal Bangladeshi migrants has receded much, with relations having improved with the eastern neighbour and Bangladesh’s own economy having improved by several notches. However, there are migrants from the other countries who may seek to use instability in Kabul to their benefit in New Delhi. 

(First published in 


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