Wazirabad village is where New Delhi, India’s capital, begins to fade away. A main street, unpaved and uneven, cuts through its heart, spewing narrow lanes choked in dust and lined with open drains.
Lane No. 9 in this outlying northern settlement on the banks of the Yamuna river leads to the conspicuous-sounding Afghani chowk, literally Afghan crossroads — so called because of the number of Afghan refugees who live nearby.
At this stark intersection of four mud paths, Gul Din Khan walks slowly by a small row of shops, their colorful signs in Urdu, not Hindi as is usual in this part of northern India.
“The violence in Afghanistan got too much. I just had to leave,” Khan said.
Khan, who left in 1988, isn’t the only one to have left, nor the first. Numerous kameez-clad gentlemen lounge by the storefronts, smoking and chatting in the afternoon heat. In all, more than 9,000 Afghans have fled here, either during the war with the Soviet Union in the 70s, or during the most recent conflict, which began in 2001.
Though the recent fighting in Afghanistan hastened their exodus, Delhi has long been a key destination for Afghans on the run.
For centuries, wave after wave of military men, craftsmen, and peasants have poured into this city on India’s Gangetic plains.
“Delhi was home to a body of people who felt that they had very little opportunity in what is today modern-day Afghanistan,” said Sunil Kumar, a professor of history at the University of Delhi.
Indeed, between 1206 and 1526, a string of rulers ― Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid, and the Lodi dynasties ― with Central Asian roots ruled Delhi and formed what is now known, in historical parlance, as the Delhi Sultanate.
Delhi, Kumar explains, wasn’t merely a refugee city. It was a haven ― a sanctuary of Islam ― when the Mongol hordes were ravaging kingdom after kingdom.
Afghans make up just a fraction of the massive overall refugee population in Delhi. After the partition of India in 1947, some 10 million people moved from India to Pakistan, or vice-versa, partaking in the largest human migration in recorded history. A million died trying to make it across their respective borders.
In the six decades since independence, these men and women have rebuilt their lives, some more successfully than others. Kumar’s colleague at the University of Delhi’s history department is Upinder Singh; her father, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh who left his home in Pakistan’s Punjab for India as the British exited the subcontinent — and he’s also India’s prime minister.
Today, Delhi once again finds itself at the heart of refugee movements in South Asia. But in the din of India’s celebrated economic rise and its efforts to bring millions of its citizens out of poverty, its urban refugee population has been largely forgotten.