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Princess Wants to Win Afghan Hearts

At 84, daughter of King Amanullah still dedicated to humanitarian projects.
  • Princess India D'Afghanistan. (Photo: IWPR)

Despite having lived in Europe for most of her life, Princess India D’Afghanistan remains devoted to the country which her late father King Amanullah Khan once ruled over.

She has spent decades working for humanitarian causes in Afghanistan, and even at the age of 84, still travels to Kabul from her home in Italy.

“My dear father always said that patriotism was the prerequisite for building the country,” Princess India she told IWPR in an interview. Bemoaning the divisions and lack of leadership in modern Afghanistan, she said. “We can become patriotic by acknowledging that we are from all tribes, and all tribes are for us.”

Amanullah Khan took over as emir, later king, of Afghanistan after fending off British influence in a brief war in 1919. He was a moderniser who tried to introduce a new, Western-inspired constitution. However, a revolt by conservative forces forced the king to abdicate in January 1929 and the royal family fled the country to go into exile.

Princess India was born in Mumbai that same year, and named in honour of the country where her parents had sought refuge. The family then moved to Italy, although they held on to their Afghan passports.

“My father did not want to have any second citizenship after his Afghan one – I still don’t have Italian citizenship,” she said. “When I was with my parents and they saw somewhere beautiful, they would say, ‘this is like Afghanistan’ and start weeping.”

Her mother, Queen Soraya, had been a key supporter of the king’s modernisation projects, establishing Afghanistan’s first-ever girls’ school and hospital for women. In 1928, she publicly removed her veil during a council meeting, an astonishing move for a woman at that time.

Princess India described her mother as an inspiration, recalling one incident during a childhood visit to Switzerland where the queen entered a shooting competition. As Soraya hit one target after another, Princess India recalled, “We kept clapping for my mother and the people around us were surprised at my mother’s skill. They asked one another who this lady was, and someone said she was the Queen of Afghanistan. A woman asked, ‘Do all Afghan women receive such military training?”

The next day, the princess continued, a policeman knocked on their door to tell her mother she had won the shooting competition and to deliver her prize money – five francs.

“I never saw my mother so happy,” Princess India recalled. “She kept the five francs for her whole life, saying it was her first money she had ever made.”

Life in exile was not easy, however.

“Sometimes we had no money to pay tuition fees or support; we survived by selling my mother’s jewelry,” the princess recalled.

The entire family was barred from entering Afghanistan for many decades. Amanullah Khan died in 1960 in Italy, and his was taken back to Jalalabad for burial.

Princess India visited Afghanistan for the first time in 1978.

Her charity work since then has included assisting Afghan children seeking medical treatment in Italy as well as accompanying shipments of Italian aid.

In the last two years, she has worked on various humanitarian enterprises including providing wells in rural areas. When she goes to remote villages, she says she rides a horse, with another pack animal carrying her aid supplies.

“The one that carries me looks like a donkey, as my colleagues say the horse I ride shouldn’t be too tall as it would not be good for me,” she said.

Security concerns means she now restricts her activities to Kabul.

But despite being the daughter of a former monarch, the princess has no permanent home of her own in Afghanistan. She says any property left behind by her father was seized by subsequent rulers including Afghanistan’s last king, Zahir Shah, or by warlords.

“I have frequently contacted the government, but nobody listened to me,” she added.

“I don’t own even a single leaf in Kabul,” she continued. “The owner of the Kabul Star hotel provided me with a room out of respect for my father. The owner does not ask me money for the room, but if I made money I would pay him – I don’t like to receive free things from people.”

The hotel’s owner, Sayed Mohammad Shah Mosawi, said he would never accept payment from the princess, and that she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted.

Describing her as a kind, soft-hearted woman, he added, “This is the daughter of King Amanullah Khan, indeed [it is as if] the great King Amanullah Khan is my guest.”

Although she says she has no interest in politics, the princess serves with a number of organisations, including as vice-chair of the Mahmud Tarzi Cultural Foundation, an institution named after the Afghan intellectual and reformer who was also her maternal grandfather.

She is also on the committee of the Afghanistan National Movement, a recently-formed body made up of intellectuals, student and youth activists.

The princess, who has been married twice and has two daughters and a son, believes the current Afghan elite displays a shameful lack of interest in charitable projects.

“Why these people are so hard-hearted? The people of this country need help,” she asked. “Why don’t these wealthy people see the circumstances?”

Parween Azimi, the coordinator of the Kabul Blind School, said Princess India was still very actively involved in charity work.

“Although India is a princess, she has great feeling of patriotism and charity. I wish those with money and political power would take India as a role model; I am proud of Ms India.”

As well as gifting food and clothing to the institution, Azimi said the princess had personally taken amputees to the International Committee of the Red Cross to be fitted with prosthetics.

“Most government hospitals treat my patients with more respect when they know that I am the daughter of Amanullah Khan,” she said.

Princess India says she is still recognised by ordinary Afghans whom she has helped over the years.

She said, “One day a man addressed me as ‘mother’ and I stopped to respond. The man approached and told me, ‘Twenty-six years ago you took me to hospital to receive treatment for my burned hand.’

“I asked him to show me his hand,” she continued. “When I saw his hand was healthy, I thanked God. These incidents make up my life’s best memories.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kabul.