Kabul: Swagatam! Yeh aapka pehla visit hai?
For a moment, I was stunned when Ahmad Zaher Faqiri, the Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, spoke to me in chaste Hindi during my first encounter with him in Kabul.
The handsome Afghan diplomat had more in store for me when he belted the popular song `Pehla nasha, pehla khumaar, naya pyaar hai, naya intezaar....," from Bollywood movie `Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar`, to relate my first visit to Kabul.
Faqiri is not alone in war-torn Afghanistan who is influenced by Hindustan (as India is known in this country) and its famous Bollywood films.
Despite the resurgence of Taliban and their austere moral code, Afghan people`s love for India and its culture remains unaffected, officials said.
"Mujhe Hindustani film achchha lagta hai," a gun-totting Afghan police officer told reporters.
"Watching an entertaining Hindi film is one way to relax after a day`s tension ridden duty along with US-led multinational forces in Kabul`s sensitive diplomatic area," he said.
Afghanistan was one of the biggest foreign markets for Bollywood films until the early 1990s. Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Hema Malini still have fan-following here.
Newer Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham and Katrina Kaif too have developed vast admirers among Afghan youngsters who watch Hindi movies on local TV channels and through DVDs in bigger cities like Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Bollywood broke new ground in Afghanistan in 2006 with the release of Kabul Express, the first international movie filmed in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
India`s traditionally friendly ties with Afghanistan have been on a high since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. India is the sixth largest donor with an aid budget of USD 1.3 billion, and Indian companies are rebuilding roads and schools in this country despite constant security threats.
India and Afghanistan have established a strong relationship based on their historical and civilisational ties and strengthened New Delhi`s role in the reconstruction of the war-scarred nation.
"The principal objective of India`s development partnership is to build indigenous Afghan capacity and institutions," officials said.
India has played an active role in the development of Afghanistan based on the understanding that social and economic development is key to the country becoming a source of regional stability, they said.
Speaking at the recent International Conference on Afghanistan, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna said, "the ultimate aim of our assistance is to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan state and people to stand on their own feet in the areas of governance and services for the Afghan people."
Describing India and Afghanistan as "historic friends," Krishna said New Delhi has contributed to Afghanistan's efforts in nation-building and reconstruction "entirely in accordance with the priorities of the Afghan government and people."
The India Cultural Centre (ICC) was inaugurated in Kabul in 2007, reflecting the close cultural links between the two countries. Through its diverse activities, including conduct of Indian classical music and yoga classes, the ICC has become a place where people of all background come together in the spirit of mutual bonding, Indian officials said.
India's aid programmes covers four broad areas ? infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, small and
community-based development projects and education and capacity development.
The 218-km-long road from Zaranj to Delaram in south- western Afghanistan that facilitates movement of goods and
services is a landmark project undertaken by India here.
India has also erected a 202 km-long 220 KV transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20 KV sub-station at Chimtala to bring electricity to the Afghan capital from Uzbekistan.
Two other major infrastructure projects, the construction of the Afghan Parliament in Kabul and Salma Dam power project in Heart province, are under progress and would be completed by 2011-12.
Around 3,500 Indian nationals are estimated to be
currently working in Afghanistan. Many of them are engaged in various aid projects undertaken by the Indian government and private businesses.
Around 3,000 people belonging to Sikh and Hindu communities, spread over a number of provinces, permanently live in the country as Afghan nationals.