Babrak Karmal was popular with his followers, particularly the urbanized Parchamis, some of whom were emotionally attached to him. To them he was the symbol of defiance to social injustice and absolutism as well as a comrade of the downtrodden and the impoverished. His followers looked on him as the leader of the new-style pioneers who felt they had liberated themselves from the shackles of religion, tribe, region, and social customs, which restricted individuals in every corner of life. Karmal’s career of political struggle, his years of imprisonment, his perseverance in the hard profession of politics, his polished manners and convincing reasoning—all these endeared him still further to his followers. It was the force of their attachment that twice won for him seats in parliament in the constitutional decade. But all this is an incomplete picture of his personality and his social standing.
Karmal’s loyalty to the Soviet Union was well known. He would say even in the presence of non-Parchamis that he wished to make Afghanistan the sixteenth republic of the Soviet Union. He was in the pay of the Soviet Union. He had been accused of this by Soraya Baha, a Parchami woman activist who had become disillusioned and who was therefore under investigation by some members of the central committee, including Karmal. She told him to his face that he was paid 35,000 rubles a month in the name of the party.
Karmal was widely believed to be a man without scruples. Following the death of his mother, he left home and lived with his widowed maternal aunt. He was said to be living in disregard of the society’s moral values. Karmal’s father, a general in the Afghan army, had disowned him, apparently for his leftist views. In his mature life, too, there was talk about Karmal’s debauchery. To his critics Karmal would say, “Among us these issues have been resolved.” Karmal resembled Mulla Zakki, whose licentious views permeated the court of Shah Mahmud Sadozay in the early years of the nineteenth century. Zakki’s actions led to a commotion that resulted in the overthrow of the monarch. Afghan society was no longer as rigid as it had been during the previous century, but it was not so liberal as to accept as its ruler a commoner with such a record.
Karmal’s behavior created a problem for his faction, despite the fact that some urban Parchamis were “loose.” Karmal’s behavior intensified a rift between himself and Mier Akbar Khybar, the number two man in the faction. Khybar once slapped Karmal in his face because Karmal had tried to seduce the unwilling wife of their host comrade. Khybar said to him, “You aspire for Afghan rulership, but do such base things.” The incident had wider—and, for Khybar, fatal—implications. All this lowered the status of the Parchamis in the public eye.
The incident had wider consequences for Karmal as well. All peoples want to know the identity of their rulers, and that desire is particularly strong among the genealogy-conscious Afghans. When Karmal was raised to power, his background became a subject of inquiry. Karmal was born in 1929 in the village of Kamari to the east of the city of Kabul. He had graduated from the College of Law and Political Sciences of Kabul University. Karmal’s family was believed to be Tajik, the second main ethnic group after the Pashtuns, because linguistically and culturally the family was Tajik and was integrated into the urban community of Kabul. But Karmal’s father did not say so and “would skillfully conceal his Tajik identity.” In 1986 Karmal announced that he and his full brother, Mahmud Baryalay, were Pashtuns. He said so because they were the sons of a linguistically Persianized Pashtun mother of the Mullakhel section of the Ghilzays. But in the patriarchal society of Afghanistan, descent is traced only through the patriarchal line. Karmal should have stated that he was a Tajik if he was a Tajik. Karmal’s announcement was political in that he wanted to attach himself to the Pashtuns, but it confounded the issue of his identity. Karmal’s forefathers had immigrated from Kashmir to Kabul, as many Kashmiris had settled there over a long period of time. Kashmir was a part of the Afghan Durrani empire until its dissolution in 1818. This descent is reinforced by the fact that Karmal and his brother’s original names resemble the names of Indian Muslims. Karmal’s first full name was Sultan Hussayn, and his brother’s name was Sultan Mahmud; their father was named Mohammad Hussayn. The brothers changed their names to sound more like Afghan names.
The fact that Karmal’s ancestors had immigrated to Kabul, Karmal’s statement that he was a Pashtun, the fact that his father was not a Pashtun, and his father’s reluctance to admit that he was a Tajik—all these make it doubtful that the family was Tajik originally, although they were integrated into that group. It is a custom in Afghanistan for a person of no ethnic significance to relate himself to the ethnic group into which he has been integrated. Not all Pashto-speaking Afghans are Pashtuns, and not all Persian-speaking Afghans are Tajiks. Karmal went against the custom. This means that, ethnically speaking, the family was insignificant. Among the educated Afghans this was not so damaging to the social standing of Karmal and Baryalay. More damaging was the view that they were the descendants of Hindu ancestors.
Some claimed that Karmal was descended from Hindu ancestors, but no evidence has substantiated the claim. However, it was said that Karmal and his two younger brothers looked like Hindus. Another supportive point can be traced in Karmal’s relationship with the government of India. Before the coup the Indian embassy in Kabul used to invite Karmal to its receptions, whereas it did not invite Taraki, although he, unlike Karmal, had spent some time in India. When Karmal was raised to power, India was, of all the nonaligned countries, the only one to establish full diplomatic relations with the Kabul regime. This is not to suggest that India did so for personal reasons. In maintaining a relationship with Kabul, India intended to promote its own regional interests. But in these relationships Karmal’s personal role was striking.
For the first time in Kabul, the small Hindu and Sikh communities were officially encouraged to hold religious ceremonies openly. Senior officials participated in televised ceremonies. It might have been in line with their communist creed to encourage religious minorities. The Soviet advisers might also have instructed them to please India, their ally in the region. But the fanfare that they made on these occasions irritated the Afghans. In addition to being known as a self-indulgent communist, Karmal was said to be a promoter of Hinduism. Even if nothing else counted against Karmal, these labels were enough for the Afghans to distrust him.