Early morning on 5 September, when the world celebrated Teacher’s Day, Sushmita Banerjee – a part-time teacher, health worker and a best-selling writer – was dragged out of her house in the Paktika province, Afghanistan and shot at least twenty times by men who call themselves the Taliban. The Indian diarist – who detailed a crisp but harrowing account of her life under the dreaded militants, wreaking havoc in the region since the early 1990s, when she penned a book called Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife – was abducted by masked men just after midnight, when assailants broke into their home in eastern Paktika, took her into a nearby madrasa and shot her as many times,
killing her on the spot.
Banerjee’s grisly death at the hands of her detractors, even if facilitated by family squabbles and imminent divorce from her husband Janbaaz Khan (an Afghan doctor, meeting whom in Kolkata way back in 1988 had turned the life around for the Bengali-Hindu girl, who fell in love with a dashing man from an exotic country, married him in secret and left her hometown to travel all the way to Kabul), is, nevertheless, a burning finger pointed towards the deadly resurgence of this widespread, diverse and brutal militant group.
Only last year, a Pakistani cohort of the Taliban had targeted a 14-year-old girl, Malala Yousafzai, as she was going back home on a school bus in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province of Pakistan. The modus operandi wasn’t dissimilar. They hauled the dauntless little girl out of the bus and shot her in the head and neck, and left her for dead. Only Yousafzai survived, miraculously enough, and lived to tell the tale.
Tale of two women
Yousafzai’s crime in the eyes of Taliban was to write a daily blog on BBC Urdu service on the perilous state of women in KP, the most underdeveloped of Pakistan’s four major provinces, with education and civil liberties practically non-existent. Banerjee’s sin was her staunch refusal to wear a burqa, as the Taliban diktat ( also in Paktika) required. Banerjee had been living in a village on the edge of Sharana, the capital of Paktika, with her husband and extended family, and was famous for being a convert to Islam, who had written a book about her life in the hinterland, under the dreaded militia. Locally, Sushmita was known as Sahib Kamala, and she was also a midwife of some repute, helping women to access basic healthcare, a rarity in the region, not only because of the dismal squalor all around, but also because women were barred from stepping out and seeking the medical help, thanks to the medieval mentality of the AK-47-wielding henchmen who called (and fired) the shots.
Banerjee had tried fleeing Afghanistan, twice unsuccessfully in late 1990s and then successfully, when the Indian embassy in Kabul helped her find her way back to India. But such are the ways of love and life that she decided to go back and rejoin her husband, who, by the way, had a wedded wife, Gulguti, before he tied the knot with Banerjee in a clandestine wedding in 1988 Kolkata. Banerjee had adopted Gulguti’s children as her own, and had lived in the middle of it all, adjusting and learning, cooperating and coopting, until her life ended on the wee hours of 5 September. She had anyway been sentenced to death long before for her adamant disregard for the burqa and on that fateful Thursday, her nightmare became a cruel reality. And even though her character, portrayed by Manisha Koirala in the film Escape from Taliban, had managed to brave the odds and flee, Banerjee’s life came a full circle and ended abruptly,leaving a queasy feeling in the collective gut of women, whether in Afghanistan, or in India, or anywhere else in the world.
Banerjee and Yousafzai are not the only women to be targeted by the masked men carrying automatic rifles and machine guns. In fact, they are the ones whose names have made the rounds in the global media circuits because they were exemplary women of exceptional courage. But their stories are exactly the same as those of thousands of nameless women living in the Taliban’s shadow. Every day, one or more is killed, stoned to death, shredded by bullets, beheaded or gang raped and then butchered in public. These practices, while being lamented in the so-called liberal West, nevertheless, carry on unabated, bringing mayhem and misery on women in the Taliban-infested regions, whether in Afghanistan, or in the badlands of Pakistan, especially the North West Frontier Province.
Before and after
While two men have been arrested over Banerjee’s murder, on the basis of intelligence information, and were found in possession of two Kalashnikovs, a motorbike and explosives, according to media reports, having weapons is a common feature for Af-Pak households. In fact, in an article in a prominent Indian magazine, Banerjee had recounted that her family had two AK-47s, and it wasn’t out of ordinary. Brave and fearless, as Banerjee had been, her quiet dignity and unfathomable love for her Afghan family, despite the falling out with her husband over marital squabbles at the fag end of her life, had been the reason why she left the cosy comforts of middle-class Kolkata life for a hard, stoic survival in the lap of everyday terror.
Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly were being granted rights in Afghan society. Women got the right to vote in the 1920s, and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided equality for women. There was an air of tolerance and respectability, and the country was inching its way towards democracy. Women were making contributions – in fact, in 1977, before the Soviet invasion of 1979, women comprised over 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s highest legislative body. In addition, by the early 1990s, almost 70 per cent of schoolteachers, 50 per cent of government workers and university students, as well as 40 per cent of doctors, used to be women. Clearly, empirical evidence points towards a near equality of women in the public sphere, which was mercilessly squelched in the ruthless regime of Taliban, ever since they took Kabul in the mid-1990s, after the CIA-engineered front dislodged the Russians from Afghanistan and turned the country into a ‘graveyard of foreign policy.’
In other words, the Taliban rule has not only done an immense disservice to its women, it has maligned the name of Islam, under the banner of which the brute militia carries out its repressive orders. Although Islam is one of the most progressive of religions, when it comes to catering for women’s rights under the eyes of law, making legal provisions for marriage consent, divorce, alimony and property right, the Taliban’s besmirching of Islam has bewildered many of the scholars and moderate practitioners of the religion. And even though the Taliban claim that they have been acting in the ‘best interests’ of women, and dedicated as they are to the words of the Prophet, they are appallingly out of step with the wider Muslim world and with the tolerant tenets of Islam.
Taliban’s deadly entanglements
Even though ‘peace talks’ with Taliban are doing the media rounds, and exchange of prisoners from these insurgent groups are taking place, the current state of being is one of utter confusion and instability as far as security in the Af-Pak region is concerned. As a recent essay on the state of affairs in Af-Pak by noted historian William Dalrymple (‘A Deadly Triangle’, Brookings Institute) suggests, Afghanistan is not only the result of mistaken strategies by the US, former Soviet Union and the South Asian neighbours, particularly Pakistan, it is also a turf where a proxy battle between multiple camps, US-Pakistan versus Russia-India has been taking place for over two decades, with the 2001 US invasion doing nothing better or worse than the 1979 raid by the former USSR.
Pertinent is the fact that India is now scaling its interests in the Afghan region, particularly in the wake of the partial withdrawal of NATO forces by 2014. To be a part of the Afghan equation, as Dalrymple indicates, is both a boon and a bane, since left alone, with a substantially weakened US and Western forces, Hamid Karzai could easily buckle under pressure from the Taliban, who have grabbed the opportunity to strike back, despite the big fronts choosing the round table over rounds of bullets. India will be left with a daunting task of not only aiding Karzai in the formidable reconstruction work after the NATO withdrawal, but also would have to increase its stake in the military presence, gaining defence-related tenders from such a scenario. It is exactly this that the Pakistanis have been dreading, with the ISI still using Afghanistan as its backyard, incubating and propping up the militant extremists and affiliated insurgent groups with weapons, ground intelligence, food, training and communication kits, medical supplies, cold cash and other needs.
Clearly, the resurgence of the Taliban is starkly antagonistic to India’s geopolitical interests in the region. With Pakistan’s irrational hatred of India not diminishing and with its history of infiltrating Durrani Pashtun tribesmen into Kashmir as far back as in 1947, the recent resurrection of the Taliban (a Frankestienish CIA creation to offset the Soviet presence in the region) is only going to prolong the already protracted struggle for rights and dignity in the country. And despite more than a decade of US invasion, since 2001, and irrespective of the global war on terror, the drone attacks, nothing has been achieved in real terms. These guerilla warriors still continue with their warfare for a mistaken cause, only to wreak havoc on the people who merely want peace, stability and right to live with basic freedoms intact.
But given the bloods shed by Sushmita Banerjee and Malala Yousafzai, peace appears to be a distant dream. There seems to be no escape from Taliban, not immediately, at least.