June 1, 2001


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The great Afghan
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India should brace itself
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S Gopikrishna

'Will India watch as Hindus perish in Afghanistan?'

Is history a good teacher in preventing earlier mistakes?

A horse can be led to water, but a thousand men can't make it drink.

Let us examine two countries that were 'born' within a few months of each other, India and Israel.

Israel has learnt enough not to allow mistakes to be repeated. It firmly believes that the world's indifferent inaction led to the Holocaust in the 1940s. Irrespective of international approbation or condemnation, Israel has intervened wherever the lives of Israelis or 'potential' Israelis (read 'Jews') are at stake.

Israel regards all Jews to be potential Israelis and accords them the 'right to return' whereby they are assured of citizenship rights should they immigrate to Israel.

Analogous to the Israeli definition, let us define a 'potential Indian' as one who satisfies the following:

  • Expresses a desire to settle in India.
  • Is under compulsion to leave the present country of residence due to beliefs that have their origins in India.

By the above definition, Hindus and Sikhs living in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh would qualify as 'potential' Indians. The present persecution results from their religious beliefs originating in the 'historical' (as opposed to the modern) India.

How much can a 'potential Indian' expect from the Government of India?

'Potential Indians' applying to settle in India may expect anything from bureaucratic claptrap to a slap. When Sindhi Hindus sought refuge in India because of religious persecution (circa 1964), Jawaharlal Nehru was averse to the idea of granting them residency rights. It is rumoured that the refugees would have been returned to Pakistan but for his sudden death and Lal Bahadur Shastri's personal intervention.

While Indira Gandhi reacted sympathetically to the mass exodus from East Pakistan in 1970-1971, India seems to have returned to Nehruvian thinking in the matter of Afghani Hindus.

Consider the case of Afghani Hindus and Sikhs who have been beseeching for India's help after the Taleban came to power. In 1995, the Taleban decided that 'idols' couldn't be worshipped. By 1998, Human Rights Watch (the respected human rights group) had expressed concerns about the presently infamous yellow badge decree being in the works.

Afghani Hindus and Sikhs requested India's protection under the mistaken belief that they would be admitted to India, or get a sympathetic hearing at the very least. With nonchalance bordering on the nonsensical, the GOI refused admission to most. The reasons are best exemplified in Ambassador Ronen Sen's reply of December 2000 to German-Afghani Hindus (in a different context) "Security reasons make it necessary for referrals to New Delhi".

Not surprisingly, the Afghani Hindus/Sikhs found it easier to be accepted in Germany than India.

In a move that has been universally condemned, the Taleban now plans to force all Hindu men to put on a yellow arm-band, just as all Hindu and Sikh women will be required to veil themselves.

The surprising parallels between the Talebani thinking and Hitler's murderous hordes of the 1930s have raised the question of another genocide. While India has condemned the move, it does not contemplate any special move or willingness to rescue the beleaguered Hindu/Sikh community.

The GOI should restrain itself from playing Nero to a burning Rome and prevent the certain massacre of the Afghani Hindu-Sikh community.

There exist, at least three different strategies that can be employed to rescue the beleaguered Afghani Hindus:

  • Pay 'ransom money' for the 'potential Indians' (read hostages in this case). This technique was used with some amount of success to free American hostages kidnapped by the Hizbullah faction in the1980s.

    The financial desperation of the Taleban, evident during the 1999 Kandahar episode, may make it amenable to such a proposal. It would, however, be necessary that this does not degenerate into an 'assembly-line' process and result in kidnappings galore and an Iran-Contras scandal style finale.

  • Borrow a leaf out of the books of the Israelis and conduct a well planned, commando style raid.

    This move takes advantage of the fact that Hindu men will easily be identifiable with their new yellow bands while the Sikh men can be identified through their turbans. With prior information about when and where the Hindu and Sikh communities congregate, a commando style operation should be able to rescue a fair number of people.

    The obvious success story in such rescue operations is the rescue of Israelis hostages from Kampala's Entebbe airport in 1976.

    However, executing a commando style operation in remote Kabul may well parallel the ill-fated 1980 American attempt to rescue embassy employees taken hostage by fundamentalist Islamic students in Teheran. Distance, support and intelligence factors may reduce the viability of the operation.

  • Smuggling the refugees out of Kabul.

    This is a sure if slow moving process of rescuing the refugees. This method taps into a loose and clandestine network of guides who have been helping refugees escape from Afghanistan since the 1980s. Pouring sufficient funds into the system will make the process efficient and systematic, enabling more members of the targeted group to escape the safety.

    Given the thaw in Indo-Pakistani relations, the GOI should put pressure on the Pakistani government to waive transit its visa restrictions and allow members of this group to reach any designated Indian post (ie, India-Pakistan border or an office manned by India in Pakistan).

    The Israelis smuggled thousands of Falashas (black Jews) from Ethiopia to Israel via Sudan in the 1980s. An impending famine and the not-very-tender mercies of their Christian and Muslim neighbours raised grave doubts about the safety of the Falasha community in the early 80s. The Israeli government set up a network over a period of two years to ferry the Falashas to safety in groups.

    Moral reasons for intervention notwithstanding, the BJP led ruling coalition should take serious stock of its current political fortunes. The Tehelka scandal has dealt a serious blow to the government's credibility and has raised serious doubts about its ability to govern the country. The unpopularity is best reflected in the state assembly elections' results.

    It is only a gesture as dramatic as the nuclear bomb explosions of 1998 that will help restore popularity and confidence in the present government.

    Rescuing the Afghani Hindu/Sikh community would be a wonderful way of the present government building confidence as well as fulfilling its moral obligations.

    High time we saw some timely action from the GOI.

    They now come for the Hindus

    S Gopikrishna

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