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Aseem Chhabra in New York
Diplomatic officials and religious community leaders in New York City reacted with shock to reports from Afghanistan that the Taleban had announced plans to make Hindus wear labels on their clothes to distinguish them from the Muslim majority in the war-torn country.
Comparisons were made to the Nazi practice of identifying Jews, communists and homosexuals by labels.
"This is absolutely unacceptable and goes to tell you that the Taleban are mediŠval creatures who will not stop here," Haron Amin, press attachÚ for the Afghan mission to the United Nations, said. "They engage in constant social engineering backed fully by Pakistan and having the blessings of the Pakistani mullahs and religious groups."
Amin's mission represents the Burhanuddin Rabbani faction in the Afghan civil war, which is officially recognized by the UN. Rabbani was forced out of Kabul by the Taleban forces in September 1996. He now reportedly works with anti-Taleban factions in northern Afghanistan.
Until last year, the Taleban also had a representative at the UN. Hakim Abdul Mujahid used to run the Taleban's mission out of an office in Flushing, Queens. In December 2000, a Security Council resolution barred the Taleban from a presence at the UN and Mujahid was forced to close his office. His whereabouts are not known though some speculate that he is still in the United States.
"Hindus have lived in Afghanistan for thousands of years and co-existed and assimilated with the Afghan society on an equal footing," Amin said. "In the past we have had Hindus who were members of the parliament and deputy ministers in various Afghan governments."
Amin mentioned one Niranjan Das who was a member of the Afghan delegation that negotiated the country's independence from the British in 1919. In the 1970s another Hindu, Hukum Chand, was president of the Afghan National Bank.
Amin placed the current Hindu population in Afghanistan at around 40,000. He added that out of fear, several Hindus had hidden their religious beliefs from the Taleban regime. A report in The Times of India said there were only 300 Hindus and another 2,000 Sikhs in Afghanistan.
"The Taleban have a way of pinpointing individuals and making them very, very visibly seen," he said. "The enforcement of the burkha [veil] targets women and makes them a prime prey." He added that until the Taleban took control of two-thirds of Afghanistan, women in the urban areas never wore burkhas.
Amin said he feared that there could be repercussions against Muslim minorities in the South Asian region. "India was founded on secular principles, but there are people some of whom are more sentimental and they might resort to violence against Muslims," he warned.
Naim Baig, secretary of the Islamic Circle of North America based in Jamaica, Queens, said the Taleban's edict was against the teachings of Islam. Baig's organization is said to have an affiliation with the Jamaat-e-Islami party in Pakistan.
"Looking at the way the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, dealt with non-believers, Islam gives them equal freedom if they live in a Muslim state," Baig said.
"When the Prophet, peace be upon him, migrated to Medina and established a Muslim society, Jews and Christians were living there and they had equal rights to do business and everything. And according to my understanding and reading nobody was told to wear anything special."
Baig said he did not know of the intentions behind the Taleban's edict, but as a member of the Muslim minority living in the US, he found the notion quite difficult to fathom. "In the US if someone was to tell me to wear a special symbol or anything like that, I could become a victim of any crime," he said. "Looking at it [the Taleban announcement] like this, it seems strange. I don't know what their intention is."
Narain Kataria, secretary of the Indian American Intellectuals' Forum and a community activist, spoke to rediff.com from the Hindu perspective. "It is a very shocking and disturbing news," Kataria said. "As is well known, these Taleban have been trained by the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], the spy agency of Pakistan, in madrassas [Islamic religious schools], where they were taught to hate and murder non-Muslims, especially Hindus, whom they consider kafirs [infidels]. So nothing better could be expected from these bigots."
"These Taleban claim to be the true followers of Islam," he added. "If this is true Islam, then only God can save the world from destruction. These Taleban have already ethnically cleansed Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan and they are killing innocent civilians, including women and children, in Kashmir. I would suggest that the civilized world should get together and stamp out terrorism, barbarity and jihad from the world."
Dr Mukund Mody, founder of the Overseas Friends of BJP and an associate of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said it was shameful for the modern world to stay quiet about the Taleban's latest pronouncement.
"The most unfortunate part is that Hindus have the largest population in India and the Indian government will not respond the way they should," Mody said. "It is a shame."
"It's like the Nazis asking the Jews to have some identity. It is the responsibility of the world community. It is Hindus today, tomorrow it could be Christians. If people keep quiet, it's a shame."
At least one diplomat seemed to think the reports of the Taleban calling upon Hindus to wear labels was false. Rizwan Khan, press councillor for Pakistan's mission to the UN, said The Times of India had reported that the external affairs ministry in India had overreacted to an unsubstantiated report about the Taleban's plans.
The Times of India article questioned why any of the Western news agencies had not reported the story from Afghanistan. But on May 22, a news item written by Amir Shah, the Associated Press correspondent in Kabul, was widely circulating on the Internet. In the report, Shah quoted Mohammed Wali, the religious police minister of the Taleban, as saying that the regime's edict against Hindus would be enforced soon. The exact date has not been set yet, Shah wrote.
The Pakistani mission's Khan said the Taleban's ambassador in Islamabad had denied the news that he was "hearing from the Indian section of the media". "Neither has the Taleban issued any decree, nor they have said anything about the Indians, so we find it very strange where they got the story from," she said.
"To the best of my knowledge they [the Taleban] had planned to ask the non-Muslims that they should have a distinctive mark in their dress so that could be identified," Khan said. "So that if they had to do to something to their own people, they have some restrictions for their own people. But I think this has been denied now. They say they have not done it. Perhaps a year ago it was planned by Mohammad Omar [supreme leader of the Taleban]. But it's not now."
Khan said the Pakistani government did not have any official reaction to this news. "The Pakistan government has nothing to do with it," she said. "Frankly we only take action on news that is authentic. We can't react to every little news that seems to pop up from here and there. You noticed that the Pakistan government hasn't even reacted to the monkey story."
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