The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 7, 2001
Time Off

A land stalked by the ‘thought police’
Manohar Malgonkar

They shall grow not old... — Lawrence Binyon

IT is by definition a frontier country, in that it has had an ongoing war for more than 20 years. Unwieldy, volunteer armies equipped with the latest weapons of warfare have been fighting a civil war of such ferocity that few of its towns and villages have escaped being ravaged and looted by one faction or the other. Where, above all, vast stretches of open land have been transformed into treacherous minefields, which result in the death and dismemberment of humans and cattle alike.

Yes. Afghanistan.

Here, secularism, which is a proud boast of democracies, is regarded as heresy and agnosticism even of philosophers, an offence which carries the death penalty; here music is an affront, if not an obscenity, and stone statues thousands of years old are not the gifts of ancient civilisations but objects of hatred to be pulverised by dynamite. Here women must live in lifelong concealment and girls are banned from schools by edicts of holy men. Here one of the most sinister nightmares of Orwell’s 1984, ‘the thought police’ is a street presence . It is also called ‘the religious police’ can boot you out of your house if you’re found reading a book when you should be praying, or to a place of public flogging for the crime of not keeping a beard.

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Who can blame the people of such a land for wanting to escape from it, no matter what the cost, to try and make a new life somewhere else on the face of the planet ...because no other country can be as bad as their native land?

So, they sell their houses and lands and whatever else they possess, undergo unimaginable hardships, face unknown dangers...just to escape.

If the high mountains that surround it make Afghanistan a difficult land to enter, it is a land even more difficult to get out of. Roads are both sparse and rudimentary, and some of the major towns are connected only by air — serviced by outdated planes of Russian manufacture. That some Afghans should have actually hijacked one of these planes in a bid to seek asylum in a less hostile land, only shows how desperate they were to escape.

They have not so much as seem a railway line...right? Nor a ship, either. But only recently, the British police caught a few of them trying to enter Britain by walking under the channel...through the tunnel. And now, 400-odd Afghans who had been rescued from sinking Indonesian ship by a Norwegian boat, have cheerfully agreed to being dumped on a desolate Pacific island. That traumatic passage had cost each of them over Rs 4 lakh.

It can be argued that, even living in their own towns and villages, the people of Afghanistan are stateless citizens. After all, barring Pakistan and one or two other nations, no other world community has recognised the Taliban regime. But millions of them became stateless anyhow when they fled across the borders to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, where they live in sprawling refugee camps on handouts from international charities. Initially, at any rate Pakistan tended to welcome them as a convenient pool of recruits to the commando schools which transformed them into robotic jehad warriors to be sent on missions into Kashmir. But, after the first million, even Pakistan has stopped admitting any more Afghan refugees.

Meanwhile, conditions in Afghanistan have become even worse for its citizens because of a severe drought that is now in its third year, and what food can be grown locally is not sufficient even for subsistence.

All this, while the civil war rages, as fiercely as ever.

This is Afghanistan today; this might quite easily have become Kashmir today, if it had not been saved from such a fate by feats of desperate heroism on the part of some of our soldiers, reinforced by an absolutely brilliant rescue act performed by our Army and air force in the first flush of operation which Lord Mountbatten who, it will be recalled, had been a successful military leader in World War II and served as the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in South-East Asia was to acclaim as being exceptional: "I have never heard of an airlift of this nature being put into operation at such a short notice."

Those who profess to wanting to ‘liberate’ Kashmir are obsessed by the same ideals; to transform Kashmir into another Afghanistan.

How else does one interpret, the fatwa promulgated by a faction called Lashkar-e-Jabbar, that it has kindly extended the deadline for all women in Kashmir to wear a burqua within 10 days. After that, the punishment for defying the fatwa would be that acid would be thrown at their faces...indeed, almost as a foretaste of their terrible retribution, Lashkar-e-Jabbar had already ‘claimed’ the responsibility for such an attack on two women in Srinagar.

You have been warned!

What kind of men are they who want to disfigure and blind young girls merely for showing their faces? And how does it all fit into the parameters of a jehad? Are schoolgirls to be its targets?

And a burqua for women is merely the foot in the door. Right behind stand the ‘religious police’, public whippings, chopping of limbs for thefts, stoning to death for sexual offences, the dynamiting of prehistoric statues sculpted by dedicated craftsmen who were artists too.

So give thanks to those fighting men whose courage and sense of duty were tested beyond the call of duty, and also to the military planners who put together a brilliant plan of operation, literally within hours of being called upon to do so; an operation of hair-trigger uncertainty whose one chance of success depended on whether an aerodrome had or had not fallen to the enemy or been rendered inoperative by an act of sabotage.

Because an airfield does not have to be actually occupied by hostile troops to render it useless: it can be put out of action just by digging a couple of ditches on its main runway or even by drawing up half a dozen trucks on it. And then as now, there were men in Kashmir who would have cheerfully sabotaged an airfield to prevent Indian planes from landing on it...if they had only thought of it.

When that first batch of our soldiers was to be taken by air to fight in Kashmir, the pilot had been told to circle the landing airfield to make sure that it had not been already taken over by enemy troops. In Delhi, they just didn’t know. After that first plane took off, the planning team waited nervously for news, their anxiety mounting as the seconds ticked. "At 10.30 am, a wireless flash came. The first plane had landed," writes V.P. Menon who, as it happened, had been with the team keeping the vigil.

Within three hours of landing, they were already in contact with the enemy and under fire. The operation to save Kashmir had begun.

Who were these men?...And why did they have to be rushed into battle in such breakneck hurry?

(To be concluded)