The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 23, 2001
Time Off

The anger of gods
Manohar Malgonkar

ON Sunday mornings, if you’re up early, you can catch BBC radio’s programme called ‘Agenda’. One of BBC’s own think-tank seniors, Christopher Gunness chairs a panel discussion on some major issue of the times. The participants are handpicked from among those who are known as specialists in the subject under discussion.

On November 10, the Sunday before Divali, the subject was wars. Can wars be avoided? Are wars justified? Do wars settle disputes? Mr Gunness himself began the discussion by tossing in some sobering statistics. That, during the 20th century, more than 140 million people were killed in wars; that even today there are as many as 39 ongoing wars on the surface of the planet.

Then the pundits got into the act. They spoke with authority, and one could see that they really knew that they were talking about. And yet none of them had pat answers for the precise questions raised. Can wars be avoided? Are wars justified? Some are, like the one against Hitler. But most are not. Do wars settle disputes/ No!. And on the key question of why do wars start? — they seemed to know just as much or as little — as any of us. Or again, being clever as well as old hands at the game, they shied away from the obvious answers, knowing that what they had to say had absolutely no relevance to the one war which was the background to their discussion: That in Afghanistan.

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Indelible memories
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Of officers & gentlemen
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It had gone on so long, it was fought so bitterly and it had caused such horrendous damage to the country that it had achieved a sort of ‘rogue’ status in wars — and was thus beyond the scope of rational analysis. Against clan and tribal interfeuding — as against stupidity — even the gods struggle in vain, seemed to be the consensus.

Perhaps Mr Guinness should have invited Umberto Eco to his ‘Agenda’ discussion, for he, on the evidence of his writings, has a proper respect for occult influences on the affairs of men. Mr Eco would have provided the right, or, at any rate, plausible answers to the questions raised; as indeed would almost any street fortune teller in India.

Because even granting that the clans and tribes of Afghanistans are so consumed with hatred for each other that they don’t really need much of an excuse to fly at each other’s throats, surely, the intensity, the blind fury, the mindless barbarism of this particular war places it in a category of its own?

Wars too, like cricket or football matches, have rules which are respected by most civilised powers. But the tribes of Afghanistan — Pashtoon, Tadjik, Hazara, whatever — are not known to have observed them during their ongoing conflict.

As an example, take the case of their dealing with prisoners of war.

As a background to this war, it is important to remember that, no matter how much they hate each other, all the tribes belong to the same faith, Islam; and how often have we been reminded of late, that Islam means peace. But, when it comes to POWs, as we have seen, primitive fury takes precedence over the restraints of faith: in the massacre of the Pakistani and Arab prisoners of war taken by the Northern Alliance in Kundus and Mazar-e-Sharif .... some of whom had their hands securely tied behind their backs.

But then this, too, had become an established practice in the later stages of the Afghanistan war, and the Taliban, too, when they had the upper hand had slaughtered their POWs just as mercilessly — only there were no TV crews on hand to make a record on film.

In contrast, remember the war in 1972 which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh? The entire Pakistani army of the east, caught up in Bengal, commanded by General ‘Tiger’ Niazi, a force 96,000 strong, had laid down their arms on condition that they should be made prisoners of the Indian army and not of the Bangladesh army. Not one of these soldiers was harmed. They were all kept in camps for the best part of a year and treated according to the rules laid down by the United Nations. And finally they were repatriated. All this from a nation which, Pakistan has ever since branded as being its No 1 enemy.

But even in the competitive barbarism of interfeuding tribes, it is the Taliban who have set the pace. It was as though they wanted to show the world at large that they respected no conventional taboo. They set about creating a social order patterned by the most hot-headed of religious extremists: and this version of a double-distilled Islamic statehood was imposed upon the hapless people who came under their regime. No alcohol, no music, no TV, no school for girls, no jobs for women; beards and turbans for all males, burquas for all women. Religious police patrolled the streets. A student who had joined Kabul’s Medical College revealed that he was made to spend more time in religious learning than on medical studies. He fled.

By these severities, they reshaped Afghan society. And then as though to show to the outside world that they still had not lost their ability to shock, they decided to rid their land of all traces of an earlier civilisation. Anything at all that belonged to a pre-Islamic past had no place in their Utopia.

And thus sealed their own fate.

For centuries, the tribes of Afghanistan had lived in amity with their past; indeed, like other civilised nations, they, too, had sought to capitalise on their relics of earlier times. Even while they waged bitter wars against other tribes, they had promoted a tourist industry which mainly depended on the gifts of their Buddhist past. Those enormous statues of Buddha carved out of cliffs in the second and fifth century, were their country’s star attractions. One was 175 feet tall; the other, 120 feet. They were among the wonders of the world. Other Buddhist relics were displayed in the Museum at Kabul — 2,750 in number — even though an even greater number had been spirited out of the country by avidcollectors.

What harm these inanimated objects were causing to the Taliban cause is difficult to imagine. But they decided that the statues at Bamiyan as well as the objects of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist origin in the Kabul Museum must be destroyed so thoroughly, that not even pieces of them would remain to pollute the soil. Mir Abdul Zakar, the Museums Director, has revealed how they went at the clay images with axes and hammers. The great statues were pulverised by the use of explosives.

Perhaps Mr Zakar was too terrified of invoking the wrath of his Taliban superiors to explain to them the likely consequences of their action. Surely, he himself must have been aware of those dangers: the belief among archaeologists that ancient relics are protected by curses pronounced by wise men of the times. James Allen, a senior official of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, told a reporter of one such curse. Whoever violated it would be consigned to "the flames of Sekhmet — he is an enemy of Orisis, Lord of Abydos, and so is his son, for ever and ever."

Did those ancient sages really have some mysterious power that made their curses come true? — or is the whole concept of such curses a canard propogated by the pioneer grave-diggers of Egyptian Kings to put off their rivals from digging up old tombs?

Anyhow, nothing happened to the Taliban for months and months after they had systematically erased all traces of their Buddhist past. The mills of God grind slowly, we’re told. Then again, Buddhism is as much a religion of peace as is Islam, and the Buddha may have enjoined his curse-pronouncers to exercise the utmost restraint.

Then the Taliban challenged the God of War himself, Mangal, by choosing. His day, Tuesday when Mangal rests from his labours, to destroy the World Trade Center and punch a hole in the Pentagon. And brought upon them the wrath of Mangal.

On that Tuesday, the Taliban were virtually the Lords of Afghanistan. Today, they’re a vestigial force facing destruction.

I know, I know. The curses of men and the wrath of a God are no substitute for logic. But then have the BBC’s agenda pandits a more credible answer?


This feature was published on December 16, 2001