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The Timid Herd And The Hot Iron Brand

The yellow-cloth minority identikit decreed by the Taliban is its desperate response to the UN sanctions

The Timid Herd And The Hot Iron Brand
The Timid Herd And The Hot Iron Brand
The Taliban's new edict ordering religious minorities to sport an identification mark has occasioned an onrush of dark memories of the Holocaust. Like the German Jews who were forced to wear the yellow star with Jude (German for Jew) inscribed on it, the minorities in Afghanistan are now expected to sport a piece of thumb-sized yellow cloth on their pockets. The order has sparked international furore, coming as it does a month after the destruction of the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan.

The edict, in reality, affects only the Afghan Hindus. For, the minuscule Sikh population is easily identifiable by turbans and flowing beards. As for the Christians—mostly Westerners working with the UN and other ngos—they too can be easily recognised by their complexion, features and sartorial ways. Afghanistan has a solitary Jew, a resilient gentleman who refuses to leave Kabul's only synagogue after having survived years of conflict, innumerable governments and Islamic extremism.

This isn't the first time that the Taliban have ordered the religious minorities to wear yellow stickers. Three years ago, a similar edict was issued and enforced in Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban Islamic Movement and the headquarters of its reclusive supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar. There had been no international protest then, perhaps because the Taliban were not considered as much of a threat as they are now.

The new edict reflects the growing frustration among the Taliban at the sanctions the UN has imposed and also because of the recent reverses they suffered at the hands of opposition military commander Ahmad Shah Masood in the Shomali area, north of Kabul, and in the Shia-majority Bamiyan province. The edict could, therefore, be seen as typical Taliban-style retaliation.

The first hint of the Taliban's edict for the minorities came last week from Mulla Abdul Wali, who heads Afghanistan's religious police, on the official Voice of Shariat Radio. "The ulema (religious scholars) issued a fatwa that the non-Muslim population of the country should have a distinctive mark, such as a piece of cloth, attached to their pockets so that they could be differentiated from others." Following international protests, the edict was held back, only to be formally introduced two days later.

Says foreign ministry spokesman Faiz Ahmad Faiz: "The edict is being issued to protect the minorities from possible harassment by the religious police and has the backing of minority leaders. It is a small matter but the US, India and the UN are exaggerating facts and exploiting it to malign the Taliban. It isn't discriminatory or racist as is being alleged by those having vested interests."

The Taliban-controlled Bakhtar News Agency justified the edict: "There have been incidents when Hindus complained of being ordered to offer prayers in mosques or grow beards by the religious police. The religious police members argued that they were sometimes unable to differentiate between the Hindus and non-practising Muslims. The identification badge would solve this problem and save the Hindus trouble."

In an interview with Bakhtar News Agency, Sikh leader Inder Singh Majboor endorsed the edict. He said: "The edict is not a matter of concern for us. It also isn't something new. Two years ago we reached an agreement with the Taliban authorities that the Hindus should wear a grey skull hat and a ring. We'll talk to the authorities and sort it out." Majboor also claimed that the Taliban didn't interfere with their religious practices.

The international media, however, quoted some Hindus in Kabul to say that the community was angry with the new Taliban edict. They reportedly said that the latest order could force them to leave Afghanistan for India. Already, Afghanistan's Hindu and Sikh population has dwindled to less than 2,000 from an estimated 50,000 before the communist Saur revolution in April 1978 and the Soviet invasion in December 1979. Majboor says that there are 1,720 Hindus and Sikhs left in Afghanistan, including 520 in Kabul.

Most Hindus and Sikhs who fled Afghanistan during the last 23 years of war first came to Pakistan before making their way to India. Some did return to take a look at their property and meet relatives still living in Afghanistan. A small number of the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are living in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (nwfp), hoping to return to Afghanistan some day. That, however, appears unlikely as long as the battle between the Taliban, which controls 90 per cent of Afghanistan, and the opposition Northern Alliance continues.

Dewan Chand, a wealthy Hindu money-changer in Kandahar, sums up the situation best: "I am an Afghan and would love to live in Afghanistan. But first the 'topakyan' (a derogatory term used for Afghan mujahideen and simply meaning gunmen) made life difficult for us and now the Taliban, after an early promise of peace and security that they brought, are taking steps which would eventually make us run away." (Two days after Dewan Chand talked to this correspondent, he applied for a visa, hoping to travel to India.)

But it isn't the minorities alone who dread Mulla Abdul Wali and his religious police. Wali, who was responsible for the earlier Kandahar experiment, is an inveterate hardliner. Once in Kandahar, he stopped this correspondent and a bunch of western journalists and demanded an identity check, intrigued as he was to find two women smoking and laughing in the company of men to whom they were not related. The journalists were allowed to continue their journey only because Wali thought that foreigners were exempt from the Taliban's strict religious laws.

The religious police that Wali heads is a powerful arm of the ministry of justice. Also known as the morality police, its real nomenclature is "Amr Bil Ma'aruf Wa Nahi Anil Munkar" (department for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice). Drawing inspiration from the Quranic teaching that Muslims should promote acts of virtue and prevent vice, the religious police drive around in pick-up trucks flying white flags and thrash offenders and herd people to mosques during prayer time.

These bearded policemen are mostly young Taliban who zealously implement edicts such as observance of hijab (veil) by women and carry scissors to trim beard and hair beyond the prescribed length. Streams of tape ripped out of video and audio cassettes, and television sets "hanging" from poles and trees are a familiar sight near checkposts the religious police man. Recently, they raided a newly established Italian-funded hospital in Kabul on the grounds that the male employees were mixing freely with their women counterparts and forcing them to wear Western dress. The angry Italians promptly closed down the hospital and are now demanding guarantees of non-interference before reopening it.

Yet, it would be wrong to assume that the religious police don't have Mulla Omar's blessings.It seems the Taliban, particularly after imposition of two rounds of sanctions by the UN, have become immune to international criticism. For Wali and his ilk, it doesn't really matter that people like Dewan Chand are leaving Afghanistan.
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