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The Buddha will forgive. Should we?

The Buddha will forgive. Should we?

Author: Chandan Mitra
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: March 7, 2001

The desecration and destruction of the magnificent Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by Taliban marauders is especially painful and humiliating for Indians. For the rest of the world, they are only heritage sites, but for us they are symbols and surviving artifacts of our own history, culture and civilisation. It is futile to condemn the Taliban for this act: You cannot expect savages to be graced with table manners. And the Taliban have repeatedly and proudly proclaimed their savagery. They have dragged a former President of their own country out of the sanctified premises of the UN mission and hung him by the neck in a public square. They have stoned women to death for allegedly indulging in adultery, besides banishing them from schools and hospitals. They have shot people in cold blood for not sporting a beard. They jubilantly collaborated with the hijackers of the Indian Airlines plane in December 1999, helping them force a humiliating deal out of our Government from Kandahar under the benign gaze of the local commander.

The infuriating part of all this is that the world is so helpless in such situations. Just two decades ago, it was similarly helpless in the face of the murderous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia that went about massacring a few million people for the sheer joy of killing. Of course, the world was equally silent when Stalin and Mao Zedong liquidated "class enemies" by the million in their respective countries, but that was before the age of information dawned upon us. As far as the Taliban are concerned, their barbarism is worse for it is proclaimed with robust audacity. This time too, there was no hide-and-seek about their iconoclasm. They elevated statue-breaking to state policy and justified it on the specious ground of religion. Their arguments are so pathetic that even their sponsor state, Pakistan, has been compelled to plead with them, at least for the record, to desist from such savagery.

Now that the bloodthirsty Taliban have terrorised the local population into cowering submission, they need to find occupation for their unemployed soldiers. Also, the regime must be worried that their tanks and rocket-launchers, bought with money from the narcotics trade, could be rusting. So, what could be better than sending their rag-tag army and artillery for some target practice to the Bamiyan hills? The new recruits to the Taliban ranks will presumably be given less arduous responsibilities like smashing statues inside the Kabul Museum, another heritage site, with pick-axes and shovels. The UN and international heritage organisations shall salve their consciences by issuing condemnations and/or appeals. The US, which sallied into Afghanistan with Cruise missiles to destroy the ever-elusive Osama bin Laden, can be trusted to maintain deafening silence on this issue. Washington's machismo has recently been expended on some hapless Air Traffic Controllers in Iraq!

Not that we can do very much about it, but the Taliban's insane effrontery provides us occasion to introspect and perhaps resuscitate our shrinking concern for India's civilisational heritage. Once upon a time, Kandahar marked the western frontier of Indian empires. Ruled by local Shaivite kings, much of Afghanistan was in the ambit of the Indo-Gangetic culture. Gandhari, wife of Dhritara-shtra, belonged to Kandahar, underlying the close ethno-cultural links between that region and today's Hindi heartland. The Shaivite kingdoms of Kandahar were eventually replaced by Buddhist monarchies during the centuries when Gautama Buddha's intellectual rebellion against the heavy-handed Brahminical Hindu order won him adherents throughout our vast land. Similarly to the East, Indian culture flourished, reaching islands as far as Borneo and Bali. Some of it survives even today, evident from the quaint proto-Sanskritic names that still prevail in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia. Borneo's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan is a colloquialisation of Sri Bhagwan, Bali's headquarters, Jeyapora, is nothing but Jaipur, localised, just as Aranya Prathet in Thailand is simply the jungle province or Aranya Pradesh. Fortunately, much of the structure of the gigantic temple city of Angkor Vat has survived the ravages of the Khmer Rouge, while Borobudur in Java still shines in resplendent glory.

I am yet to see an Indian documentary on these subjects though. However, the BBC commissioned a masterly serial on Angkor Vat some years ago, detailing the efforts being made now, in association with the Archeological Survey of India, to restore the damaged temple complex at Angkor in Cambodia. I suppose any effort to educate today's generations of India's cultural heritage, that too outside India's current borders, will invite charges of saffronisation by our learned historians. Only a few months ago, they kicked up a huge row over the grant of some money for a project to investigate the course of the "mythical" Saraswati. I am amused by their eloquent silence in the aftermath of the Gujarat quake, for satellite pictures have revealed subterranean water channels, leading to speculation that the mighty Saraswati might indeed still be flowing into the Arabian Sea, away from our gaze.

By the time this appears in print, the barbarian rulers of Afghanistan would undoubtedly have succeeded in their mediaeval mission. Having triumphed at home, they might even try their hand at exporting iconoclasm to neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, there are half-witted people across the globe that might well fall prey to the Taliban's grotesque logic. Of course, they need to be asked if the temple of Abu Simbel at Aswan with its gigantic statues, relocated at vast expense when the dam was built there in the 1950s, also constitutes an affront to religious sensibilities. But who's going the engage the Taliban in dialogue? They neither hear nor speak any language apart from that of the gun.

There are times when the world needs to intervene with physical force to stop such inhuman atrocities, whether perpetrated on icons or people. The Taliban represent a far bigger threat to civilisation than Radovan Karadic did in Bosnia. Their passion for destruction does not stop at human lives. The more we acquiesce in their barbarism through our silence, the more they get emboldened. The liberation of Afghanistan from the stranglehold of these diabolical peddlers of death and drugs has to be placed on the international agenda. Some tentative steps were initiated last year jointly by the US, Russia and India in that direction. That needs to be substantially upgraded and a concrete action plan drawn up. The region controlled by the Taliban is too strategic to be left to them or the Dr Frankensteins in Islamabad. The Taliban must be eliminated today to secure humanity's tomorrow.

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