13 March 2001

Inside Taliban country: Politics, not religion, brought the Buddhas down

13 March 2001
The Times of India

Inside Taliban Country
Politics not religion brought the Buddhas down

By Siddharth Varadarajan

KABUL: Future historians may ponder over the reasons why the Taliban
destroyed Bamiyan's majestic 5th century Buddhas - reports from there
confirm the deed is done - but the man in the street here appears convinced
that politics and not religion has provided the main impetus for the

Theories abound, many of them conspiratorial. ``This is a plot against the
Hazara people'', one Hazara shopkeeper said, referring to the
ethno-linguistic group that has been the most relentlessly hostile to the
Taliban. Bamiyan is part of Hazarajat, or the Hazara country, and has been
the scene of fierce fighting between the Taliban and the opposition. ``By
destroying our monuments, which are world famous, they want to make sure we
will not develop,'' he said.

It is also quite common to hear people blame Pakistan for the statues' fate.
``I can tell you for sure that this is the work of our neighbour,'' said a
mechanic. ``The more isolated we are, the more dependent we will be on them.
How can an Afghan destroy his own history?'' One taxi driver claimed
Pakistani commandos were personally directing the operation to destroy the
statues. Asked why was Pakistan's interior minister then appealing to the
Taliban to rescind the order, he said, ``In diplomacy, countries always put
on a mask.''

Though UN sanctions may not directly have led to the decision to destroy all
statues, observers here feel they helped to strengthen the hands of the
extremists within the Taliban. The moderates - supposedly led by foreign
minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and the ailing Mullah Rabbani - had been
advising restraint on many fronts, saying that the Taliban would only get
more isolated. ``After the sanctions, nobody wanted to listen to them
anymore,'' said a former teacher. ``There was no holding back the
hardliners.'' The Pakistani government many not be involved but it is
certain that the Taliban's decision has gone down well with the
fundamentalist groups in Pakistan. ``Don't forget that the hardliners in the
Taliban seek legitimacy not from the UN but from the madrassas and jamaats
in Pakistan where they began life,'' he said.

Asked to explain the timing of the decision, Taliban's culture minister
Maulvi Qudratullah Jamal told The Times of India, "The status of all
religious statues, ma'abut, or deities, had been under consideration for some
time. The ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice
recently submitted its findings to the country's supreme court of ulemas,
which agreed that the statues were an insult to Islam and should be
destroyed." This decision, in turn, was ratified by Mullah Mohammed Omar,
the Amir-ul-Mohineen. Jamal added that the ancient monuments in a country
belonged to that country alone and the people there had the right to decide
whether to destroy or preserve them.

Rejecting the suggestion that the destruction of the Buddhas is similar to
the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, he said, ``Our decision refers only
to these statues, which are a small part of Afghanistan's history. The Babri
Masjid belonged to the Muslims who worshipped there. We will not harm any
functioning place of worship. The Shias, Hindus and Sikhs here are free to
observe their religious practices.''

However, the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus that this correspondent met do not feel
reassured by such promises. Bamiyan has come as a big shock to them. People
in one temple claimed that two men came on Sunday morning asking if there
were any statues there. When I asked my official translator about this, he
said nonchalantly, ``This must be the work of the Opposition which wants to
defame the government. The Taliban will not do such a thing.''

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