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The Taliban Terror
India's Record is not Spotless
Swami Agnivesh & Valson Thampu

WHEN religious light strikes the likes of Mulla Mohammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, the result can only be apocalyptic. Religious zeal may take two divergent paths. A man may prove his religiosity by living the noble ideals and values of his faith. This, however, is a demanding option. The cheap alternative is to exalt one's God by bringing down all other Gods. If you project yourself as the enemy of your neighbour's God then, maybe, your God could be fooled into believing that you are his man. This simplistic logic explains why many are willing to kill or die for their religion, but none cares to live by its light.

The Taliban might offer the excuse of Islamic law or theology to hide the nakedness of its fundamentalism. Islam does not believe in idols; but that should not be selective or literal. Idolatry (the worship of idols) can take many forms. Whenever irrational importance is attributed to a material object, no matter what its shape, idolatry results. Idolatry is a sin because it caricatures the nature of God. The idea that God resides only in certain places and that one has to go there (as in the case of shrines, pilgrimages, Haj etc.) to meet him, or to secure religious merit, is essentially idolatrous. All religious groups are made to idolise shrines, scriptures, and saints in varying degrees. These become the means by which the priestly class formats the religiosity of their folds.

Genuine religious reform must start within one's own religious home. Idolatry is incompatible with reason and human dignity. Being ruthless with idolatry within one's own fold is the best argument against idolatry everywhere else. That was what the genuine reformers of religions tried to do in the past. But in times of spiritual decay, self-criticism becomes an unpardonable sin. Today condemning and coercing everybody else has become the proof of religious virility, and it yields instant profit and popularity.

The current Taliban offensive has two broad features which it shares with all the fundamentalist convulsions in our country. First, it is subjective and selective. It absolutises one's unilateral assumptions on what is outside the scope of one's religious competence and responsibility. Second, it articulates religious sentiments in the language of aggression and destruction. Violence is fundamental to religious fundamentalism. When the fundamentalist mindset acquires the muscles of militarism the result is bound to be nightmarish.

The idea of vandalising the Bamiyan Buddhas is akin more to the military spirit than to the ethos of Islam, which is, literally, the religion of peace. It is native to the martial spirit that the domination of one ethnic group over the other is incomplete without the humiliation of the Gods of the vanquished. The Taliban is not a religious entity, though it dons the cloak of religion to cover the nakedness of its aggression and irreligion. The greatest danger to a religion is its own fundamentalist caricature. One has to pity Islam as it undergoes the vulgarisation of Talibanisation in Afghanistan.

That notwithstanding, it is an entertaining piece of irony that the most vehement condemnation of the Taliban misadventure has come from the sangh parivar quarters. It proves yet again that the bitterest oppositions are between two identical forces. It should not surprise us, then, that the protagonists of Ayodhya in December of 1992 see the Taliban project as a `dastardly deed'. This is one of those unique moments in which the condemnation of others becomes blatant self-condemnation.

In the end, the real issue is neither Ayodhya nor the Bamiyan Buddhas. From a fundamentalist standpoint, both are useful only as tools for whipping up the communal frenzy that is expected to serve at least two purposes. First, it helps to divert the attention of the people from their own burning issues. Ridding the land of some shrines is deemed a more urgent priority than feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. Second, it helps to establish the perverse logic by which people can be degraded into tools to serve the hidden agenda of their pseudo-religious ventriloquists. Though this is a frontal insult to human dignity and integrity, fundamentalist projects succeed in retaining the blind loyalty of the masses for a period of time. This is achieved mainly by playing up the popular craving for aggression and violence that is endemic in an age of spiritual decay. The Taliban principle has deep psychological roots. The popular honeymoon with fundamentalism lasts until its destructive scope is fully played out.

In the end, it is important to realise that the Taliban is not just a beast that prowls at a distance. It is a potent reality at work in every religious constituency that is monopolised by vested interests. The prime `Taliban motive,' so to speak, is to foster a cultic outlook in order to anchor the people on a contrived illusion. But for the Bamiyan Buddhas, how many of us would have ever thought of Mulla Omar at the present time? Nearer home, what other survival kits does the sangh parivar have other than Ayodhya and the bogey of conversions?

The claim of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashmi, the Taliban spokesman in the US, that the bombardment of the statues of Buddha is "in retaliation to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992" is a clever afterthought, calculated to embarrass the Vajpayee government in the eyes of the world. Mr Vajpayee is theoretically right in denouncing the Taliban move as "a further obscurantist regression - an assault on centuries of Afghan tradition". But he has to secure the moral right to be so indignant. As long as his party continues to whitewash the black deed that tarnished India's global image, we cannot hope to be taken seriously in our protestation against the Taliban's actions.

Of course, all civilised people must decry and discredit the Taliban syndrome beyond our borders. It is a phenomenon programmed for destruction and endemic under-development. But the logic of fundamentalism dictates that its followers at home will be at the forefront of this ritual for whatever political mileage they may derive from it. But those who remember the first 15 pages of Veer Savarkar's book, Hindutva, do not need to be persuaded that it was not only in Afghanistan that the Buddha and his followers were administered a raw deal.


In Brief
* Genuine religious reform must begin in one's own religious home
* The vandalism at Bamiyan goes against the ethos of Islam
* The most critical opposition to the Taliban comes from the sangh parivar


Updated: 9-3-2001

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