It is a tragic end to what was more than a love story. The Taliban are not friends of love. Sushmita Banerjee returned to Afghanistan after a dramatic escape from that country. Why did she go back, only to be killed?
After tying up her husband and other family members, they kidnapped her from the family home in Paktika province on Wednesday, September 4. The next day, police found her body with 20 bullet wounds, her hairs pulled out. This is the gruesome fate that awaits some women in that land of desperation. Sushmita’s case is complicated by the fact that she is an Indian and she wrote a book about life in Afghanistan. A Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife was made into a film Escape from Taliban.
Banerjee met Jaanbaz Khan, a small-time Afghan businessman, in Kolkata. India has been home to Afghans for long.
She returned with him to a country that was limping back to life after the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War. It was in 1987, when the military skirmishes were on, that Meena Keshwar Kamal, the founder of RAWA, was killed. It was a state of civil strife. This was not the Taliban as we know it today; these were the neophytes who had fought in the war and been scarred and bitter. A country that had been modern, where half the workforce was made up of women, was now in the clutches of fanatics who abused religion.
There are local women and human rights organisations that continue to fight even today. They have to fight for what are and ought to be necessities and choices.
No one has taken responsibility for Banerjee’s execution, therefore the reasons are not clear as yet. But, it could be anything – her gender, her social work, her faith, her nationality. Her memoirs? Unlikely. If anything, the Taliban like to be portrayed as macho, even cruel. While the book is said to have been a bestseller in India, the movie tanked at the box-office. (I have not read the book nor watched the film.)
I am a bit confused as to why she stayed behind in Afghanistan after her marriage even though her husband had to leave for work and did not return. She was also his second wife, a fact she discovered later. However, she did not seem to have any issues with the other lady. In fact, until 1993 she found life there “tolerable”. That year became the defining one. As she wrote in an article in Outlook magazine:
- “I remember it was early that year that members of the Taliban came to our house. They had heard of the dispensary I was running from my house. I am not a qualified doctor. But I knew a little about common ailments and since there was no medical help in the vicinity, I thought I could support myself and keep myself busy by dispensing medicines. The members of the Taliban who called on us were aghast that I, a woman, could be running a business establishment. They ordered me to close down the dispensary and branded me a woman of poor morals.”
A bit of history would tell us that the Taliban had not yet taken over. These were the dregs that were trying to assert their authority. She mentions how every house had AK-47s. In the early years after the war, most mujahids were using the leftover Kalashnikovs. In fact, during my trips to Peshawar and the nearby villages in Pakistan’s north, close to the Afghan border, as late as 2005 these Russian rifles were still talked about. Indeed, every house had weapons for self-defence.
She made three attempts to run away. In the first, she managed to reach the Indian High commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, but they “could not help me since I had no passport or visa”. This is most unfortunate, for there are other diplomatic means they could have used to at least ensure she was protected. She was back where she started:
- “…my brothers-in-law tracked me down and took me back to Afghanistan. They promised to send me back to India. But they did not keep their promise. Instead, they kept me under house arrest and branded me an immoral woman.”
These were family, and yet she was at their mercy. Her own family back home did not seem to make any move to find out about her safety. Her next attempt included tunnelling her way out only to be captured and questioned by the Taliban. Her day of execution was finalised, but rather surprisingly “I was able to convince them that since I was an Indian I had every right to go back to my country”. She writes that she was handed over to the Indian embassy. Did the Taliban do so?
In an interview to the news portal Rediff, she mentions the final attempt thus:
- “I have always been a fighter. Dranai chacha, the village headman, helped me with my third attempt. His son had been killed by the Taliban so he turned against them. On the day I was to escape, I grabbed an AK-47 (which decorates most houses in Afghanistan) and shot three Taliban.”
Upon reaching Kolkata and being united with her husband, she wrote then: “I don't think he will ever be able to go back to his family.” He did. She did. Now they’ve killed her.
According to the BBC, the Taliban has said they did not. In the villages and tribal areas where rule of law is replaced by rule of honour, defined as per convenience, it is possible that there were other feuds – family, business rivalry, or change in personal equation. It just becomes easier when the Taliban is in the backdrop.
Did not Sushmita Banerjee know from experience what living under such circumstances would entail? Little information is available about what she did, except for her continuing to work with women and filming them. This could have angered some fundamentalists. But, since she was aware of their attitude, would she not have used more tact? Was she let down?
I would like to see what the Indian embassy in Afghanistan does. Will they ask for an enquiry into her killing?
The manner in which she was shot dead was not simple. There was fury. I still cannot believe she returned there. Not much was heard about her. Not much written about her.
She had a fatwa against her in 1995. That would have qualified her for media attention. In some ways, I respect her for not falling for these ruses that have become quite the norm, even for those who do not have such direct conflict with the insecure power-brokers with a backward mindset. She could have sought asylum and easily got it anywhere. She could have stayed home in India. But, then, perhaps she thought home was a larger place beyond boundaries.
© Farzana Versey
1. Sushmita Banerjee; 2. Afghan women in the military, 1989; 3: A poster of the film