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'Stop politicking': Indo-Pak civil rights group for urgent humanitarian aid to Afghans

By Rita Manchanda* 

Afghanistan’s continuing political social and economic crisis and its deepening humanitarian catastrophe was at the core of the urgent concerns that motivated a host of civil society and human rights advocates to join the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) in an online conversation which took place recently.
The conversation went beyond the state narratives of security and competitive national interests, offering civil society perspective of Afghan people’s struggle. PIPFPD, one of the oldest civil society movements with members from Pakistan and India, hoped, through this dialogue, to mobilise collectives across borders to strategise for action.
What captured the imagination of the 115 persons drawn to the webinar on “The Afghanistan Crisis and the Region” was the passionate and extremely grim and defiant accounts by three tall Afghan women Mahbouba Seraj in Kabul, and Judge Najla Ayoubi and Huma Shafi, currently in exile. They spoke of a complete collapse of governance, and voiced anger at Afghanistan’s ill-intentioned neighbours (including non-regional US) that were waiting to rip the country apart.
No less compelling were the disturbing implications drawn out of the spreading fallout of the Afghanistan crisis, especially in Pakistan, as also in the extended region spanning Iran and Tajikistan. The unacknowledged Afghan refugees streaming across Pakistan’s fenced border was the most visible aspect of this spillover, PIPFPD co-chair, film maker and rights advocate Tapan Bose stated.
Less obvious and more threatening to people’s security, as lawyer and rights activist from Lahore, Hina Jilani emphasized, was that the crisis was exacerbating existing authoritarian trends, reinforcing the fusion of religion and politics, emboldening extremists now baying for Sharia law in Pakistan, a land created in the name of Islamic identity.
Former Pakistan senator and rights activist Afrasiab Khattak saw a break in the darkening clouds. In Pakistan’s Punjab, even as triumphal voices celebrated achieving the goal of securing ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, there were anxious murmurs about the army’s adventurism going wrong.
According to Khattak, Afghanistan’s 34 million people were facing an imminent humanitarian disaster as winter approaches. The country is already reeling under drought. Government coffers are empty. Access to Afghanistan’s $9.5 million central bank assets has been blocked. Tens of thousands, displaced from homes, are without shelter, food, medicines or money. Banks have stopped functioning. The government is not paying salaries.
The extreme urgency of the crisis situation made Afghan women’s rights advocate Mahbouba Seraj point towards the Taliban’s lack of any sense of urgency to halt the collapse:
“No one knows who to go to … who has authority... Taliban don’t believe in hierarchy. We don’t know who is ruling.…. Extreme statements are made by somebody and then acted upon about erasing two decades of education, and professionalism. There is no government, especially outside Kabul… No trucks are moving, no goods are coming, banks are not working, I can’t even draw out my own money. People are facing a drought, they are looking at likely starvation...”
When frontline women’s rights advocates were fleeing to the airport, Mahbouba Seraj (73) decided to stay on as long as she could and fight determinedly hoping that the Taliban would talk to her, to the women of Afghanistan. “Nobody is able or capable of talking to the Taliban. Afghanistan’s proud free media is silenced”, she regretted.
She appealed to the Taliban to listen to the people and to talk to the people like her. The problem was less about what the Taliban represented, and more about the continuing chaos of an absent government. Questions such as holding back on recognition of the Taliban as the only means of leverage seemed secondary to the immediate need -- humanitarian assistance.
Khattak said, in the 1990s young Talibs burst onto the Afghanistan war-scape of fighting warlords, claiming no interest in power. The Taliban which has taken power are different. They have been systematically brainwashed in the 36,000 religious seminaries of Pakistan, to displace their Afghan identity with an exclusive extreme Islamist identity as evident in the displacement of the Afghan national flag. Pakistan generals are deeply invested in this military-ideological project of creating ‘strategic depth’; it is next only to their prestigious nuclear programme.
Mabouba Jan emphasized, Afghanistan of today is different. The last two decades, despite corrupt and crony governments, have seen the growth of modernized urban centres, spread of university graduates and professional women and men. Resentment over the closure of schools, colleges and universities, ban on girls accessing educational institutions, severe clampdown on the media and restrictions on movement have brought people, particularly women, out on the streets in protest.
.Afghanistan has become the centre of the ‘New Great Game’. “We feel like a cow, surrounded by butchers with sharp knives, waiting to cut out a piece of body,” she stated, appealing to neighbouring powers to not fight their battles in Afghanistan.
While China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are openly talking to the Taliban, the western powers are resorting to subterfuges to legitimise the Taliban by pretending to take at face value the Taliban assurances of keeping its territory free of terrorist menace. They ignore the Taliban’s record of deception and reneging on its promises, blocking out the hard reality of continuing human rights abuses.
So what can civil society activists, especially across the states of Pakistan and India, do? Moderator Hina Jilani saw this as a moment for reasserting peoples perspectives for reasserting people’s participation. She proposed several concrete interventions.
Appealing for humanitarian assistance, she said, Indian and Pakistani civil society should work together to send food, medicines and other survival needs, via the land border. Safe passage arrangements via Pakistan have been negotiated during this period of tumult. While there are significant logistical challenges, the civil society groups in Afghanistan can negotiate humanitarian corridor reaching agreements with local authorities for transfer of food and assistance where it is most needed.
Presently, the Government of Pakistan has good relations with those in power in Afghanistan. Civil society groups of Pakistan need to engage in dialogue with their government to pressurize the Taliban to allow the transportation of relief materials through the land borders and also allow Afghan civil society and volunteers to take over the supplies and distribute it inside the country.
Assistance should be given to some 1,600 stranded Afghans ‘medical cases’ in India, children, women and men who had come to India for life saving treatment. Unable to return as the airport is closed, their savings have run out they are in need of immediate material help and assistance to get the Indian government to recognize their plight and provide interim support.
The Government of India is yet to decide what to do with Afghan citizens stranded in India. These people are also unable to travel via Pakistan as Pakistan High Commission is not issuing visa to Afghan citizens in India. Recently, with the assistance of the Afghan Embassy, about a hundred stranded Afghans were able to return to Kabul via Tehran on an Iranian airline. Indian civil society groups, who plan to help stranded Afghan citizens to return home, can contact Afghan Embassy in this regard, she insisted.
Meanwhile, speakers insisted, human rights and civil rights groups in South Asian countries need to get together to create a coordinated action plan for protecting Afghan human rights defenders, women’s rights activists and other activists working for restoration of democracy in Afghanistan.
There is a need to establish safe channels of communication with Afghan activists to gather information of the situation inside Afghanistan and publicise it globally, including by involving UN agencies.
Also funds would need to be raised for Afghan activists in order to create channels for transmission to the persons in need. This is especially essential as banks are not functioning and as transfer of money through banks will come into notice of the Taliban. Hence, it may have to be done through private/informal channels.
At the same time, there is a need to create safe houses for Afghan activist at risk in border areas of Pakistan, even as setting up a network for helping and providing safe passage to Afghan activists who are under threat.
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*With Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD). Inputs: Tapan Bose

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