The murder of Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian Bengali author living in Afghanistan with her Afghan husband, likely underscores the continuing hatred for Hindus and other religious minorities harbored by Islamic Taliban fundamentalists. Sushmita was killed Thursday in her home in Paktika province by suspected Taliban gunmen. Her husband, Jaanbaz Khan, and her children were not harmed in the attack. The governor of Paktika, Moheebullah Shamim, told India’s ambassador in Kabul, Amar Sinha, that the gunmen likely targeted the Bengali woman because of her activism for the rights and health care of local Afghan women in the town of Sharana; and perhaps for her memoirs detailing life in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
No group has yet taken responsibility for the killing, and local Indian officials have declared that Sushmita was not targeted for her religion or nationality. For the record, the Taliban denied involvement in her killing. “We reject any claims regarding the Mujahideen’s [freedom fighters'] involvement in the killing of the Indian lady,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur news agency of Germany. “We even don’t know the culprits.”
Banerjee, who recently returned to Afghanistan, had lived in Kolkata for 17 years after escaping the Taliban in 1995 – an adventure that she wrote about in the book "Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou" ("A Kabul Man’s Bengali Wife”), which was later turned into a popular Bollywood film in 2003 called “Escape from Taliban.”
But it remains unclear why Sushmita was killed or why she even returned to Afghanistan, where the Taliban remains a force. “Honestly, it’s still a mystery -- both why she was killed and why she went back to Afghanistan in the first place,” an official in New Delhi told Indian media. There is even disagreement over her age – some media outlets claim she was 49, while others insist she was actually 57. News agencies in India also said that Banerjee had converted to Islam and called herself “Sayeda Kamala.”
However, if Sushmita/Sayeda was indeed killed for her Hindu/Indian origins, it would certainly be in keeping with the Taliban’s long-held hostilities. In May 2001, five years after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and just six months before the U.S. military invasion of the country, the Taliban imposed rules on the local Hindu community that harkened back to Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews. Taliban officials demanded that Hindus, who numbered some 5,000 at the time in Kabul, wear some kind of label or marking on their clothes to distinguish themselves from the dominant Muslims, similar to the “yellow star” that German Jews were forced to wear ahead of their extermination. Mohammed Wali, then the religious police minister, also said that Hindu and Sikh women in the country would also have to adorn veils. “Religious minorities living in an Islamic state must be identified,'' the minister declared. The edicts were widely condemned in India, by both government officials and Hindu nationalist groups.
It is unclear how many Hindus lived in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s ascendancy, but thousands fled the poor mountainous state soon after their emergence, mostly to migrate to India, the United Sates, Canada or Europe. In July 2012, the U.S. State Department reported that the Hindu and Sikh population had shrunk in Afghanistan and that they had endured some unique problems, including obstacles in cremating their dead due to interference by those living near cremation sites. (Muslim law calls for burying the dead).
The report noted that while Afghan president Hamid Karzai has a Hindu adviser and a Sikh serves as a member of the upper house of Parliament in Kabul, Hindu and Sikhs were unable to reserve a seat designated specifically for their communities in parliament. Moreover, while the government provides free electricity to mosques, Hindu mandirs (temples) and Sikh Gurdwaras were charged high rates for power. A report from Radio France Internationale estimated that only about 1,000 Hindus and 3,000 Sikhs remain in Afghanistan, a country of some 35 million people.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.