As the world observes September 15 as World Democracy Day, India has rightly advocated the need for an inclusive government in Afghanistan. Delhi also voiced its genuine concerns and clearly outlined its expectations that the Taliban doesn’t allow the use of Afghan soil for terrorism. The global community would concur with such expectations.
This is important as no one knows what policy Afghanistan’s new Taliban government will adopt — officially and in practice — in so far as the country’s non-Islamist traditions are concerned. Given the Taliban’s obscurantist and exclusivist background, it is hard to imagine that they will adopt an inclusive approach of their own accord. Besides their impact on the fate of Afghanistan’s non-Muslims, Taliban’s policies will have wider ramifications in other Islamic countries in Central Asia.
A brilliant article in The New Yorker on August 31 has quoted Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and several other Islamic countries. He says, “We left behind the gift — to them — of a much reinforced and revived Islamic militancy. We left behind a restored Al Qaeda-Taliban axis that brought us 9/11.” Crocker also says, “That is a gift for which our children and grandchildren will pay. Unlike Vietnam, what happens in Afghanistan in the currency of Islamic jihad doesn’t stay in Afghanistan.”
In the light of these serious international dimensions, the global community would do well to first mount pressure on the Taliban to ensure spiritual democracy, an antidote to the jihadi mindset. This is urgently needed for at least three reasons. First, spiritual democracy has been a part of Afghanistan’s ancient traditions. Without understanding these multi-religious traditions of the past, the gravity of the damage done by spiritual monopolists of the Taliban kind cannot be fully grasped. Afghanistan is the land of the Gandharas. One comes across several references to the tribe in ancient literature, especially the Rigveda. References to Gandharas are also found in other literary works such as the Atharvaveda and Aitareya Brahmana. Before the advent of Islam, southern Afghanistan was home to Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism originated here between 1800 and 800 BC, and Zoroaster lived and died in Afghanistan’s Balkh province. The remains of the monumental statues in Bamiyan are a testimony to Afghanistan’s rich Buddhist traditions. Buddhism here dates to 305 BC, much before the advent of Islam. As recently as 1890, the Nuristan region was referred to as Kafiristan — the land of the infidels — as people there practised animism or ancient Hinduism. Afghanistan needs to be taken back to its roots, its pluralistic ancient history that rejects a spiritual monopolist approach
Secondly, spiritual democracy has the strength to serve as the fountainhead of the revival of other variants of democratic traditions. “Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti (truth is one, wise men describe it differently)” is the foundational principle of spiritual democracy. Without spiritual freedom, political democracy will remain questionable. Gender justice and equal economic opportunities for all cannot be ensured without the freedom of belief systems. The global leadership must realise that the path towards achieving most Sustainable Development Goals passes through this fundamental spirit of accommodation, inherent to the idea of democracy.
Third, the new rulers in Afghanistan must be made to realise that the country’s Gen-Next desperately wants freedom of choice. There are scores of examples to suggest that a reasonable code of conduct may be accepted, rules and regulations may be honoured but straitjacketing will be opposed tooth and nail by millennials of all types. The new rulers in Kabul must be compelled to appreciate that only adherence to a true spirit of “accommodation” will get them global legitimacy. There are enough early warnings to the new rulers suggesting that the war-ravaged country may face serious challenges to its territorial integrity if a monopolist perspective is mindlessly thrust upon this fundamentally pluralistic society.
The global community would do well to first realise and then impress upon the new Afghan leadership that in the name of accommodation, one cannot accommodate doctrines that have thrived, in the first place, on intolerance. No aspirational community can accept straitjacketing in matters of belief systems. Humanity has paid a heavy price for monopolist approaches when it comes to spirituality. Now, in the lure of re-establishing democratic credentials, it would be foolhardy to recognise those who refuse to recognise others.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 16, 2021 under the title ‘History lessons for Taliban’. The writer is MP, Rajya Sabha and former national vice-president of the BJP