21 August 2012

Article on Afghan Women Published in Diplomatist July 2012

The Plight of Women in Afghanistan
By Cashmere

A couple of months ago I saw a friend’s two daughters fighting over which one gets to go with their father for a hockey match. The decision was left to the girls by the father who had two tickets and could take only one of them along. The teenager finally lost to the tweenie after a heated debate because the mother decided that she needed to complete her school project before she could go for an outing. There was a lot of grumbling but the decision had been made - school work took priority over play.

Recently Afghan school girls were poisoned  after drinking contaminated water in their classes. The all-girl school was located in the northern Takhar province of Afghanistan.  The incident was repeated barely one month later. The girls suffered headaches and vomiting as a result of the poisoning and several in critical condition being treated in a hospital. The act of poisoning the water supply of the school was considered to be the work of conservative radicals opposed to female education resorting to medieval  barbarism.

However the officials were not blaming any particular group due to fears of retribution. The incident brought home to me the relatively huge advantage that a girl child has in India compared to Afghanistan
Incidentally this school session marks the 10th Anniversary of the return of girls to school in Afghanistan. The Taliban had made education for girls illegal when it came to power in the late 1970s after defeating the Russian forces. The lifting of the ban  alone was not enough to support girl child education in Afghanistan .

The April newsletter for the Khaled Hosseini Foundation states on its website that for girls to be able to attend school in Afghanistan there are many obstacles that must be overcome. “ They must have the support of their families.  This is no easy task, as they often must overcome social stereotypes as well as the families’ potential for loss of income when their daughters are in school.  They often must walk lengthy distances, in inclement weather, to be able to attend a school, consisting of broken chalk board tablets with students huddled outdoors or in substandard shells of buildings listening to a teacher who may only come a few times a month.  When they return home they are still expected to do vital housework to feed, clothe and care for their families.”

 The Khaled Hosseini Foundation was started  by the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Perhaps it is over simplistic to say that all girls in India have an advantage over their counterparts who reside in Afghanistan. Surely there are areas in the tribal regions and in the rural parts of  India where the girl child has to overcome great obstacles to get an education. Not only do they have trouble attending a real school with text books, a chalkboard and a regular teacher, they have very limited freedom to do what they like.

 Afghan Minister for Education Farooq Wardak says that “Education is the fundamental cornerstone and a key pre-requisite for durable peace, stability and socio-economic development in every society—Afghanistan is not an exception. Development is about people, not infrastructure, aimed at bringing positive changes in behavior and attitude of people. Education makes people think, behave, act positively, and it promotes social co-existence.”  As per statistics released by the Central Statistics Organization the number of students in schools has steadily increased since 2009 to 2011.

The Taliban has been responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against women in recent times. Stoning to death for being unfaithful to your husband, having acid thrown on your face for daring to educate yourself, being abducted and whipped in public for defying the many bans that were imposed on women, were just some of the many means of punishment against women that the Taliban practiced. They were judge, jury and executor rolled into one. There was no one to appeal to and no guarantee of justice. Not that the punitive regime confined itself to the fairer sex, even the men felt the abuse of power in no small measure.

Many cases of extreme abuse of human rights have come to light in the last decade as global human rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Watch, were finally able to enter the nation to provide relief measures. The Taliban abused their religious values in the name of a cause opposed to the basic Islamic principles of peace, education and kindness. One of the most publicized cases was that of Aisha, a girl whose nose was cut off as punishment for fleeing her arranged marriage to a Taliban fighter. Today the 18 year old has left Kabul for the United States where doctors are assessing her case for  reconstructive surgery. This is a result of the intervention of an NGO, Women for Afghanistan, and the Grossman Burn Foundation .

There was no end to the barbaric acts that the Taliban undertook during the time that they were ruling Afghanistan.  To call the reign of the Taliban a nightmare for women would not even begin to describe their lives in that horrific period. The toppling of the Taliban ten years ago as the west began its war on terror came as a major relief to the female population of Afghanistan. Although women in Afghanistan have often been accused of moral crimes and convicted of them, their state truly deteriorated under the Taliban rule. Much has been done in the years since then to improve the plight of Afghan women and now as the NATO troops set the deadline to withdraw in 2014, the shadow of the Taliban again falls on the nation and its women.

 As a reminder of the rigid reign of the Taliban a recent execution style murder of a 22 year old Afghan girl accused of adultery was caught on video.  The video from Parwan province shows the unidentified woman being shot several times while the gunman is encouraged by people standing by and cheering.  Although the Taliban have denied police allegations that they were behind the killing, it was a chilling reminder of the deplorable abuse women still suffer in Afghanistan.

The current government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now making overtures of friendship to the Taliban in an effort to stabilize its own political position. As per the Western Forces the terror organizations are no longer a threat, but the locals know better. The government hopes to avoid more bloodshed once the NATO troops leave,  by sharing power with the Taliban, especially in the light of the simultaneous bomb blasts across Afghanistan last month which was termed as the launch of the “Spring Offensive” by the Taliban spokesperson . The bomb blasts were a message to the world at large that the Taliban may be down but it is not out of the reckoning. This is the reason that the government hoped to placate them with actions like releasing detainees from a military prison run by the American military near the capital city of Kabul in June 2012.

It is difficult to imagine what the Taliban will do if it is offered a position in the current government. Will it learn from its previous mistakes and realize that no nation can hope to progress by suppressing 50% of its population?  Will it ensure that it does not alienate the majority of the population with its rigid and fanatic interpretation of the Islamic religion? Or will it insist in returning to its old ways and begin oppression of the female population all over again?  The recent scaling up of attacks by the Taliban in Kabul show that they do not want to share power, they do not accept the “Puppet Government”, and they will liberate their country from whom they see as the foreign invaders.

The uncertainty looms large over the Afghan nation and no one can predict what the future will bring. In the meanwhile young girls walk great distances with a scarf covering their heads to attend school. They face possible persecution in the form of taunts, verbal and physical abuse and attacks from those who oppose female education, and yet they do not stop. They hear of attacks on other school girls, and still the brave little girls steel their resolve and do not quit. They are supported by their mothers who know that education is their ticket out of the poverty and oppression that they have to face. That alone gives them the determination it takes to stick it out in school for a better future. Staying in school may seem like a small thing to you and me, but for them it is the most vital achievement that they will have ever earned.

 The writer is Senior Correspondent, WordSword Features

07 August 2012

Article in Early Times on Amarnath Yatra

How the Army aids the Amarnath Yatra
By Cashmere
One of the most difficult pilgrimage treks is the one that leads to the Amarnath Cave in J&K. This holy pilgrimage route is open to public merely three weeks in the year during the month of June/July when the snow lingam forms in the cave. You need to register for the Amarnath Yatra as only a restricted number of pilgrims are allowed up in the region each year. Since 2010 it has been made possible to do this registration online, before that one had to stand in line in an approved post office to get registered for the yatra. Devotees of Lord Shiva come from far and wide to pay their respects to the deity.
The myth behind the pilgrimage is an interesting one. It is said that Parvati once asked Shivji about the beads he wore around his neck. He replied to his devine consort that he added a bead to the necklace each time she was reborn. She then asked him how he was immortal while she had to take rebirth to be with him. He replied that she would have to hear the “Amar Katha” to become immortal. Shivji said that they would then have to travel to a place where they were all alone before he could share that secret, so that no other living being would hear it. Then he took her high into the Himalayan mountains. 
At some distance Nandi the bull was told to stay back at a place called Bailgram. This place is now known as Pahalgam in Anantnag district. A bit further he took off the moon from his hair at a place now called Chandanwari. Next the serpant around Lord Shiva’s neck was discarded at a lake which is called Sheshnag today. Ganapati was told to stay behind at a place now called Manasguna pass. At Panchtarini, Shivji shed the five (panch) elements that are responsible for creation of life, viz. air, fire, water, land and ether.
As evening came upon them after travelling the full day, they reached the holy cave now known as the abode of Lord Amarnath, another name of Shivji. He took Parvati into the Amarnath Cave and danced the “tandav” so that the fire destroyed all living creatures in the vicinity of the cave. This caused the mud around the cave to be covered in ash. Finally convinced that they were all alone he began telling her the secret of immortality. As the night progressed he told her the Amar Katha and kept getting a response “hoon” at each step. The next as they were leaving Shiva was surprised to see a pair of white doves who were hidden in the darkness of the Amarnath Cave. 
Since they had also hard the Amar Katha they had also become immortal. These doves are said to still live in the cave and a pilgrim is considered lucky if he is able to spot them. It is in fact astonishing that these doves actually survive in the cold region in the cave. 
The myth also reveals the traditional route that the pilgrims follow to reach the Amarnath Cave. The trail begins at Pahalgam which is the first base camp for the trek. The second day they trek 16 kms to eventually reach their second camp at Chandanwari. The next pit stop is at Pissu Top, followed by Zoji Bal, Naga Koti, Sheshnag and finally Mahagunas Pass. The pass is perennially covered with snow and makes the trek slippery and tricky. After a final camp made at Panchatarni, it is a 6 km trek to the holy cave of Shri Amarnath. 
Here the devout witness firsthand the white soil called bhasma outside the cave which is said to be the soil with which Lord Shiv adorns his body. They can buy the Prasad from several stalls outside the immediate vicinity of the cave before they enter. They also see the two lingams of snow depicting Shivji and Parvati within the cave which melt away each year and miraculously are rebuilt as the snow begins to melt. If they happen to see the pair of doves in the cave then they are considered especially lucky and truly blessed.

The daunting route is made passable thanks to the effort of the Indian Army, and in particular Victor Force.  They are assisted by the J&K Police and starting in 2012 by the CRPF as well.   All along the route the Indian Army stages camps. Some bhandaras in the lower regions are sponsored by wealthy devotes who take time off from their businesses to come and fed hot meals to pilgrims en-route to the holy cave.  Others are run by the Shri Amrnath Shrine Management organization. While the effort of these civilians is worth lauding, it is easy to see that if it were not for the Army each year the pilgrimage would never be made possible for so many people annually. 
Maj Gen (Retd) U M Maindarkar, who has organized the Amarnath Yatra first hand when he served as Deputy GOC Victor Force, said that "the Army and other security forces not only ensure security of the route, staging camps and the surrounding area but also provide all the assistance to the pilgrims to make their pilgrimage as safe and trouble free as possible and earn their own Punya through this dedicated service to the Lord Amarnath." He has seen people overcome all kinds of odds using the help of ponies and palkies to make the pilgrimage. He specially remembers a youth who had no legs but pulled himself along on a wooden board with wheels. 
The Indian Army does a whole lot to ensure that the Amarnath Yatra proceeds peacefully each year. The route clearing for the trail that he pilgrims will trek begins long before any civilian reaches the area. It is the humble Army soldier who stamps on the fresh fallen snow to ensure that the snow gets packed and settles down for the thousands of footfalls it will receive.  The security of the route is taken into consideration as pickets are set up at all high points along the route to provide protection from possible terrorist attacks.

The collection and disposal of waste is another service that the Army provides on the yatra route, helping to preserve the environment and keep it as pristine as possible.  It is the armed soldiers who patrol the route and neighboring peaks to ensure that insurgents and militants do not cause a security threat to the lives of the many civilians who will pass through the region. Some even accompany each “jatha” of pilgrims incognito so as to be available on hand in case of a possible insurgent attack.
It was solely through the combined effort of the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation that the new alternative route from Baltal to the Amarnath Cave via Domail and Barari was laid out.  This 14 km route cuts short the traditional 5 day trek to one day, but the climb on the new route is one so steep that only those in prime physical condition are able to undertake it. Those able to handle the arduous trek leave early morning and make it back after visiting the cave after nightfall.  
There is also the option of booking a helicopter to take you to the helipad that the Army maintains just short of the Amarnath Cave at a point called Sangam. This point is called Sangam, meaning confluence, because both the traditional and new route merges here. Of course for most Hindu pilgrims taking a helicopter ride instead of making the trek would be seen as taking a short cut bordering on sacrilege, but it is a far more convenient alternative for those suffering from medical conditions. 
 There is no civil hospital on the trek route after the major villages have been crossed. The doctors from the Indian Army set up stations along both routes to provide emergency medical aid to pilgrims. There have been cases where casualties of snow avalanches have had to be excavated by the Army. Medical emergencies have been air lifted for evacuation from the region to hospitals in Srinagar.  It has also been the sad duty of the Army to help evacuate the occasional dead body of a pilgrim who was unable to survive the tough trek. Their strong faith may draw the pilgrims to the Amarnath Yatra, but it is the support of the Indian Army and other paramilitary forces that makes it a reality.
WordSword Features
The writer is Senior Correspondent, WordSword Features

You can access the article here in newspaper format.

An edited and shorter version of the article was also published in the Diplomatist Issue of July 2012