Sunday, April 29, 2007

UPA is to Setu what Taliban is to Bamiyan

On March 6th 2007, the Union Minister of Culture in the Government of India, Ms Ambika Soni, stated in the Parliament that, "There are no archaeological studies revealing the existence of a Rama Setu bridge between India and Sri Lanka, although a NASA satellite picture does show the existence of a stretch of land bridge in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. As to declaring and preserving the said bridge as an ancient monument of National and Historical importance, such question does not arise." The minister was explaining to the parliament as to why, instead of considering Setu a heritage, the government is destroying it. (Lest someone be misled by Ms Soni's name or Bindi, in thinking she is a Hindu, we must clarify in the passing that she is a devout roman catholic and vociferously anti-Hindu.)

While the minister's statement was both intriguing and unfortunate, what was the most stunning was its timing. Ironically, it was exactly six years back in the month of March, that another Minister of Culture was creating similarly painful sound bites to the shock of the whole world.

It was in the March of 2001, when the Ministry of Culture in Afghanistan's Islamist Taliban Government was leading a holy jehad to destroy the ancient gigantic Buddha relics of Bamiyan. On March 4th, 2001, Maulawi Qudratullah Jamal - Ms. Ambika Soni's counterpart in the Taliban government at that time - officially announced on their Radio Shariyat, the details of a decision taken by 400 religious clerics from across Afghanistan who had declared the Buddha statues against the tenets of Islam. "They came out with a consensus that the statues were un-Islamic," said Jamal.

On April 16, Union Shipping Minister Mr. T R Baalu said that his ministry had concluded that there is no scientific proof behind the existence of Rama Setu. He told newspersons that, "the studies have not revealed the existence of a man made structure in the area". He implied that all the government was after destroying were merely some rocks, and that the Hindus' beliefs about Setu which make it an object of worship for them, were hollow. Of course, six years back, Taliban Leader Mr. Mullah Omar did not have any compulsions like Mr. Baalu has, of having to claim science for their justification. "All we are breaking are stones" he shrugged, and explained that the statues were insulting to Islam and should be destroyed so they could never be worshipped again by the infidels. He openly declared that the "shrines of infidels" should be torn down.

In early days of March 2001, Taleban Foreign Minister
Mr. Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil indicated that there was no change in the decision to destroy the statues. He was speaking after talks with a United Nations special envoy, Pierre LaFrance, in Kandahar. In addition, the Culture Minister, Mr. Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal, said that the destruction was well under way. Last week, Mr. Baalu asserted that there was no delay or change in plans, and ruled out any possibility of changing the present alignment for the project. Of course for Setu, there is no Pierre LaFrance from UN, because unlike Bamiyan Buddha relics, which were UNESCO heritage sites, Setu enjoys no such status - apart from being the holiest of holy pilgrim places in the hearts of the Hindus.

A Taleban spokesman Mr. Sayed Rahmatullah Hashmi, had told BBC that Hindus were actually responsible for the destruction at Bamiyan. He said that the statues were being destroyed to take revenge for the Babri demolition at Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindus. Therefore, make no mistake, Hindus were actually responsible for the Bamiyan Buddhas destruction, he said. By a similar token of logic, Mr. T R Baalu has also held the Hindus responsible for the Setu destruction. He has placed the blame with the BJP and asserted that the present alignment was actually cleared when the BJP-led NDA was in power, and that BJP is raising the opposition now in view of the elections in Uttar Pradesh. Of course, his rationale, logic and facts are based upon as solid grounds as those of Mr. Rahmatullah Hashmi.

Dhimmis and Kafirs do have their rights in an Islamic setup, as laid out by Shariyat, the Islamic law. Talking to the Indian news magazine Outlook,
Mr. Mulla Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Foreign Minister of Taliban, assured Hindus that the destruction of the Buddha relics was not aimed against any religion, nation or culture, and that the Hindus and Sikhs were free to practice their religion. Yes they would have to wear yellow clothes though and carry an identity card, to identify themselves for their own good. He went on to say that in fact the Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan enjoyed greater security under the Taleban than under any previous regime. In the same spirit of championing the religious freedom of Hindus, Mr. Baalu also assured the Hindu religious leaders recently that under no circumstances would the Government of India disrespect or disregard the religious sentiments of the Hindus, while of course it would carry on destroying the Setu. He even promised to arrange a trip of religious leaders to Setu for them to see the process of dredging themselves. Last week, Mr. Baalu took pains to again reiterate that while his government would continue to dig away at the Setu, it would not do anything that would go to hurt the Hindu sentiments, whatever he thinks those are.

Talibans had persecuted the local residents of Bamiyan - the Shiite Hazaras -to forcibly evacuate ahead of the destruction. The Talibans, they said, gave them a simple choice: become a Sunni Muslim or leave. The Sethusamudram project envisages and promotes the rehabilitating of the local fisher community of Rameshwaram to some other location. As a result, the project is being fiercely opposed by the local fishermen of costal Tamil fishing villages, since it would result in loss of free access to their traditional fishing waters.

Destroying Setu is not an easy task. Several times, within the last few weeks, the cutter-suction-dredger ships employed in dredging have been damaged, even the cranes that went to sea to retrieve the damaged parts have themselves been broken. Mr. Baalu has reassured the reporters that the dredger instrument had resumed work after repairs to the instruments. In order to expedite the pace of the work, four more dredgers had been pressed into service and a few more would be deployed shortly, he added. Obviousely since Setu is a very hard structure, dredging is not so easy. Former director of Geological Survey of India Mr. D N Seshagiri has assessed that the conventional dredging may not be sufficient, and other methods like blowing up using explosives may be required.

Likewise, destroying the Bamiyan Buddha relics was also not an easy task at all. Taleban had had to
press several of its imported cannons and tanks to destroy the statues. Taleban Culture Minister Mr. Qudratullah Jamal said, "The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can't knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain." The Taliban’s plan to destroy the statues was carefully detailed, certainly much more detailed and prepared than Sethusamudram Project seems to be. Talibans had commissioned Arab, Sudanese and Bangladeshi demolition experts, as well as Chechen sappers, to do the job. Recently, last month, a Swiss documentary has disclosed that finally it was the technical expertise from the Pakistani and Saudi engineers which had ultimately destroyed the Buddha relics.

Later, Taliban had slaughtered 100 cows to atone for the delays caused in the destruction. On March 19th 2001, the
Tribune reported that, "The butchers with large machete-like knives slaughtered 12 cows today to distribute to the poor in Afghanistan’s beleaguered capital to atone for the delay in destroying two giant statues of Buddha in central Bamiyan. The 12 cows were the first of 100 cows which were ordered to be killed throughout the country by the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar." Of course, the Government of India can not go to such extremes. And yet, they can not do without the insult to Hindus, at least by token. After the delays, the tug-crane ship that has been employed to retrieve the damaged pieces of the broken dredger, has been named 'Hanuman'. This is perfectly in line with the other ironies, like the IAS officer who is heading the project is 'Mr. Raghupathy', and the name of the project itself is 'Sethusamudram'.

The whole parallel is fraught with ironies, which are so many, so unfortunate and so painful.

While inaugurating the project, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said, "This is the fullfillment of a sacred assurance". Of course, on another occasion, he had declared that Muslims had the first right on the national resources of India. Inaugurating the destruction, Mulla Mohammad Omar said, "My job is the implementation of Islamic order. The breaking of idols is an Islamic order." A true jehadi leader, in the line of Mohammed Gori and Awrangzeb, both of whom had done damage to the Bamiyan Buddha statues - the former to the face and latter to the feet. As to Dr. Manmohan Singh, it is hard to find a parallel of his in the history.

In 1973, a team of Indian archaeologists and scientists visited Bamiyan with the then Vice President of India. Archaeological Survey of India had undertaken a mammoth project to revive these Bamiyan statues in 70s, which Taliban eventually destroyed in 2001. ASI, whose insignia has in it the sanskrit phrase - "Aasetu Himaachal" - which means 'From Setu to Himalaya' and signifies India's geography - has yet to take up any research on Setu at all.

Shot in the same year 1973, below is a rare video "Adventure in Afghanistan" from Hal, Halla and David Linker's television travelogue series, "The Wild, the Weird, and the Wonderful". It shows the rare glimpses from the inside of the Buddha relics, the paintings, and how Indian scientists were reviving the statues. All of this treasure has been lost for ever.

Finally, a positive note. The Chinese pilgrim-monk Huan Tsang who had visited both the Setu as well as the Bamiyan, had described three Buddha statues in Bamiyan and not just two. He had described a third Buddha statue, largest of the three in a reclining posture. No one in our time had known the traces of this third Buddha which Huan Tsang had so beautifully described.

As if a renewed blessing from the Mahabodhi, the hidden third Buddha relic has been recently found. Outlook magazine reports that after years of excavation, a French archaeological team has finally made a re-discovery of the third Buddha relic, under the cliff, hidden from the evil eyes of the Taliban, and perfectly intact.

We pray, UPA government would come to senses and not do to Setu what Taliban did to Bamiyan Buddhas.

We are confident that Setu will be protected, and none other than who had built it will be able to destroy it.

{This article was published by Panchajanya Hindi weekly on May 20. In Hindi, it can be read here.}

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