The more the Hindu Right and the hyper electronic media demonise the Taliban, the more embarrassing and humiliating it will be for the Narendra Modi government to engage with the new Afghan regime in the coming days. I foresee a proverbial case of being forced to lick what you spat out.
Taliban 2.0 is radically different from its 1996-2001 stint in power. It has handled its international relations after recapturing Afghanistan pretty well. In fact, the Taliban’s dealing with the global community since the February 2020 Doha peace deal has been rather impressive.
New Delhi is acutely aware of the Taliban’s current worldwide acceptability. As things stand today, India will get isolated if it doesn’t talk to the Taliban.
India emptied out its embassy in Kabul and diplomats, including ambassador Rudrendra Tandon, after holding out for 48 hours of the Taliban recapturing power. Our officials were so anxious and desperate to leave that they failed to return the passports Afghans had submitted for visas. The grave consular lapse has left countless Afghans stranded and shows New Delhi — a regional nuclear power, if not a great power — in a very poor light.
India Will Have to Engage Taliban in Future
But once the chaos subsides and India regains its composure, it will have no option but to talk directly and openly with Taliban representatives. The engagement is bound to generate television footage and photographs of India’s suited booted diplomats holding meetings with Afghans in pathan suit and turban. If we then find the visuals disturbing, as they will remind us of the Taliban being vilified today by the pro-government media as terrorists and Pakistani puppets, we will have to gulp it.
As of now, overzealous news anchors are raking up the Kandahar hijacking and attacks on gurdwaras and our missions to build public opinion.
Would they dare to recall with the same alacrity that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was banned by the Government of India not once or twice, but thrice?
How the Modi government reconciles its inevitable engagement with the Taliban in the foreseeable future with the current anti-Taliban discourse in India will be fascinating to observe. Understandably, it will be painful and distressing for the Hindu Right and ancillary media to cope with the BJP government eating humble pie. India-Taliban talks will be an admission that New Delhi was wrong and has accepted its defeat.
Using Taliban to Vilify Indian Muslims?
Since Kabul fell on India’s Independence Day, a race is on within the BJP-RSS to bracket Indian Muslims with the Taliban for Hindu consolidation. Yogi Adityanath, Ram Madhav, and Himanta Biswa Sarma are the best performers.
Sadly, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been silent on the return of the Taliban except announcing plans to bring back Afghan Hindus, Sikhs and Indian nationals, could not overcome his temptation to milk the return of the Taliban.
On 20 August, inaugurating a beautification project at Somnath Temple, which was vandalised by King Mahmud of Ghazni in 1024 AD, Modi raked up the Taliban takeover without naming them. He said, “The destructive powers that try to establish an empire through terror may dominate temporarily but its existence is never permanent. This was true when some tyrants were plundering Somnath and is equally true even today when the world is apprehensive of such ideologies.”
Adityanath's Not-So-Subtle Actions
Adityanath, Madhav and Sarma were not so subtle. The Adityanath government openly linked the setting up of a new unit of the Anti-Terrorism Squad in Deoband, where the world-famous Islamic seminary Darul Uloom has been in existence for more than 150 years, to the Taliban recapturing power. The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s media advisor, Shalabh Mani Tripathi, tweeted in Hindi: “Amid the Taliban’s savagery, here is a piece of news from UP. Yogi Ji has decided to open a commando training centre in Deoband with immediate effect…”
Moreover, Adityanath’s police filed sedition cases against Samajwadi Party MP Shafiqur Rehman Barq, who is 91 years old, for comparing the Taliban’s movement against US occupation with India’s freedom movement against British rule.
In Assam, the Sarma government arrested 14 persons for pro-Taliban social media posts under the Draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act on August 21, 2021. Sarma says that any praise for the Taliban would be treated as an anti-national act and lead to arrest and prosecution.
Madhav, speaking recently on the centenary of Kerala’s Moplah Rebellion or Malabar Riots, described it “as one of the first manifestations of Taliban mindset in India”. According to Madhav, “Talibanism, or hardline Islamist ideology, which came to the fore in India in 1921, was also responsible for pre-Partition violence in Bengal in 1946, India’s partition in 1947 and the anti-India, pro-Pak mindset in Kashmir.” Madhav used the Taliban takeover to demonise Muslims as violent jihadis and project the BJP as the sole saviour of Hindus.
Media vs India's Official Afghan Policy
Luckily, PM Modi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval — keeping aside Modi’s jibe at the Somnath temple event — have kept their tongues in check.
Predictably, India’s most balanced and clear-cut stand on the regime change has been articulated by Foreign Secretary HV Shringla. He even saw a “silver lining” in the Taliban takeover. On 21 August, Shringla said, “There is a silver lining in the Taliban making the right noises and seeking international legitimacy which they did not the last time they were in power. The new regime in Afghanistan needs both trade and aid from India. We can work with a dispensation that is willing to look after the interests of the Afghan people. India was working on development projects in all 34 districts of the country and the message from the new regime is that they want India to continue.”
Shringla’s candid remarks are a giveaway that India is ready to talk directly with the Taliban sooner than later. Frankly, New Delhi has been elbowed out of Afghanistan by the US, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran — which hasn’t forgiven us for stopping energy imports and succumbing to US sanctions — and has no option but to engage with the Taliban to protect its huge investments and interests.
The Hindu Right and the committed media must scale down their anti-Taliban rhetoric in the national interest. If they don’t pipe down, the Taliban might mistake their attacks and vehemence for New Delhi’s official Afghan policy, putting India in a spot. It’s the wrong time to provoke the Taliban. Even Joe Biden, President of the world’s most ‘powerful’ country, has meekly accepted the 31 August deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-NATO forces after the Taliban rejected his extension plea.
Lest my analysis appears tone-deaf after yesterday’s Kabul blasts, which killed 40, including 12 US soldiers, it’s necessary to shine a torch on the Islamic State (Khorasan) which US officials say carried out the attack. India, which has condemned the bombing, has long held that the IS (K) comprising Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists is a Pakistani creation to keep the Taliban in check.
Pakistan and the Taliban however insist that IS (K)’s reins are in the hands of India’s security establishment. No wonder, the US is calling it a “complex attack” without blaming the Taliban.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)