Hindus May Be Labeled in Afghanistan

By<a href="mailto:leela.jacinto@abc.com">Leela Jacinto</a>

May 22, 2001 -- The Taliban, one of the world's most isolated and controversial regimes, is considering a proposal to make Hindus wear identity labels to separate them from the majority Muslim population in Afghanistan.

The hard-line regime, which enforces its own strict interpretation of Islam, has already faced harsh criticism and international isolation for its treatment of women and, more recently, for its destruction of two giant Buddha statues dating back to the 5th century.

A Taliban Foreign Ministry official told ABCNEWS.com the regime was considering a new policy that would require Afghan Hindus to wear identity tags. It would also require Hindu women to cover their faces in public like other Afghan women instead of just wearing head scarfs.

In a telephone interview from Kabul, the Afghan capital, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi said the proposal had not been made into law yet and was still being considered.

Hindus, Jews Outraged

For the policy to be made official, it would have to be approved by the reclusive Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

There were no details on what sort of identification Hindus would have to wear and no date had been set for implementation, Hashimi said.

The proposal has been widely condemned by Hindu groups and Jews, who faced similar marginalization by the Nazis.

Although Muslims form the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan's population, there are several thousand Hindus and a small Sikh minority in Afghanistan. Most minorities are traders who tend to live in close-knit pockets across the Central Asian state.

While Sikh men are easily distinguishable by their unique turbans, Hashimi said that if the new policy was implemented, it would apply to the Sikh community as well.

'It's for Their Security'

Hashimi said the identification of Hindus was a proposal aimed at protecting both Hindu and Muslim Afghans.

"This is being considered because there are a number of items that are illegal for Afghan Muslims — like shaving their beards, watching TV and having idols at home. The same things are allowed for the Hindu community. If the Taliban asks them to wear badges, it is to be on the safe side so that Hindus can be recognized," he said.

"This is not a discrimination against our Hindu brothers," he added. "It's for their security."

Comprised of Afghans trained in religious schools in neighboring Pakistan along with former Islamic fighters or mujahadeen (holy warriors) who fought the Soviet occupation, the Taliban follows a narrow interpretation of Islam aimed at recreating what they call the "most pure Islamic state."

But many Islamic scholars accuse the Taliban of abusing Islam's tolerant tradition for their own ends.

Protests Erupt in India

As news of the proposals spread, there was widespread criticism.

In Hindu-dominated India, angry protesters took to the streets in the central Indian city of Bhopal, brandishing a bearded effigy of a Taliban soldier and chanting, "Taliban, die."

In the capital, New Delhi, a spokesman for the Shiv Sena, a hard-line Hindu group, warned the new policy would incite violent public reactions across the subcontinent.

"These are fundamentalist people, make no mistake about it," said Mukund Mody, founder of Overseas Friends of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). "I wouldn't call it a discrimination, I call it an atrocity."

The Hindu right BJP currently heads a coalition government in India.

Nazi Overtones

For many Westerners, images of a minority population wearing identification badges on their clothing called to mind the start of the Nazi pogrom against Jews.

"Oh my God, we have learned nothing from history," said Abraham H. FoxmanNational Director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor himself. "This is going back to the Holocaust when Jews were separated with yellow stars [of David]. … That led to 6 million dead. One would hope that we had learned from history."

Mody called for international condemnation of the new policy. "The world was slow to respond to Nazism then, it's even slower to respond to this now because these unfortunate people are from a different hemisphere. It's difficult to get the West to respond until the fire reaches their corridor."

The practice of forcing minorities to wear distinctive clothing goes back to the Middle Ages, when Jews in several European countries were forced to wear mandated headgear and clothing to separate them from other residents.

But it reached a crescendo in Nazi Germany, when policies such as identification badges gradually led to the Holocaust.

For Foxman, the resonances were especially disturbing. "Back then, it was a marking for death," he said. "I hope the world will wake up. It starts with monuments, now it's marking people, what could be next?"

Foxman was referring to Taliban's destruction of two giant Buddha statues in the Bamiyan province in March.

The Taliban's demolition of the statues, one of which was once the world's tallest standing Buddha statue, drew harsh criticism from the international community. The statues were considered both religious symbols and archaeological treasures.

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