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Gandhara & Taliban – No Love Story

Fleeing population of Swat
Photo: Rashid Iqbal

The erstwhile ancient kingdom of Gandhara, ruled by the Kushan kings (1st to 4th century AD), was reacquainted to the world in March 2001, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan – the world’s biggest rock-cut Buddha statues - the cultural twin towers of Gandharan art, and now in 2009 once again when Taliban occupied and vandalized the Swat valley in Pakistan. Swat, a district in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, 160kms northwest of Islamabad, and Bamiyan were once a part of Gandhara, a historical region (1st to 5th century AD) in present-day northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I first visited the Swat Valley in the August of1980 – almost three decades ago. Zia’s politics of Islam, though bubbling in urban areas, had not touched the serenity of this picturesque region with its trout-rich streams and ski slopes. I remember the post-sunset stillness and the silence, the rain-soaked dirt roads, the fragrance of rice in the mountain air, the ancient Buddhist relics, the friendly and warm locals who often asked for medicines – vast areas had no basic medical facilities even within reach of a day’s walk. Swat was a romantic destination for visitors from Lahore and Islamabad but certainly not for those living in its remote regions. On my subsequent trips to the area, I carried paracetamol, eye drops, band-aids and throat lozenges in bulk – that was all I could do for the folks there.

Swat, today, is a ghost valley – its 2 million residents having fled the insanity that the Taliban had begun to unleash upon a populace that did not want them in their midst. Houses and public buildings lie demolished; girls’ schools a heap of rubble. A small band of indoctrinated individuals have transformed a peaceful past into a killing zone. As I write this piece, NY Times has just flashed Breaking News on the screen of my laptop – Lethal Bomb Hits Hotel in Northwest Pakistan. Today is June 9, ‘09. Just four days ago the Breaking News was – Pakistan Mosque Bomb Kills Dozens. And before that – the Lahore Blast, and before that ..... – so it carries on – only the names of places, venues, and targets keep changing. This is a nation plagued by a bunch of small groups of extremists and terrorists believing in a version of Islam that most Muslims do not identify with.

Read the entire article in the print issue of SALT



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