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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 45, New Delhi, October 23, 2021

Mobilise civil society activists in India and Pakistan for humanitarian support to Afghans - PIPFPD Joint Statement released on 19th October 2021

Saturday 23 October 2021


Afghanistan continuing political social and economic crisis - the deepening humanitarian catastrophe was at the core of the urgent concerns that motivated a host of civil society and human rights advocates to join the Pakistan–India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) in a singular online conversation that went beyond state narratives of security and competitive national interests, to surface civil society perspectives of Afghan peoples struggles. PIPFPD, one of the oldest civil society movements with members from Pakistan and India hoped to mobilise collective cross border strategies for action.

What captured the imagination of the 115 persons drawn to the webinar on “The Afghanistan Crisis and The Region” on Oct 4, 2021, was the passionate and extremely grim and defiant accounts by three tall Afghan women: Mahbouba Seraj in Kabul, and Judge Najla Ayoubi and Huma Shafi in exile. They spoke of a complete collapse of governance and voiced anger and foreboding at Afghanistan’s ill-intentioned neighbours (including non-regional US) that were waiting to rip the country apart.

No less compelling were the disturbing implications of the fall out of the Afghanistan crisis, especially in Pakistan but also in the extended region spanning Iran and Tajikistan. The unacknowledged Afghan refugees streaming across Pakistan’s fenced border was the most visible aspect of this spillover, PIPFPD co-chair, the film-maker and rights advocate Tapan Bose stated. But less obvious and more threatening to peoples security, as lawyer and rights activist from Lahore, Hina Jilani emphasized was that the crisis was exacerbating existing authoritarian trends, reinforcing the fusion of religion and politics, emboldening extremists calling for Sharia law in Pakistan since it was a land created in the name of Islam. Significantly, former Pakistan Senator and rights activist Afrasiab Khattak saw a break in the darkening clouds. In Pakistan Punjab, even as triumphal voices celebrated the goal of securing ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, there were fears of the army’s adventurism going wrong.

Overwhelming was the overhang of the imminent humanitarian disaster facing Afghanistan’s 34 million people as winter approached. Already, they were struggling against drought, the snapping of all assistance, empty government coffers as access blocked to Afghanistan’s $9.5 bn central bank assets, tens of thousands displaced from homes, without shelter food medicines or money.

The extreme nature of the crisis situation made Afghan woman’s rights advocate Mahbouba Seraj outraged at the Taliban’s lack of any sense of urgency to halt the collapse. “No one knows who to go to … who has authority... Taliban doesn’t believe in hierarchy. We don’t know who is ruling.…. Extreme statements are made and then acted upon about erasing two decades of education, and professionalism. There is no government, especially outside Kabul. …No trucks are moving, no goods are coming, banks are not working, I can’t even draw out my own money. We are looking at millions facing starvation.…” When frontline women’s rights advocates were fleeing to the airport, Mahbouba Seraj (73yrs) was determined to stay on and fight determinedly hoping that the Taliban would talk to her, to the women of Afghanistan. “Nobody is able or capable of talking to the Taliban. Afghanistan’s proud free media is silenced”. Plaintively she appealed to the Taliban to listen to the people, to talk to people like her. The problem was less about what the Taliban represented, and more about the chaos of an absent government. Questions such as holding back on recognition of the Taliban as the only means of leverage seemed secondary to the immediate need - humanitarian assistance.

Politician and rights activist Afrasiab Khattak, took a long view of the Taliban forces. In the 1990s young Talibs burst onto the Afghanistan war-scape of fighting warlords, claiming no interest in power. The Taliban today is different. They have been systematically brainwashed in the 36,000 religious seminaries of Pakistan, to displace their Afghan identity with an exclusivist Islamist, not Afghan identity. Pakistan generals are deeply invested in this military-ideological project of creating ‘strategic depth’, it is next only to the prestigious nuclear programme.

However, as Mabouba Jan emphasized, Afghanistan of today too is different. The last two decades, despite corrupt and crony governments, have seen the growth of modernized urban centres, the spread of university graduates and professional women and men. Resentment over the closure of schools, colleges and universities, ban on girls accessing educational institutions, severe clamp down on the media and restrictions on movement have brought people, particularly women out on the streets in protest.

.Afghanistan has become the centre of the ‘New Great Game’. “We feel like a cow, surrounded by butchers with sharp knives, waiting to cut out a piece of body,” she stated, appealing to neighbouring powers to not fight their battles in Afghanistan. While China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are openly talking to the Taliban, the western powers are resorting to subterfuges to legitimise the Taliban by pretending to take at face value the Taliban assurances of keeping its territory free of terrorist menace. They ignore the Taliban’s record of deception and reneging on its promises, blocking out the hard reality of continuing human rights abuses. Indian journalist Jawed Naqvi emphasised the doublespeak of the great powers, Pushpa Pathak with years of professional work in Afghanistan, reminded of mutual affection of the peoples of Afghanistan and India.

So what then can civil society activists across the states of Pakistan and India do? Moderator, Hina Jilani, saw this as a moment for reasserting peoples participation, too long deemed irrelevant by our governments.

Proposed Civil Society Support Group Initiatives

Recognising both the strength and limitations of the scope of civil society collective action and the urgency of the need to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, it was decided to prioritise targeted advocacy with relevant actors at national and multi-lateral levels in support of humanitarian assistance initiatives, and also to support specific action undertaken to alleviate the distress of vulnerable groups of Afghans in our countries. As civil society actors, it was imperative that we act in an open and transparent manner.

— Humanitarian Assistance: Indian and Pakistani civil society groups to actively and effectively lobby with i) our own governments to respond positively, urgently and concretely to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, ii) to collectively advocate in support of humanitarian assistance initiatives to be undertaken by UN and multilateral agencies, and iii) to urge that assistance must be offered and monitored in a manner that it should be for the benefit to the people and not be motivated for stabilizing the Taliban control.

— Protection and Assistance to distressed Afghans and those at risk: Distressed Afghans in Pakistan and India, especially those in need of security, material assistance and legal ‘refugee’ status recognition.

§ Civil Society to advocate with relevant national and international agencies, especially UNHCR, and reach out to global and regional human rights defenders networks, etc.

§ Action to take measures to ensure the security of vulnerable Afghans who are already in our respective countries against harassment and intimidation: includes documentation and exposure of any such incidents.

§ Organizing of material assistance

§ Advocacy for recognition of their legal: refugee status and protection.

§ Outreach to global and regional human rights defenders networks

— Stranded Afghans ‘medical cases’ in India: children, women and men who had come for life-saving treatment, are stranded because land and air routes are blocked. Their savings have run out and they need immediate material assistance and return facilitation.

§ Support advocacy of their case with relevant government authorities for the provision of material relief, and innovative emergency initiatives for their return following examples such as the Iran Air flight of Delhi-Teheran and Kabul. [Contingent on the scope for such advocacy of relevant authorities by cross border civil society groups, to lobby for a one-time overland transit corridor.

§ Publicising their plight and Mobilising provision of relief

Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD)

October 2021

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