This post comes after a long hiatus.
My tribute to Sushmita Banerjee, the fiesty Indian writer and health worker who was killed in Afghanisthan last week.
Here is an approximate English translation for those who don’t follow Hindi.
A tribute to Sushmita Banerjee, a brave writer and a health activist
Paktika is one of the remotest provinces in conflict-scarred Afghanistan. It sits next to the poorly-marked Durrand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is little in this province by way of infrastructure. Basic healthcare facilities are missing. Everything is in short supply – from clinics to medicines to medical staff.
After the fall of the Taliban, reconstruction in the province has been slow compared to that in neighbouring areas like Khost. The main reasons are the remoteness of the region and the repeated attacks on aid workers and NATO forces.
Till recently, few people in India or the rest of the world had heard of Paktika. Fewer still cared about its misery. All that changed last week when Sushmita Banerjee, a 49-year-old Indian writer and activist who had married an Afghan businessman, was shot dead by militants outside her home in Paktika province. Paktika suddenly grabbed headlines around the world.
The Taliban claim they have nothing to do with her killing. However, according to media reports, militants arrived before dawn at Banerjee’s residence, which lies in a region where the Taliban are especially influential.
The provincial police chief Gen. Dawlat Khan Zadran told a news agency that Banerjee’s husband, Jaanbaz Khan, answered the door, only to be quickly bound and blindfolded. The militants then dragged Banerjee outside, took her to a nearby road and shot her at least 15 times, Zadran said.
Why was Banerjee killed? We may never know. But her writings give us some strong clues. Published accounts of this Indian woman who had made her home in a troubled province in Afghanistan make a fascinating tale. Banerjee is best-known for her memoir written in her mother tongue Bengali – Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou. It recounted her life in Afghanistan and her dramatic escape from the Taliban in the 1990s. Her book speaks of how she met her husband, Jaanbaz, in India and married him despite her parents’ disapproval. In 2003, the book was turned into a Bollywood film, Escape From Taliban, starring Manisha Koirala as Banerjee.
Her murder is the latest in a string of attacks on prominent women in Afghanistan, adding to fears about women’s rights in a country where many women are barely allowed outside the house and which has some of the most worrying health indicators in the world.
Who was this woman who managed to flee from Afghanistan but went back to be with her husband and to serve the people she had become close to? Most people see Banerjee as a brave writer who championed women’s rights. But in the remote patch of Afghanistan she lived in, she was admired as a health worker – an asset to a community bereft of health clinics and health personnel.
If we go by Banerjee’s own writings, it was her role as health worker that drew the ire of the militants. In an article in Outlook magazine in 1998, Banerjee vividly described life in rural Afghanistan and particularly her own life there. “My husband, Jaanbaz, who ran a business in Kolkata, had to make an urgent trip back to India. I stayed back. Unfortunately, Jaanbaz failed to come back to Afghanistan. Though my in-laws were not too kind, life was tolerable until the Taliban crackdown in 1993. I remember it was early that year that members of the Taliban came to our house. They had heard of the dispensary I was running from my house. I am not a qualified doctor. But I knew a little about common ailments and since there was no medical help in the vicinity, I thought I could support myself and keep myself busy by dispensing medicines. The members of the Taliban who called on us were aghast that I, a woman, could be running a business establishment. They ordered me to close down the dispensary and branded me a woman of poor morals.”
This is a strong pointer to what angered the militants and led to Banerjee’s killing now – because she was once again providing basic health services, especially to women who have hardly any other health facilities available to them. According to a report in the American newspaper The Los Angeles Times, she was working as a midwife in a private hospital in Paktika. Before she died, she was reportedly busy filming the lives of local women as part of her work as a healthcare provider.
Was provision of health services and filming the lives of local women a crime? Did it not matter that in Banerjee was Sayed Kamala to the Afghans and helping save lives?