Journal: Islamic Police Create a Minefield for Women


New York Times, August 29, 1997

KABUL, Afghanistan — Not much in the manner of Alhaj Maulavi Qalamuddin suggests that he is one of the most feared men in Afghanistan.

The tall, muscular Muslim cleric with the bushy beard and long-tailed turban is a study in gentility, at least toward visitors. He begins by offering cups of green tea. Even when the topic is deadly serious, he has a way of breaking into a barrel-chested laugh.

But Qalamuddin is the head of the General Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police of the Taliban, the Islamic movement that controls most of the country. Under his command, thousands of young men known as “mohtaseb” — an Arabic word that translates roughly as “inquisitors” — roam the land, watching for infringements of the Taliban’s taboos, arresting some offenders and meting out summary beatings and floggings to others.

Some of these enforcers roar through dusty streets on Japanese-made pickup trucks equipped with chrome roll bars and flashing blue lights, peering out of the windows through a forest of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank. Others patrol on foot, often with rifles, sometimes with switches fashioned from tree branches or lengths of electric cable.

Their role is to insure conformity with Sharia, the ancient Islamic social and penal code. The Taliban have ordered the stoning to death of couples caught in adultery, the amputation of the hands and feet of thieves, and public executions where male relatives of rape and murder victims act as one-man firing squads.

Such punishments are not unknown in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Islamic societies. But Taliban rule has also come to mean floggings for women who allow faces or ankles to show beneath the head-to-toe shrouds called burqas that the Taliban have made mandatory. Other Taliban taboos include bans on women talking to men who are not blood relatives, making themselves visible to passers-by through the windows of their homes, or traveling in cars, buses, or trucks alongside men who are not from their family.

Recently, there have been cases in Kabul in which Qalamuddin’s men have beaten women for wearing white socks or plastic sandals with no socks, attire Taliban zealots have said was likely to provoke “impure thoughts” in men. Asked about these cases, Qalamuddin said there had been no formal decrees on socks or sandals, only one that admonished women to “walk calmly and avoid creating noise by their footsteps.”

But the cleric, a veteran of years of fighting against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as much as confirmed that women are at risk of a flogging if anything about their feet or legs arouses suspicion among his men.

“Some women want to show their feet and ankles,” he said. “They are immoral women. They want to give a hint to the opposite sex.”

True to his strict interpretation of Islamic teaching and its proscription of images of the human figure, Qalamuddin refused to be photographed. But many Afghans complain that the Taliban militants make up taboos as they go along. In the villages where most of the young, illiterate Taliban recruits come from, contact between men and women outside of family and marriage has always been forbidden, a frustrating circumstance that better-educated Afghans see as a possible spur to Taliban violence against women.

Although women are the main victims of the “virtue and vice” teams, men are not immune. In an incident this summer, Qalamuddin’s men hid on the roof of a house in the center of Kabul, waiting until men in an adjoining house began watching a video of an Indian dance movie, a popular genre in this part of Asia. According to a neighbor, one of the men seized by the Taliban, a 25-year-old welder who had been deaf since birth, died in custody within 48 hours.

Stories like this abound in Kabul, but Qalamuddin denied that the Taliban have unleashed a terror. On the contrary, he said, the Taliban have brought a measure of “peace and security” to the country that had been absent throughout the years of communist rule, guerrilla conflict and civil war that preceded the Taliban. Indeed, he said, the promise of a return to order was what enabled the Taliban to rise from village obscurity to control of most of the country in barely three years.

Referring to a stoning of two adulterers beside a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar last August, he chuckled, saying it had been one of the Taliban’s most successful demonstrations.

“Just two people, that’s all, and we ended adultery in Kandahar forever,” he said. “Even 100,000 police could not have the effect that we achieved with one punishment of this kind.”

Taliban leaders often say that Western reporters and human rights organizations exaggerate the importance of Taliban rules banning women from working, denying education to girls, and restricting women and girls past puberty to domestic seclusion. But Qalamuddin’s elaboration on what he depicted as the ever-present dangers of sex lent weight to a common impression among ordinary Afghans that it is the Taliban, not their critics, who are obsessed.

Qalamuddin laid out a view of relations between men and women that seemed rooted in an Adam-and-Eve view of men as deeply vulnerable to corruption through unregulated contacts with women. In Islamic society, he said, these risks had been curbed by rules that strictly limited male-female encounters. “If we consider sex to be as dangerous as a loaded Kalashnikov rifle, it is because it is the source of all immorality,” he said.

Qalamuddin contrasted this approach with Western sexual attitudes, an issue many Taliban clerics seem keen to discuss. “Young women in your society come into public parks and walk around half naked for all to see,” he said, smiling. “In this case, what is the difference between a public park and a jungle? Does not behavior like this reduce men and women to wild animals? In Islam, we say that it is our duty to tame these corrupt instincts.”

“The outside world, in conjunction with our enemies at home, have unleashed a false propaganda against us, that we are violating women’s rights,” he said. “But the reverse is true: the world should take lessons from us. By strictly observing the Sharia law, we have given great honor and dignity to our women.”

Copyright 1997 New York Times Company

Hindu Nationalist Still Proud of Role in Killing Father of India

March 2, 1998


PUNE, India — If India’s general election brings a Hindu nationalist government to power, the event will have a special resonance for a courteous but hard-eyed old man who has made his two-room walk-up apartment in this old garrison city a shrine to Hindu nationalism and to its role in one of history’s most notorious assassinations.

On Jan. 30, 1948, Gopal Godse was a 28-year-old storekeeper at an Indian Army barracks in Pune. At 6 p.m., All-India Radio announced that a lone gunman in New Delhi had shot and killed Mohandas K. Gandhi, the 79-year-old apostle of nonviolence who led India to independence from Britain at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947.

The assassination stunned India but came as no surprise to Godse. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was his older brother. The two men had been active in the Hindu nationalist movement since the 1930s and had planned the assassination along with several others.

Their purpose was to punish Gandhi, a Hindu, for his evenhanded attitude toward Muslims — in particular for acquiescing in Britain’s partition of India into the separate nations of India and Pakistan.

Gandhi was killed with three pistol shots to the chest as he walked to an evening prayer meeting at an industrialist’s house where he stayed during his sojourns in New Delhi.

Nathuram Godse was sentenced to death for the killing and hanged on Nov. 15, 1949. Another conspirator, Narayan Apte, found by the court to have been the mastermind of the plot, was hanged beside him. Four men, including Gopal Godse, were sentenced to life in prison. He was released on parole after 18 years in 1967.

Now, as Godse awaits the election results, expected as early as Tuesday, he is quietly triumphant. For more than a decade after Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu nationalist organizations were banned, and for at least 20 years after that the creed remained so tainted that Hindu nationalist parties were virtual pariahs. As late as 1989, the group that is the main Hindu nationalist standard-bearer now, the Bharatiya Janata Party, won only 89 of 543 seats in Parliament.

But every major opinion poll in the current election has pointed to the Hindu nationalists’ best showing ever — one that could finally bring them to power in New Delhi and assuage the bitterness that men like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, feel over their years in the political wilderness.

Vajpayee has repeatedly condemned the Gandhi killing, but other, more hard-line party leaders have been more equivocal.

“The BJP will get the maximum number of seats, you will see,” Godse said during a discussion in his apartment that was punctuated by the rhythmic chanting of his wife, Sindhu, 76, as she performed her morning puja, a Hindu prayer ritual. “This will be a vindication for my brother and for myself, of course, but it will be much more than that. It will be a vindication for all Hindus.”

Godse, the last surviving member of the group that plotted the Gandhi killing, described the ascent of the Hindu party as a critical step toward achievement of the “Hindu Rashtra,” or Hindu nation — a nationalist concept that hearkens back to ancient Hindu kingdoms that ruled before the first Muslim invaders arrived.

“It’s been 1,400 years, but we’ve kept the faith, and now it is going to happen,” he said. “Finally, we will have our Hindu Rashtra.”

The Hindu nationalists’ prospects received a further boost from exit polls published after the third and conclusive round of balloting on Saturday among India’s 605 million voters. One poll of 26,000 voters conducted for the state broadcasting network, Doordarshan, predicted that an alliance of Hindu nationalist parties led by Bharatiya Janata would win 244 seats, against 140 for an alliance led by the Congress Party and 118 seats for the United Front, a center-left coalition.

A separate poll conducted for a privately owned television channel, TVI, also predicted a strong showing by the Hindu nationalists, but with a narrower lead. The TVI poll, based on a similar sample of voters, forecast 208 seats for Bharatiya Janata and its allies, 171 for the Congress-led alliance and 140 for the United Front. The polls indicate that there will most likely be intense political maneuvering after the results are announced, with Bharatiya Janata and Congress maneuvering to line up a parliamentary majority.

The decor of Godse’s apartment demonstrates his unrepentant attitude toward the Gandhi assassination. A glass-fronted cabinet serves as a shrine, with photographs of Nathuram Godse, Apte and Vishnu Karkare, another conspirator, arrayed around the pewter urn used for Nathuram Godse’s ashes. The arrangement is completed by a flower that is replaced each day by Godse and by the swastika symbol that has served as a talisman among Hindus since ancient times.

Another case contains a library of books and pamphlets justifing the Gandhi killing, many written by Godse after his release. Godse is particularly proud of one — available to visitors for 40 rupees, about $1 — a hagiographic account of the assassination and its aftermath. The book describes Nathuram Godse walking to the gallows alongside Apte, with the two exulting about the clear winter light filtering into the Punjab prison yard — “Bestowed on us by our Motherland at this heavenly juncture,” according to the words the younger Godse attributes to his condemned brother.

Gopal Godse offered a razor-sharp recollection of his own role in the killing, from the moment when Nathuram Godse asked him if he would participate – “I gave my consent immediately” — to a first, botched attempt on Jan 20, 1948, 10 days before the assassination. On that occasion, the conspirators detonated explosives in a wall at the New Delhi house with a view to drawing people away from Gandhi, but stopped short of tossing a grenade at their intended victim for fear of killing bystanders.

Godse said he fled the scene and returned by train to Pune, meeting up again in Bombay a few days later with his brother, who told him that he was returning to New Delhi to carry out the assassination alone. Gopal Godse returned to his duties as an army storekeeper and said he had heard nothing more until the radio announcement of the assassination.

“You know, I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I knew I was going to lose a brother; and I had no doubt that I was going to be arrested and share his fate. On the other hand, our target had been fulfilled. We had done away with somebody who was not only satisfied with the creation of Pakistan; he wanted to see Pakistan progress; he was in fact the father of Pakistan.

“So if you ask me, did I feel any repentance, my reply is no — not in the least. We had taken the decision fully knowing what we were doing. We knew if we allowed this person to live any longer, he would do more and more harm to Hindus, and that we could not allow it.”

Pausing for for a sip of sugary tea, Godse added: “So you see, it is not as if we had gone to New Delhi to steal Gandhi’s watch — that would have been a sinful, dirty thing. But that was not the case. We killed with a motive, to serve the highest interests of our people.”

Copyright 1998 New York Times Company