New Delhi, Sept. 6: Susmita Banerjee’s re-entry into Afghanistan was as quiet as her escape 17 years earlier had been dramatic.
So quiet that no one else in the country’s small but close-knit Indian community or the Indian missions across Afghanistan knew of it.
Now the 57-year-old author’s killing has raised questions why she never contacted the embassy in Kabul since her return in January, and kindled fresh confusion in many Indian minds in Afghanistan whether their nationality helps or hurts their safety.
The Taliban today denied killing Susmita, who had married an Afghan and spent seven years in Sharana, about 150km from Kabul, before the militants’ threats prompted her to flee back to Calcutta in 1995.
After her re-entry last January, she stayed in Kabul till July, spent Id in Calcutta and then returned to her in-laws’ home in Sharana. On Wednesday night, militants pulled her out of the house and riddled her with 20-odd bullets.
“We reject claims that mujahideen were involved in the killing of the Indian woman. It is a propaganda by government officials to defame the mujahideen,” news agency AFP quoted Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid as saying. But the Taliban are today a fractured outfit and often do not own up to killings.
When provincial governor Moheebullah Shamim called Indian ambassador Amar Sinha yesterday to inform him of the murder, Indian officials were as surprised as they were shocked.
“Since her return, she had never -– not once -– contacted the embassy,” a senior official at the Kabul mission told The Telegraph over the phone. “We had no idea she was here. No idea at all.”
It was the Kabul mission that had helped Susmita return to Calcutta in 1995 after an earlier botched escape attempt.
Officials at India’s consulate in Jalalabad, the one closest to Sharana, were today able to contact her husband Jaanbaaz Khan, a moneylender and businessman. He confirmed he had buried his wife near their home yesterday.
Khan and his family are planning an Islamic ceremony either on Saturday or Sunday in Susmita’s memory in their hamlet, which Indian officials too plan to attend.
“But we wish she had touched base with us,” an official in New Delhi said. “She had left Afghanistan 17 years earlier and possibly thought the country had changed. The truth is that, in terms of safety, it’s not very different.”
Almost all Indians in Afghanistan are either based in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat, or are working with Indian infrastructure firms building roads, dams and power plants. The foreign ministry routinely advises Indians against travelling alone in Afghanistan, where kidnappings of foreigners are common.
But many continue to ignore the Indian government’s advice, an official at the Kabul mission said.
“One reason why Indians who come here on projects don’t always register with the embassy is that despite their advice, there is a perception that our Indian identity, or moving in a group, actually works against us,” said Pawan Kumar, an Indian executive in Kabul.
Indian executives have been among those kidnapped in the past, and the Indian embassy faced two suicide attacks in 2008 and 2009 that killed over 70 people. Last month, suspected Taliban terrorists attacked the Indian mission in Jalalabad.
Susmita, officials said, may have decided against highlighting her Indian identity by reaching out to the embassy because of the nature of her work in Sharana, where she ran an informal clinic. As a woman working in public, she would have been a likely target for Islamic hardliners.
Repeated international polls, however, have shown that ordinary Afghans – as opposed to the Taliban – respect Indians and appreciate New Delhi’s aid for reconstruction over the past decade.
“Now, it’s even more confusing,” Kumar, the executive, said.
The Rajya Sabha today condemned Susmita’s murder and was assured that the Centre would take the matter up with Kabul.
Trinamul member Kunal Ghosh told the House during Zero Hour that the Centre must press the Afghan government to take stern action against the killers.
Rajya Sabha vice-chairman P.J. Kurien, who was in the chair, said the House was united in condemning the incident. Leaders from all parties supported him.
Samajwadi leader Jaya Bachchan criticised the Centre’s failure to make a statement in the House on the killing.
As foreign minister Salman Khurshid was not in the House, junior parliamentary affairs minister Rajeev Shukla tried to placate the members, saying the government condemned the “ghastly” murder and would take it up with Kabul.
NEW BOOK WISH
Susmita felt “forgotten” and returned to Afghanistan to write a book she hoped would make a splash,
her cousin Ranjan
“She was depressed
because she felt that 15 years after her book
Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (A Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife, adapted for a Bollywood film), people had begun to forget her,” Ranjan, who teaches at a US university, said on his way to Calcutta from Asansol.
“When we opposed her return to Afghanistan, she said she wanted to collect data on the Taliban’s torture of women for a new book. I told her about the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl (by militants in Pakistan) but she was adamant.”
Charanjit Singh, Susmita’s playmate when they were growing up near Asansol, said his “best friend” was also planning a “documentary on Taliban atrocities on women”.