New Delhi, Sept. 11: A fusillade of 25 bullets fired by terrorists killed Susmita Banerjee last Wednesday night in southeastern Afghanistan, India’s ambassador to that country has written to the author’s brother in the most detailed account of her death to date.
Two men arrested on Monday in Afghanistan’s Paktika province for Susmita’s murder have told investigators that “around 11” terrorists were involved in the attack, India’s top diplomat to the country, Amar Sinha, has written to her brother Gopal Banerjee.
But suspicions aired by Susmita’s family that her Afghan husband, Jaanbaaz Khan, may have been involved in her murder are “as of now not very sound”, Sinha has said in his email to Banerjee, who had written to him earlier this week.
Instead, Sinha said, the men arrested on Monday have told the police about “the fact that it (Susmita’s murder) was ordered by (the) Haqqani network,” referring to the Pakistan-backed militant group that India blames for terror attacks against its Kabul embassy in 2008 and 2009.
Sinha wrote the note after Banerjee, other members of Susmita’s family and a friend questioned the role of Khan and his family in the murder on the outskirts of Sharana town in Paktika, a province that borders Pakistan’s Baluchistan region.
Susmita’s memoirs of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban till 1995 when she escaped to Calcutta, where she had first met her moneylender husband in 1986, inspired the 2003 Bollywood film Escape from Taliban.
Senior diplomats in Kabul and New Delhi said Sinha’s response to Banerjee’s email was an attempt to both assuage any concerns over the Indian government’s push to bring his sister’s murderers to justice, and to quell conspiracy theories.
“Our understanding is that the husband is in a very distraught situation,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had said on Tuesday when asked about suggestions that Khan was involved in her death.
Questioning the conclusions of the Afghan police without any contrary evidence would be tantamount to accusing them of shielding Khan, who Susmita’s friend Shalini Naskar has claimed had mistreated her.
Ahead of a 2014 pullout from Afghanistan by US-led forces that could escalate the conflict in the interests of India and Pakistan in the region, Delhi is keen to avoid “unnecessarily” upsetting Kabul, a diplomat who has served in Afghanistan said.
“Had there been even a shred of evidence pointing to the culpability of her husband or his family, you can rest assured that we would have taken it up with the local police,” the diplomat said. “But you can’t ruin diplomatic relations because of the unfounded suspicions of family members, even though they are understandably disturbed.”
Sinha, in his letter, said Khan had told him that two masked gunmen pulled Susmita out of their house before killing her, and that he and his family suspected the Taliban. But when questioned further, Sinha said, Khan confirmed that he “does not know” whether the men actually belong to the Taliban as they did not speak a word.
“Most killings in Afghanistan do get blamed on the Taliban, in an instinctive reaction,” Sinha has written.
The envoy, in his letter, makes it clear that legally, Khan — as Susmita’s husband — appears to hold rights over her body. Khan buried his wife a day after she was killed, without first informing her family in Calcutta.
Sinha also questioned the suggestion by Naskar, Susmita’s friend, that the author was on the verge of ending her marriage with Khan, and that she planned to return to India on September 6. “It seems she travelled a lot between Calcutta and her home here (in Afghanistan), and her relations with her husband were fine,” Sinha has said.