NEW DELHI — History is replete with cultural savagery.

Despotic rulers through the ages have always been driven by a mad obsession: to preserve their own religion and heritage at the cost of others, even if that meant brutal destruction of life and craft.

This precisely is what’s happening now in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which controls large areas of the country, has begun a systematic destruction of artifacts and statues reflecting diverse influences.

The most precious of all these are the two standing Buddhas, among the tallest in the world, at Bamiyan, which was once a convenient stop on the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road.

These figures represent the best of Buddhist thought and tradition, but they are just two of a multitude of priceless images inspired by other faiths in Afghanistan’s history.

Bagram, once the summer capital of the Kushanas (a royal Indian dynasty), has wonderful stupas and reliefs depicting scenes from the “Jataka,” the sacred stories about the former incarnations of Gautama Buddha. Herat has treasures in marble: some are of the Sun God and Shiva-Parvathi (Hindu god and goddess).

Ghazni, which was perhaps a part of India’s Mauryan empire, has King Ashoka’s pillars and Deva (divine) temples. Aikhanoum has Greek idols.

All these are being or will be ravaged by Taliban tanks and other weapons. Reports from Afghanistan tend to be sketchy and not usually supported by eyewitnesses, and it can take several weeks before confirmation of the destruction arrives.

What is beyond doubt is the determination of the Taliban chief, Mulla Mohammad Omar, who decreed last month that “all statues and non-Islamic shrines located in different parts of the country must be broken.”

He even refused to meet the special envoy of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Pierre Lafrance, who traveled to Kabul over the weekend with a plea not to indulge in such a wanton act.

Some analysts believe that a possible reason for Taliban’s “cultural genocide” is its desire to draw international attention to the nation’s suffering.

The United Nations sanctions against the Taliban — which are aimed at pressuring Kabul into surrendering or rejecting Osama bin Laden, the Saudi multimillionaire accused of waging an anti-American terrorist war — have simply killed thousands of ordinary Afghans.

A shortage of food, water and medicines has tragically added to the harsh winter and the worst-ever drought in 30 years, aggravating the problems of a people caught in a bloody civil strife between the Taliban and the rebellious Northern Alliance, which includes Tadjik, Uzbek and Hazara tribes.

When Mohammad banned poppy cultivation last year, it was virtually the last nail on the coffin: the crop had been immensely helpful to the farmers in the battle-torn economy, worsened by the latest U.N. blockade.

Whatever the claims of the U.S. and Russia that the curbs are Taliban specific, the truth is quite something else. It is, in the end, the man on the street who has borne the brunt of the massive international campaign to try and force the Taliban into submission.

But, if Mohammad believes that his fatwa to reduce history into rubble will help the world realize the folly of the sanctions, he is not likely to succeed. His campaign to crush all that represents the un-Islamic way of life — statues, according to him, are symbols of infidels — has been met with global outrage.

India offered to keep the icons in its safe custody, but a few critics were to quick to point out that New Delhi has no moral right to play savior.

Hindu fundamentalists — from organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal — some of whose members also belong to the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — are not only guilty of demolishing the centuries-old Babri Mosque in 1992, but have also been systematically vandalizing and desecrating churches, killing Christian missionaries and even trying to “Talibanize” liberal Hindu outlook.

What happened last Valentine’s Day — when Hindu zealots went around cities and towns burning greeting cards and damaging hotels and shops, because they were promoting an alien custom — was nothing short of shameful bigotry.

Incidentally, no proper religion teaches intolerance, and if the Taliban professes to uphold Islam by “cleansing” its country in the manner it has chosen to lately, it only indicates the group’s sadistic tendency to rule by methods most foul.

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