Afghanistan and Political Lives of the Dead Bodies



Recently the politics of dead bodies have come to the limelight, playing a significant role in the lives of Afghan people, be it in the form of commemoration of martyrs of the anti-Soviet Union struggle or Afghanistan National Hero Ahmad Shah Massoud. In particularly the two recent events first the remembrance of Enlightenment Movement deaths, where more than 100s of people lost their lives when a suicide bomber detonated himself among the peaceful protesters in Kabul. The second is the reburial of the corpse of former Tajik King Habibullah Kalakani after 87 years. Habibullah Kalakani ousted the reformer king Amanullah Khan and was on the throne for 9 months. These events compel us to understand more the meaning rather than the causes these events.

The two recent events make it very clear that dead bodies presented and are used as a form of political symbols. Why and how these bones, corpses and dead bodies form political symbols will be interesting to trace here. As noted by Katherine Verdery an anthropologist, the dead bodies possess properties which make them an essential and effective political symbol, thus a vital instrument in achieving political transformation. What we understand here as the symbolic properties of the corpses is; our belief and religiosity. It makes us think where we came from and where we will go. It also connect us with the past, like what has been done and what we want to achieve. As it was written by a pallbearer of the former King on social media “seeing the coffins makes one uncontrollably shouting Allah-o-Akbar”. The enlightenment movement and the reburial movement of former Tajik king are organised around the symbolic capital of dead bodies connecting to the past and hoping for a positive social and political transformation.

Political lives of deadbodies

The Enlightenment Movement commemorated the 40th day ritual for the people who lost their lives during a peaceful demonstration, protesting the change of power grid line from Bamyan to Salang and demanding equality in development projects. The enlightenment movement is organised by ethnic Hazara who suffered internal colonisation in the past and fighting what they call now systematic discrimination by the Afghan government. To provide a clear understanding I will focus on the later event i.e. the reburial of former Tajik King Habibullah Kalakani here.

Kalakani’s reburial started by a group of young individuals to provide a proper reburial to the former king. Only later it was joined by Tajik leaders, it can be seen as a part of counter-balancing the ethnic dimension of Afghan society, where the idea of second class citizen still exists. In 2008 the reburial ceremony was held for President Daoud Khan a Pashtun, who was assassinated during the communist takeover, his body was discovered in a mass grave and was given a state funeral.  King Habibullah Kalakani, known by Pashtun nationalist as Bacha-i-Saqao or water carrier’s son was from Tajik ethnic group who opposed the western styled radical reform presented by Amanullah Khan and challenged the authority of the power elite of his times. This was the first time a non-Pashtun sat on the throne in the history of Afghanistan. Kalakani was buried in a mass grave with his eleven comrades on a hilltop in an unmarked spot in the mausoleum of Pashtun dynasty Nadir khan. Despite brokering an amnesty deal that was written and singed on Quran Habibullah Kalakani was imprisoned and hanged to death by Nadir Khan who deposed Kalakani. These dead bodies are quietly lively as they are worth fighting for, in the initial hours of confrontation between Vice President Dustam and mourners, the mourners’ threaten to bury the coffins in the proposed cemetery (Shahrara hilltop) even if it cost them their lives.  It was astonishing to hear a person shouting “if we are not allowed, I will blow myself up”.

What Purpose the Reburial serves

The commemoration and reburials ceremonies bring a mass of people or mourners who think they have some connection with the corpse and almost always this relatedness becomes ethnically exclusive, thus it also side-lines those who does not join the togetherness.  They do so by bringing people together to exchange information, ideas and it also reaffirms the political community of those who orient to the dead body. Particularly it serves to reorder the community. The presidential election had somehow divided the Tajik community, but the commemoration of former king brought them together in paying their homage to the late king. In a video shared online son of Mohammad Sidiq khan one of the companions of King Habibullah Kalakani, praises and admires the people who held the reburial ceremony for late king and says “ you have restored our dignity, our pride and our ethnic identity” what we could not do in the past 70 years you did it. The dead body of the Tajik King and his companions showcased the authority and national identity/ Ethnic identity of people who are related to the deceased. Thus it reaffirms the solidarity of the community, rewriting of the ethnocentric pieces of history at the time.

Ethnic rift in Afghanistan

The first vice president of Afghanistan, General Dustum who is an ethnic Uzbek ordered his army to prevent the reburial of former Tajik king in the Shahrara hilltop claiming it to be a cemetery for ethnic Uzbeks (Turk ancestry).  In a video leaked to social media VP Dustum was seen delivering a speech and threatening to fight until the last man of his ethnic group stands, soon after finishing he was offered 1000 armed man by a member of a Pashtun ethnic group claiming to be Gulbuddin Hekmatyar commandant, to prevent ethnic Tajiks from reburial of the late King in Shahrara hill. On social media the well-educated Pashtuns showed their discontent with the reburial of Tajik King, comparing him with Taliban leader Mullah Omer. We have to realise that every individual of this country should be given a proper burial. As we cannot deprive someone of their right to live and breathe, the same way we cannot deprive them to be properly buried. We have to strive for ethnic inclusiveness in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is a country of ethnic minorities. If President Daud Khan can be given a state funeral why Habibullah Kalakani should be deprived off. It’s argued by the Pashtun Nationalist that the Tajik King ousted the reformer King Amanullah, so did President Daud Khan deposed a stable monarch. We have to be more tolerable to the realities of our country, there is no single chosen ethnic group by God to rule this country forever. Things change and circumstances change too, we have to embrace the change and go along with it to have a peaceful and a better society.