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Opinion: The death of an Indian hero in Kabul

The horrific truck bombing at the green village on Jan 14,2019 in Kabul ended the life of a young and bright international development professional Ms Shipra Sharma in the most brutal and menacing way. She was intelligent, dynamic and luminary in her own right. It was just 3 months that she stepped into Kabul in order to improve the standards of civil society often plagued by poor governance and lack of accountability. She was employed as the programme director of Afghanistan Institute for civil society. Early morning, I was typically into my mails and calls, when a friend from Kabul called me to inform that Shiprais injured. Having worked in Afghanistan, the first lead was enough for me to comprehend the rest. However, I was behaving differently this time. I called up multiple sources in Kabul hoping to see her in the list of injury, only. Finally at 11.00 AM, I was informed about the worst. My train of hope was brought to a screeching, abrupt halt and I was jolted back into the present with the harsh reality. I was numbed and shattered. My throat was choking.

I shared many relationships with Shipra—a professor, a friend, and perhaps her worst critics. I had the privilege of teaching her at Aravali institute of management, Jodhpur as a guest lecturer. Later, it was brought to my notice that I was nick-named as  “dangerous professor” because of my inability to tolerate even slightest of nuisance in the class. My interaction with students off class was very limited owing to my serious image. I lost touch with all my students, once I moved to Afghanistan in 2005. She was no exception, either. However after a decade, I connected with her again through linked in. By then she had worked with almost half a dozen of development organisation, but that big development break was still elusive in her career. One of my industrialist friends was keen on setting up a foundation with South Asia outreach. I alerted her about the opening. She was intelligent and smart enough to crack it. From here on, I witnessed a remarkable transformation in her. She started designing one after another-innovative development projects with admirable vision and immaculate execution. Notable among them was reviving a defunct leprosy hospital in Jharkhand and providing tech power to 200 women grassroots leader for employing digital advocacy and networking to espouse public cause in Bangladesh. She was fast emerging as a kind of leader, every young professional can be inspired by and look up to, a role model.  Her management style included giving both authority and responsibility to her staff, and then she hold them accountable for results. She was never scared of calling a spade a spade even if that means disagreeing with Boss and even for that matter the board. I was privy to one such board meeting. This would often put her under tight spot. In a relatively short span of time, she set up the foundation with a pan India visibility along with an outreach to Bangladesh.

This was the time, when I was also exposed to her tacit sense of humor, which was a privilege for the selected few. In the meanwhile, I also realized that she holds three masters, including one from University of London. A PHD from LSE was her next dream. Whatever little, I knew about her, she hated status quo in anything. She also needed to be confronted with new set of challenges to keep her engaged in everything that she does.  Soon she started hitting fatigue and was up for the next big challenge in the development sector. She applied for a big job in Afghanistan and true to her established credential, cracked it by beating various international candidates, convincingly. She was not a silver tongue orator by any means, but would leave impression in any conversation with her deep thinking and critical analysis. Her leadership was more suited for big-ticket items in the international development sector. Having worked at the highest echelon of international development, I say it with great authority that she was a rare talent, given her age.  The new job in Afghanistan was no different. She became immensely popular riding high on creativity and new thinking in little over three months. She epitomised the way in which high order principles andethos can be brought to bear upon the seemingly intractable problems facing the civil society of Afghanistan. But Taliban had other plans to abort the process of Development and silence anyone who comes in between. She was the victim this time.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, she approached me for my approval.  I am not the one to be scared by Taliban. However, I was apathetic this time as the situation is deteriorating fast in Afghanistan. She sensed my pessimistic mood faster than me. “Come on professor Sarkar’ you taught us that for development sector professional, there is no religion and even border. Reaching out to distressed and high conflict zone should be a top priority. You can’t go back on your words now”, She enlightened me about my past lecture and subtly reminded me that I have also worked in conflict zones for over 15 years now.  I convinced myself and gave her the nod. In my distant of dream, I didn’t realize that I was literally approving her death warrant. I met her on Jan 12th when she stopped in Delhi en route to Kabul. All discussion centered on her job and how much she was enjoying the same. She was perhaps going through the best phase of her professional life. I never thought that her best phase would be so short-lived.

It is particularly disturbing to note that humanitarian aid workers are increasingly becoming target of Taliban. Even by the Taliban’s own crude metrics, the aid workers were generally spared, in the past. This winter all the laid barometer of Taliban are seen to be falling and the gap between the military, civilian and the humanitarian sector are blurring. For killing two unarmed professionals, the Taliban resorted to truck bombing. This was designed to create fear psychosis among development professionals in Kabul. However they fail to understand that even in her tragic death, Shipra would continue to inspire international development professionals more than ever to take up new challenges in Afghanistan. And Prof Sarkar wouldn’t deter from advising people to work in Afghanistan either.

Shipra passed away leaving behind her7 years old son.  She was a force of positivity and brought so much happiness in any organisation that she worked.  She created a culture to work hard and be the best that you can be. She was born to work with excellence. At 36, she created such an indelible mark in sector of development.

With tearful eye, I badefinal farewell to Shipra in her hometown Jodhpur, last Friday. Her death brought the Sun City together to mourn the loss of it’s famous daughter.

Rest in peace Shipra! May you reap your rewards in heaven.

Sujeet Sarkar works as a Global Lead on Governance with an international aid agency.

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