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Call for Pashtun nation is not far away

By Mohan Guruswamy
Last updated on: July 28, 2009 16:46 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his infinite wisdom has put Balochistan on the Indo-Pak agenda. But why stop at Balochistan? Just as Balochistan was annexed by Pakistan in 1948, the Pashtun homelands that now make up the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies were annexed by the British just 70 years before they departed from the subcontinent.

It is a pity that few people in India know what really Pakistan is all about. Even today, they dare not refer to the NWFP and FATA as Pashtunistan or Pathanistan or anything that would confer upon them a sub-nationality within Pakistan, as in the case of Punjab, Sind and Balochistan. Now let's go back a bit into the past before we attempt to undo the present.

In 1886, a Russian army, fresh from its conquest of the Oasis of Merv in today's Turkmenistan, occupied the Panjdeh Oasis near Herat. Britain immediately warned Russia that any further advance towards Herat would be considered as inimical to British Indian interests. As a consequence of the May 1879 Treaty of Gandamak after the Second Afghan War, Britain took control of Afghanistan's foreign affairs. This treaty also gave Britain control over traditional Pashtun territory west of the Indus including Peshawar and the Khyber Pass.

After the Panjdeh incident, a joint Anglo-Russian boundary commission, without any Afghan participation, fixed the Afghan border with Turkestan, which was the whole of Russian Central Asia, now Kirghizistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus as a consequence of the competition between Britain and Russia, a new country, the Afghanistan we know today, was created to serve as the buffer.

In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand began work on delineating Afghanistan's eastern border with India. The poetess Marya Mannes wrote: 'Borders are scratched across the hearts of men/ by strangers with a calm, judicious pen/ and when the borders bleed we watch with dread/ the lines of ink across the map turn red.' The cartographer's pen moved nonchalantly across the Pashtun homeland, drawing a new border disregarding history, tradition and tribal affinities. The line ran remorselessly through homes, villages, fields, common lands and grazing grounds, and divided tribes and even families. Thus those whom God hath joined together were put asunder by man.

Sir Olaf Caroe, who served in British India's NWFP from 1916 to 1934, and who was the last British governor of the NWFP in 1946-47, is also the author of The Pathans, described as the locus classicus of Pathan history. Caroe emphatically states that historically Pashtuns/Pathans and Afghans refer to the same people.

The Pashtuns, who live east of the Durand line, live in the mountainous areas and are made up of tribes such as the Afridis, Orakzais, Shinwaris, Bangash and Turis. West of the Khyber, in today's Afghanistan, live the Pashtuns consisting mainly of two great tribes -- the Durranis also known as Abdalis and the Ghilzais.

In 1901, the British created the NWFP de-linking Pathan lands from Punjab. They further divided NWFP into the settled districts that were directly administered by the British and five autonomous Tribal Agency areas ruled by local chieftains but with British Agents keeping an eye on them, as in the Indian princely states. From the very beginning, the Durand Line was not an international border but a line of control. The Simon Commission Report of 1930 stated quite explicitly: 'British India stopped at the boundary of the administered area'.

Despite this candid assertion in 1947, the British handed over the five autonomous Tribal Agencies to Pakistan after sponsoring an acquiescing tribal jirga. The Afghan government immediately objected to this stating that the five Tribal Agencies belonged to the same category as the 562 Indian princely states, which were each given three options of joining India, Pakistan or remaining independent. But to no avail. Pakistan continued the tradition of allowing the Tribal Agencies to administer themselves and did not send any administrators or police or military into the area till it began sending its military in conjunction with United States forces in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists.

Centralised rule over all the people living in this area, which was first established by Ahmad Shah Abdali later Durrani, devolved upon Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) when it was created as a buffer state between the Russian and British empires. Abdur Rahman was Bismarckian in his methods and used the most ruthless methods to forge a new nation. In the course of his 20-year rule of almost continuous warfare, he managed to create an Afghan nation, albeit somewhat truncated, bound by one law and one rule.

He ruled with the help of an annual subsidy of Rs.1.2 million from the British that was later raised to Rs.1.8 million in 1893. Lord Curzon, who visited Amir Abdur Rahman in 1894 in his winter palace in Peshawar, wrote: 'No previous Sovereign had ridden the wild Afghan steed with so cruel a bit, none had given so large a measure of unity to the kingdom; there was not in Asia or in the whole world a more fierce or uncompromising despot.'

In 1901, Abdur Rahman's son, Habibullah, succeeded him. When he informed Curzon of his accession, the Viceroy coolly informed him that the treaty with his father was a 'personal' one and that a new treaty had to be considered. Habibullah responded to this chicanery by insisting that a new treaty should also acknowledge his status as the sovereign ruler of Afghanistan and its 'dependencies', quite clearly suggesting that he did not consider the Durand Line as an international frontier and that it was merely, in today's parlance, a line of control.

The British quickly agreed to resume the subsidy and also pay the arrears. Soon after the First World War broke out, a joint Turkish and German mission visited Kabul and promised the Amir a huge quantity of arms and 20 million sterling in gold in return for stirring up trouble among the Muslims in Central Asia and India. Armed with this, Habibullah tried to bargain with the British for his neutrality for return of control over Afghan foreign policy and 'dependencies'. He was assassinated in February 1919 and not surprisingly the identity of his assassins was never established.

His son Amanullah succeeded Habibullah. In May 1919, Amanullah began what the Afghans called their 'War of Independence', now generally called the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Afghan forces crossed the Durand Line into the NWFP. Tribesmen on both sides of the Durand Line rallied to the Afghan cause. But the Afghans ran into a new weapon -- the Fighter aircraft -- which dropped bombs on Kabul and Jalalabad and soon the Afghan appetite for war was somewhat squelched. The Treaty of Rawalpindi that followed gave the Afghans control over their foreign affairs but the NWFP and the Tribal Agencies remained in British India.

In the Civil War that resulted as a result of Amanullah's attempt to hurriedly modernise Afghanistan, the British supported General Nadir Khan who quickly seized Kabul and proclaimed himself the ruler in 1929. But Nadir Khan did not live long and was assassinated in 1933 by a former student of the Amania School, which was the hotbed of the nationalist movement in Afghanistan. The main objective of this movement was the recovery of territory across the Durand Line. Zahir Shah took over next and ruled till 1973 when his cousin and brother-in-law, the former Prime Minister Sardar Daoud Khan, ousted him.

Nadir Khan's son, Zahir Shah, was only 19 when he became King. Though he reigned, it was his father's brothers who governed. Some historians call this the avuncular period. This period ended in 1953 when Daoud Khan, the King's cousin and brother-in-law, took over as prime minister. Daoud Khan was a nationalist committed as much to the recovery of lost territory as he was to modernising Afghanistan. The advent of Daoud also coincided with the advent of John Foster Dulles who was no less committed to the single-minded pursuit of the 'containment' of the Soviet Union, as Daoud was to the Pashtunistan issue.

In 1954, Pakistan joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation and the Central Treaty Organisation (Baghdad Pact) military alliances, more to gain military and political support against India rather than any commitment to the US policy of containment. Daoud too had sought military and economic assistance from the US.

But with Pakistan as its chosen ally, the US turned its back on Afghanistan. Daoud then turned to Russia for assistance. The Cold War in this remote part of the world now became a confrontation for the recovery of lost Afghan territories as a result of unequal treaties imposed by Britain. In September 1960, the irritations manifested into a crisis when Afghanistan and Pakistan went to war and a year later the Afghan government snapped diplomatic ties with Pakistan and closed the border to it.

It made Afghanistan closer to the Soviet Union and dependent upon it for essentials like food and energy. It fostered closeness to Russia that would sow the seeds for the future Communist takeover of Afghanistan, as thousands of civil and military officials went to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for training and many were converted to the Communist ideology.

The disastrous effects of the closed border cost Daoud his job in 1963. It was ten years before Daoud came to power again by deposing Zahir Shah. Once again, Daoud revived the Pashtunistan issue. The 1971 break-up of Pakistan created stirrings for separation in Baluchistan as well and a training camp for Baluchi fighters was set up in Kandahar. Bhutto retaliated with bomb blasts in Kabul and Jalalabad. But Daoud fell out with Russia's Leonid Brezhnev in 1977 and the Communists toppled him the following year.

In 1979, the new Afghan government formally repudiated the Durand Line. But the Cold War lines were drawn and modern history's longest period of continuous war ensued. For the last 30 years, Afghanistan has been beset by a cruel and callous war, the likes of which the modern age has not seen. Afghans are now seeking to determine their own future. But the Pashtuns still remain a divided people by an arbitrary line of control scratched across the heart of their nation.

In the recent times, Afghan and Pakistani forces now in the Tribal Agencies ostensibly in pursuit of Al Qaeda, have clashed at various points along the Durand Line. It is now only a question of time before the demand for the reunification of all their people becomes a rallying call for the Pashtun nation. Even the internal dynamics within Afghanistan now demand it. There is much unfinished business here. If the Pakistanis now insist on putting self-determination for Kashmir on the agenda, let's also put self-determination for Balochistan and Pashtunistan on the same agenda.

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Mohan Guruswamy