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Posted at: Dec 10, 2017, 2:06 AM; last updated: Dec 10, 2017, 2:06 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: DURAND’S CURSE: A LINE ACROSS THE PATHAN HEART BY RAJIV DOGRA

A gash that never healed

Sandeep Dikshit

Some 124 years ago, the British enacted one of the many perfidies that have permanently scarred our part of the world. This was the marking of a border between Afghanistan and British India, called the Durand Line. It was a boundary line that ran right across the Pathan land, making the ones living on the western slopes of the Pamirs and Hindu Kush the citizens of Afghanistan and the rest came under British India that later became Pakistan.

The artificial division of the Pathan ethnic community was not an isolated case: Sikkim was deprived of Darjeeling, Konyak Nagas found themselves in Burma, the Hindu Chakmas in West Pakistan, the Baloch lands were sliced into Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, while the Ladakhis press-ganged into Kashmir. Further afield, bewildered Arabs were sliced into artificial nations now called Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq etc.

Rajiv Dogra, a former career diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service, paints a compelling case. The British are not let off the hook from the first to the last page: their doublespeak has been painstakingly dredged from the archives, the calculated vilification of the Pathans (as with every community the British fully or partially colonised), massacres that were portrayed as civilising missions and, finally, their deliberate silence on crucial turns, especially the making of the Durand Line, in otherwise garrulous and loquacious accounts of their conquests.

Pick up any British account of the Afghans barring the poetry and prose of Rudyard Kipling. From Winston Churchill to John Masters, the Pathan was unfairly tarred as a wild beast, brutal and untrustworthy. Curious, isn’t it? Epecially, when we in India, who ought to know better, cherish the large-hearted image of Pathans in Tagore’s Kabuliwala or the standard stereotype, in Rambo’s words, of people who “take no shit”?

The reason for this blackballing of the entire community was the pasting in the first Anglo-Afghan war that the British received. Only one doctor of the British garrison in Kabul managed to limp back to the Jalalabad fort. Most British soldiers were chopped to pieces and the few survivors were reduced to begging outside Kabul’s mosques. Retaliation never sits well with the British, and now the Americans. The entire heartland of Bihar, UP and Bengal was purposely cut out of development because of their temerity to rise against the Raj in 1857. The Pathans suffered a similar fate because they wanted to live unfettered as they had for the previous 6,000 years.

As a Pakistani army officer, recouping after the usual brutal anti-insurgency campaign, confided to this writer in Bajaur, part of the area covered in the book: “The Pathans in the frontier regions are among the most xenophobic people in the world. They just can’t stomach arm-twisting or forced intrusion though they will happily go down fighting for a man who has requested them for panah (shelter).’’

Dogra uncovers the various unexplained twists and the decidedly questionable circumstances in which a dagger was run through the Pathan land.

Poor Afghanistan was right in the middle of The Great Game played by the British to keep off the Russians who, but for a brief period of thoughtlessness, never had any designs on India. Rather “men of action” among the British ‘detected’ conspiring Russians behind every Afghan boulder and pushed London into brutal organised massacres and the razing of entire villages to bring the Afghan Amirs under their control.

Like all former Indian Deep State functionaries, Dogra can’t resist taking pot shots at Pakistan which has been forced to carry the can till this day. If his account of the intrigue and the unsolved mysteries in the run up to the carving of the Durand Line are absorbing, these become less compelling when he dons the partisan’s hat.

Many wishful conjectures rest on a thin premise: had North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) not been sundered by the Durand Line, Gandhi might have insisted on returning the province to Afghanistan. By then Gandhi was no longer a political player. And had he been politically relevant, Gandhi Burha (Old), as the Nagas called him, would also have opposed the stockading of similar freedom-inclined tribes of the Northeast in the idea of India. Would that have sat well with Dogra?

A razor can cut both ways. If the Durand Line was invalid because the Amir was not his own man, then what about the McMohan Line for whose sanctity India forever soured its ties with Chinese?

It was no mystery that Amir Abdur Rehman was putty in British hands as his father had signed away the management of Afghanistan’s foreign policy to the British in the Treaty of Gandamak. The Amirs had further lowered their worth by accepting annual grants from the Crown.

If the career diplomat in Dogra overshadows his academic self when he argues that there was no case for the NWFP to be handed over to Pakistan, he wilfully ignores the wealth of political literature that brings out that the province was always a subject of discussion among the British, Jinnah and Nehru. The sentiment of a united Pathan-land he frequently invokes is actually akin to the azadi sentiment evoked by the far Left in India. Is it any wonder that in the previous elections in Pakistan, a Maoist almost won the South Waziristan seat?

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