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Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart Hardcover – 18 September 2017
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About the Author
An active public speaker, Dogra is one of India’s foremost commentators on foreign policy and strategic affairs and is noted for his considered and assertive views. He is the bestselling author of Where Borders Bleed, regarded as one of the most authoritative books on India–Pakistan relations.
From the Publisher
Conversation with Rajiv Dogra
Zan, Zar, Zameen
It must have been the lucky stars, otherwise the ‘strongest man from Europe’ was not expecting the ‘Iron Amir of Afghanistan’ to wilt so readily.
To the surprise of Mortimer Durand that is exactly what Amir Abdur Rahman did. He signed on the dotted line and with that single signature on a document written in a language that he did not know, Amir Abdur Rahman gifted away much of southern Afghanistan to the British Empire. Pathans in the distant frontier did not protest immediately because news travelled leisurely through the high mountains.
As for the British, the Durand Agreement was welcome news. With the frontier area in British control, there was no longer any need for humiliating wars with the Afghans. Durand was in seventh heaven. But Abdur Rahman was a wounded man.
Durand’s seven-week stay in Kabul was a contest between two strong-willed personalities; one an ambitious diplomat and the other a cruel ruler. The wily Durand was pleased to absorb a territory that Abdur Rahman was finding tiresome. The British official wanted to have his name on the arrangement; the Afghan Amir believed the deal was temporary. But even as they were signing the one-page document, they both knew they were writing history with blurred lines.
On the morning of 12 November 1893, the foreign secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, also drew a line across a small map. It is said that the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman, nodded in approval. No Afghan aide was present in that room so there was no witness to the Amir’s approval. There are no Afghan accounts either of the event so we have to rely on the version given by British writers. These writings are available in plenty, and they have all been self-laudatory.
This is only natural because it is the privilege of conquerors to tell stories that flatter their past. It is rare to find a historian of an imperial power exposing its misdeeds and describing its faults. Even the ugly business of gobbled frontiers is glossed over or passed off as unfortunate exception to an otherwise honourable enterprise. Britain is no exception to this rule. From the Victorians until the 1950s, its historians saw in the British Empire a great engine for spreading liberty and civilization around the world.
It is on this condescending note that at the end of the nineteenth century, the official Imperial Gazetteer of India chose to describe the animals of Afghanistan before it reported on its people, who, it said, are ‘inured to bloodshed from childhood…treacherous and passionate in revenge…’
This judgement of the Afghan people was harsh, perhaps unfair as well. But it is strange that the opinion of the conquerors should not have changed over the millennia.
In the fourth century bc, one of the first conquerors of Afghanistan, Alexander the Great, said, ‘May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the revenge of the Afghans.’
He had reason to be wary because he fell afoul of the Pashtun tribesmen in today’s Malakand Agency, where he took an arrow in the leg and almost lost his life.
Centuries later, a Hollywood movie echoed similar sentiments in this dialogue between Rambo and his Afghan interlocutor:
Mousa: This is Afghanistan…Alexander the Great try to conquer this country…then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people…you wish to hear?
Mousa: Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the cobra, teeth of the tiger and the vengeance of the Afghan.’ Understand what this means?
Rambo: That you guys don’t take any shit?
Mousa: Yes…something like this. That indeed is the irony of Afghanistan where life imitates fiction, and facts sometimes are hard to believe. Who, for instance, would have thought that a strong-willed Amir, who had expanded and unified Afghanistan, would whimsically gift away a major portion of Afghan land? This smoke-and-mirrors quality of the country makes it so mysterious and difficult for a foreigner to understand. In fact, history has proved over and over again that if Afghans are stoic fighters, they are also gullible. If that first characteristic keeps the Afghans busy, that latter trait is a weakness which foreigners have exploited over and over again. Afghans were especially miserable in this regard during the nineteenth century. Let us then start from the beginning of the nineteenth century when the Great Game began. As a prelude to that, a brief primer about the land and its people may be in order
Myths, Legends and Anatomy
If Afghans were given just one wish they would say, leave us unfettered. Yet this land has been ravaged repeatedly. Why has this unfortunate country been the chessboard of empires? What is it that fascinates them to play their games here? Or is it that the soil of Afghanistan sponsors strife? A legend maintains that Alexander the Great’s mother sent him a letter taunting him for being stuck in Afghanistan for three years after conquering Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Persia in a year. Alexander sent her back a sack full of Afghan soil, asking her to spread it around her palace. She did as her son had told her to do. But when the Macedonian nobles walked over the Afghan soil they began to bicker and fight amongst themselves. Alas, that peculiar quality of its soil continues to haunt the land. Many have written about Afghanistan, but that crafty conjurer of the written word, Winston Churchill, describes it pithily. He was just 23 years old in 1897 when he was embedded on behalf of The Telegraph with the British army. It was then fighting a bloody rebellion in the North-West Frontier. In one of his reports for The Telegraph he describes Afghanistan thus, All along the north and north-west frontiers of India lie the Himalayas… Nearly four hundred miles in breadth and more than sixteen hundred in length, this mountainous region divides the great plains of the south from those of Central Asia, and parts as a channel separates opposing shores, the Eastern Empire of Great Britain from that of Russia. The western end of this tumult of ground is formed by the peaks of the Hindu Kush… The Himalayas are not a line, but a great country of mountains. By one who stands on some lofty pass or commanding point in Dir, Swat or Bajaur, range after range is seen as the long surges of an Atlantic swell… The drenching rains…have washed the soil from the sides of the hills until they have become strangely grooved by numberless water-courses…rain has cut wide, deep and constantly-changing channels through this soft deposit; great gutters, which are sometimes seventy feet deep and two or three hundred yards across.
Now that we have a rough idea of its anatomy, let us try and get a fix on its location. Where is Afghanistan, the cause of many myths, and more specifically where is the frontier, the subject of even greater legends? But let us first begin with the geographical limits, or the ‘Hud-e-Sikandar’, as many have called it through the ages. The Indus River has for long fascinated people. Would-be conquerors have paused at its banks wondering how and where to ford its depths. Historians have considered it as a divide between the riches of India and the beginning of the tribal world. In the beginning of recorded history, it was called Sindhu, the Persians called it Hindu and the Greeks preferred the shorter Indu for its rhyming convenience with the land. The rolling plains to its west right up to the foothills have been linked to India and its people. There have been periods when the Indian civilization stretched far beyond the river to include Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. But that was four to five thousand years ago.
Since then, and for most part of recorded history, Indus has formed a natural boundary conveniently dividing kingdoms. Sometimes though, the Afghan reach has stretched right up to its banks in Punjab. On some occasions, one or the other of the Indian empires have absorbed land up to the foothills of the Himalayas as theirs. At times, the boundary was in the trans-Indus lands, just to the west of the river, rather than to the cis-Indus territories, just to the east of the river. But seldom did they stray too many miles from the river. In essence, Indus divided two essentially distinct territories; marking them as geographically separate, socially distinct and differing from each other in their material configuration and popular institutions. There has been an attempt in the recent past to claim that Pakistan is centred on the Indus. But it is not. The cis-Indus provinces of Sind and Punjab have little in common with trans-Indus Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Further up, almost 200 miles northwest of the Indus is the Hindu Kush mountain range. They are the real barriers between Central and South Asia. The name itself is significant; Hindu Kush means the killer of Hindus, as thousands of Hindu and Sikh soldiers and slaves have perished in its snow-covered passes. About 600 miles long, its mountains reach up to 20,000 feet, and some of its passes are at heights of 14,000 feet. It is through such formidable passes that armies of Alexander, Tamerlane and Babur marched down to India. The Hindu Kush, however, are not the only barriers for invaders into India. Further down, between the Hindu Kush and the Indus is another set of mountains. The Safed Koh and Sulaiman ranges are not high mountains and their passes are at lower heights. But they are strategically located for hit-and-run tactics and to control the flow of trade caravans.
Sometimes, it is said uncharitably that the tribal communities living there depend on this loot for their sustenance and that every stone lying on these passes is soaked in blood. Across these mountain ranges lies the area where people known as Pathans* have lived with a code of honour that had long recognized zan, zar and zameen (woman, gold and land) as their only lode stars. The Pathans scattered over these largely wild lands are divided into various tribes, and though their physical features differ, they all share the same lust for honour and independence. Beginning with the little Pamir in the north, this common area classified by the British as the frontier runs through Chitral, Kohistan, Bajaur, Khyber, Tirah, Waziristan and parts of Balochistan. This ruggedly picturesque expanse of almost 40,000 square miles had once belonged to Afghanistan. This region, where geography defines the way of life and where strategy jostles with survival, hosts perhaps the most fearless, ferocious and warlike people in the world. Rudyard Kipling had written about them in an introduction to his short story, ‘The Amir’s Homily’. With his unique gift for words, Kipling draws this portrait of Afghans,
To the Afghan neither life, property, law, nor kingship are sacred when his own lusts prompt him to rebel. He is a thief by instinct, a murderer by heredity and training, and frankly bestially immoral by all three. None the less he has his own crooked notions of honour, and his character is fascinating to study. On occasion he will fight without reason till he is hacked in pieces; on other occasions he will refuse to show fight till he is driven into a corner. Herein he is as unaccountable as the graywolf, who is his blood-brother. And these men His Highness rules by the only weapon that they understand—the fear of death, which among some Orientals is the beginning of wisdom. John Masters too had a view to share.
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- Hardcover : 264 pages
- Publisher : Rupa Publications India (18 September 2017)
- ASIN : 8129148641
- ISBN-10 : 9788129148643
- ISBN-13 : 978-8129148643
- Dimensions : 15.2 x 1.91 x 22.9 cm
- Item Weight : 544 g
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #53,935 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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There are many a books on Afghan history but seldom do they talk about the colonial British arrogance and this book tries to rectify it with the perspective of the pashtun right to freedom. Being in the foreign service, the author has taken a few pot-shots at Pakistan's flawed Afghanistan policy too, but I am sure most of the Indian readers will enjoy that part!
There are a few typo errors, like on page 22 but otherwise the book is a joy to read. It's fresh and keeps you occupied in geopolitics.
(A must for people who have already read The return of King)
Book physical quality was prrfect