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Soldiers stand by seized weapons in an empty bazaar during a military operation against militants in the main town of Miramshah in North Waziristan | AFP
Soldiers stand by seized weapons in an empty bazaar during a military operation against militants in the main town of Miramshah in North Waziristan | AFP

What is now the tribal belt of Pakistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), was maintained by the British from 1849 to 1947 as a unique political, military and administrative arrangement. It was visualised as a ‘buffer to the buffer’, that is, a buffer between the British colony of India, and Afghanistan, which itself was considered a buffer between the British Empire and tsarist Russia. The history of these tribal areas is linked with a long-drawn-out rivalry between Britain and Russia and the British-Indian government’s efforts to prevent Afghanistan’s interference in its territories.

Professor Salman Bangash has studied the history of these tribal areas between 1849 and 1914 in a scholarly work, The Frontier Tribal Belt: Genesis and Purpose Under the Raj, and tried to answer, among others, the following questions: why did the British devise a peculiar administrative set-up for the tribal areas? And why did the British prefer military operations to peaceful methods to establish their control over the tribes?

After a brief introduction to the land, the inhabitants and the tribal code, Bangash comes to the challenges faced by the British, which viceroy George Curzon summed up in these words: “The most arduous struggle in which we have been engaged in India in modern times was waged with frontier tribes.” The author devotes a whole chapter to the contests among Europe’s imperialist powers, and the aims and strategies of the British imperialists while dealing with French and Russian ambitions, especially their designs on the vast territories east of Egypt, all of which is described as the Great Game.

As the fate of Fata continues to hang in the balance, this splendid work of research may help explain the causes of the decades-long tensions around governance in the area

Bangash then discusses British attempts to establish control over Afghanistan first through military operations and eventually through diplomacy and the exploitation of emir Abdur Rahman’s difficulties as his country was “like a poor goat on whom the lion and the bear have both fixed their eyes.” After winning over the Afghan ruler with a one-sided understanding, the British succeeded in persuading Russia to have its boundary with Afghanistan demarcated by 1895, while the Durand Line that marked the boundary between British-India and Afghanistan had already been agreed to. Afghanistan had become a buffer between two expansionist empires — the British and the Russian.

The tribal belt started becoming important for the British Indian authorities after Lord Dalhousie, who most aggressively grabbed territories for the East India Company, suggested it was necessary to fight the Sikh rulers and annex Punjab. A powerful politician in London (not the British government) replied: “If we resolve to annex we must annex up to the Khyber Pass, and Peshawar must be our principal political station.”

Thus did the British arrive at a new frontier of the India under their occupation, one that Olaf Caroe (governor of the North-West Frontier Province, 1946-47, and fabled writer) described as “a belt of no-man’s land of unknown extent which acknowledged neither Kabul nor Calcutta as suzerain.”

To chief commissioner John Lawrence’s Punjab administration fell the task of developing a policy for the tribal belt that was to be treated differently from the adjacent administered/settled districts. A carrot-and-stick policy was adopted. Agreements were made with the different tribes. They were paid money to keep peace. If they failed, they could be punished in various ways, including through military operations. Major general Herbert Edwardes introduced the system of a tribe’s collective responsibility for breach of peace by any of its members.

The fighting qualities of the Pakhtuns of the Frontier region, including the tribal belt, were recognised quite early and the British decided to have them as friends and not as enemies. Edwardes and soldier/administrator John Nicholson were able to recruit a good number of them in 1857.

Although Lawrence, as viceroy, tried to bring the tribal area under the settled administrations, the view that ultimately prevailed — perhaps because no revenue was expected from the mountainous region — was to keep these areas under indirect and limited control. Under a scheme devised by Lord Lytton in 1877, a system of political agencies was introduced. The Khyber, Kurram, Malakand (Dir and Swat) and North and South Waziristan agencies were created between 1879 and 1896. Put under the central government’s control, the agencies were administered by political agents. The latter appointed loyal tribesmen as maliks who were given an allowance to serve British interests. According to Bangash, “the allowance system came under fire as being a form of blackmail and for creating rifts in an egalitarian and classless society.” Even Lord Lytton did not like the malik system.

The principal instrument for managing the tribal belt was the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). This black law was justified on the grounds that “the law of one civilisation cannot be applied to a society with an entirely different standard”, or “we cannot rein in wild horses with silken braids.” Trial by jirga was introduced, ostensibly out of respect for the Pakhtun tradition (Pakhtunwali) but it was “a far cry from its natural state.”

The author makes short work of the FCR by exposing its objectionable features such as collective punishment and harsh penalties (blockade of tribes, demolition of houses and villages, expulsion from the home territory, absence of redress for arbitrary arrest), and dismisses the regulation with scholar A. Qayyum’s observation that “it was a mockery of justice.”

Yet, the tribes were not subdued. The British were forced to wage many wars against tribal lashkars that were often raised by religious agitators under the call of ‘jihad’. The possibility of mobilising the tribal population for ‘jihad’ was absent from the minds of all of the three strategists concerned — Russian, British and Afghan.

The author discusses in detail military campaigns in the tribal belt that “were classified as campaigns of conquest or annexation, campaigns to suppress insurrections, and punitive expeditions. These expeditions were nicknamed ‘tip and run’, ‘butcher and blot’, ‘harry and hurry’, and ‘burn and scuttle’.” What made the British particularly happy was the fact that many tribesmen amongst their troops took part in the destruction of their own houses and hamlets and “not a rifle was lost by the corps, nor was there a single defection.”

The conclusion Bangash derives from his research is that the British looked at the tribal belt solely from a military point of view, and the British policy was “demonstrably and patently incoherent, inconsistent and impulsive.” It was also “exploitative and tyrannical”, and therefore the British “remained at constant loggerheads with the tribes.”

This is a remarkable work in terms of the amount of research Bangash has undertaken. He tells us about the arguments that the Liberals and the Tories hurled at one another in the 19th century, the minutes the viceroys of India wrote, what the commanders of troops said to the political departments, what secrets were divulged in the letters of these dignitaries and what the Edinburgh Review said about the various developments. While he does occasionally comment on events and policies, and betrays a sense of his vindication when he finds A.H. Dani challenging the story that the Pakhtuns welcomed the British capture of Peshawar, or refers to Akbar S. Ahmed’s analyses, he leaves the readers free to come to their own conclusions to an extent unknown amongst academics. This valuable book of reference with extensive notes and a detailed bibliography should save many young scholars from delving into the pre-1947 shenanigans of the Big Powers at the cost of the tribal people.

This study relates to the tribal people’s tribulations from 1849 to 1914. Perhaps a sequel is necessary to determine why Pakistan chose to follow the colonial rulers’ policy towards the tribal areas. Why was it impossible, for instance, to follow viceroy Lord Minto’s idea of a “calm and serene penetration into the tribal territory”, and “the gradual absorption of tribal districts as the proper solution of our Frontier difficulties”?

The Frontier Tribal Belt: Genesis and
Purpose Under the Raj
By Salman Bangash
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199403417

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 28th, 2017