Since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, India and Afghanistan, except the Taliban era, have had warm ties. Opposition to Pakistan is the main reason why the two countries have maintained cordial relations (even though Afghanistan remained neutral in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars).
In both India and Afghanistan, more especially and frequently in Afghanistan, talk of a long historical relationship between the two countries is very common. In that spirit, centuries’ long invasions from or through present-day Afghanistan into India or vice versa receive little or no attention.
More importantly, little thought is given to what course Indo-Afghan relations would have taken, had British India not been divided. In other words: Would India and Afghanistan have had as close a relationship as they do today, had Pakistan not been founded?
In 1893, the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and the British Indian Foreign Secretary Sir Henry Mortimer Durand signed an agreement in Kabul to delimit “the frontier of Afghanistan on the side of India,” as well as to fix “the limit of their respective sphere of influence.” With the passage of time, the delimited “frontier” is commonly referred to as the Durand Line.
Even though subsequent Afghan rulers such as Amir Habibullah Khan, King Amanullah Khan, and King Nadir Khan renewed the “frontier” agreement with the British, most Afghans have seen the agreement as temporary, and void as soon as the British left.
It is because the line divides families and tribes which were part of Afghanistan in their entirety before the 1893 agreement. Under that impression, in July, 1947 Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmoud Khan’s government laid Afghanistan’s first claim over Pashtun territories in British India, which according to the Mountbatten Plan (or 3 June Plan) were destined to become part of Pakistan. Whether Afghanistan’s claim is valid or not is out of the scope of this writing.
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When the Mountbatten Plan was put into action, Pakistan inherited the Durand Line from the British. As such, Afghanistan and Pakistan couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start in their bilateral relations. Few months into Pakistan’s creation, Afghanistan was the only country that cast a “No” vote against Pakistan’s United Nations membership.
Since then, relations between the two countries have been tense (save the Taliban era, which is also debatable). It is worth mentioning that Afghanistan still hasn’t recognised the Durand Line as an international border with Pakistan. To garner domestic support, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai would from time to time bring up the Durand Line issue and Afghanistan’s refusal to accept it as an international border.
India would have replaced Pakistan
With this in mind, if India had not been divided, the post-1947 Indo-Afghan relations would have had the same trajectory as have Afghan-Pak relations since. In other words, India, instead of Pakistan, would have inherited the Durand Line, with all its controversies.
It is tantamount to a fantasy to believe that India would have relinquished control (and sovereignty) of Pashtun-majority areas in India over which Afghanistan has territorial claims. There is evidence for this statement.
A year before India’s partition, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a tour of the Pashtun tribal belt in northwestern India. In addition to trying to counter Muslim League efforts, Nehru made an attempt to convince tribal Pashtuns to cast their lots with a united India, but to no avail.
Nehru saw in the strategic passes of the Pashtun areas a security insurance in the face of a northern invasion (probably from the Soviet Union). Past these strategic passes and mountains, laid the flat lands of the Punjab and the road to Delhi was open. Under no circumstance Nehru or any other Congress leader would have been prepared to meet Afghanistan’s demands.
According to the British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann, Nehru was not willing to come to terms with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue because of Kashmir’s terrain and strategic mountain passes (see Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of An Empire). After Nehru lost the NWFP in a referendum to Pakistan, he was bent on keeping Kashmir for India.
Consequently, Afghanistan’s relations with an undivided India would have been on a collision course from day one. After losing a greater part of its population and trans-Indus territory to the British in the previous century, Afghanistan would not have been in a position to force India’s hand.
To conceal its weakness vis-à-vis a Hindu-majority India, Afghanistan would have invested in the propaganda machine—exactly what it did against Pakistan. Although the process has been checked lately, stereotyping Hindus is common in many parts of Afghanistan.
It is widely believed that Hindus are 'unbelievers' and thus cowards, and that 'one Muslim can overpower seven Hindus'. Another popular example is referring to Hindus as 'mis’keen' (poor), not because they are poor, but because they lack 'imaan'.
Ironically, many of the notorious figures in the eyes of India’s Hindus (especially Hindu extremists) are revered in Afghanistan. For instance, Mahmud of Ghazni and Ahmad Shah Durrani are among a bunch of rulers and invaders who are widely respected for their invasions of India.
Zaheer ud-Din Mohammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, who in his memoirs never hesitates to hide his distaste of India, its food, weather and customs also enjoys some degree of scholarly and popular support, especially among ethnic Uzbeks.
Glorifying these Indophobes’ achievements and demonising Hindus would have been a fertile ground for invoking anti-India sentiments against an undivided India.
Afghanistan’s Pashtun card
Afghanistan could also have instigated Pashtun tribal unrest in an undivided India. From 1893 to 1930 (and to a lesser extent to 1947), Afghanistan provided safe havens and at times weapons to Pashtun guerilla fighters fighting the British in India.
Despite repeated British requests, Afghanistan would refuse to take action against Pashtun tribesmen who entered Afghanistan after attacking British or pro-British elements in India. Afghanistan could have continued to do so, had India not been divided.
In undivided India, like British India, Muslims would have been a minority, and it would have been easier for Afghanistan to incite or encourage violence among the Pashtuns in the name of religion or freedom from unbelievers. After Pakistan’s founding, and given that the Pashtuns either through referendum or tribal jirgas joined the new state, Afghanistan could no longer bank on inciting religious violence.
More importantly and surprisingly, undivided India would have created a big rift between Indian (and later Pakistani) Pashtun nationalist leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close friend of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s who campaigned for a united India, and Afghanistan.
Today, Khan is widely respected in Afghanistan primarily because of his Pashtun nationalist and anti-Pakistan sentiments. However, had India not been divided, he would have been looked down upon in Afghanistan, because he didn’t want a “greater Afghanistan,” which would include all Pashtun majority areas in Pakistan.
To clarify, there is no recorded statement available that Khan wanted Indian Pashtuns to join Afghanistan. Initially, he wanted a united India. When he failed, he wanted autonomy for the Pashtuns of Pakistan.
Today, his grandson and successor Asfandyar Wali Khan has given up those fantasies and is leader of the mainstream Awami National Party in Pakistan, the main opposition party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
One could argue that, based on available historical facts, Afghanistan and India would have had a tense relationship had a united India emerged out of the ashes of the British Raj.
India would have been painted in Afghanistan as a usurper of Pashtun lands. This rhetoric from Afghanistan and India’s response to it would have seriously questioned the basis for any historical relationship arguments.
If anything, Afghanistan and India share conflicting narratives of centuries of invasions and conquests. Afghanistan, however, did have warm relations with India’s Muslims. But a majority of those Muslims today live outside of India, either in Pakistan or in Bangladesh. Those who remain in India are not considered loyal Indians by Hindu extremists anyway, and are subjected to discrimination and harassment from time to time.
The current close state of affairs between India and Afghanistan is mainly due to opposition in both countries to Pakistan—to an extent to the country's existence and to an extent to some of its policies. As soon as the status quo changes in South Asia, we will witness estrangement between Afghanistan and India.
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