The three exploitations

4Frontier

Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa

Given the crisis that Pakistan faces today, it is important that political analysts make an effort to understand in the light of scholarship the factors that have contributed to pushing the country to the brink. We tend to look at the contemporary situation, especially the interplay of political forces, and draw up conclusions that lead to “false analyses”, to use the words of the renowned author of The Taliban, Ahmed Rashid. In that context, Frontier of Faith by Sana Haroon, is a book that must be read. It will certainly add to the reader’s understanding of the north-western regions of Pakistan that have spawned the militancy and extremism that is the bane of the country today.

The author is an assistant professor at the IBA and this book is based on her doctoral thesis which she wrote at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The research for the book stops at 1950 and the Epilogue simply skims over selectively the events in the region covered in the last six decades. But as Haroon explains, she could not find any official records on the area in the post-1947 years. The British had maintained meticulous records of the lands they conquered. Our rulers, it appears, have excelled in covering up the tracks of their misdoings while the lives of people have not been documented at all. They were never considered important enough to be taken into account for policy-making.

This is an important book  for it shows how the tribal areas have been exploited thrice within the span of 150 years. Their inhabitants were manipulated by the imperialist rulers, the religious clergy from Deoband and the army of the newly created state of Pakistan. Small wonder they have not been able to pull themselves out of the oppression they have been consigned to. As Senator Afrasiab Khattak has pointed out, all societies have had tribal beginnings but the Pushtuns of the Tribal Areas have not been allowed to grow out of this state because of the circumstances they have been trapped in.

The British cleverly manipulated the native populations for their own narrow strategic reasons. They made Afghanistan a buffer in the Great Game that was being played out in Central Asia. The idea was to prevent the expanding Russian empire from touching the borders of British India. FATA was created as a second buffer between Afghanistan and the administered districts of India.

After the British empire had consolidated its hold over Punjab, Sindh and also the Pakhtun regions on the east of the Hindukush by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Tribal Areas were constituted as an autonomous zone. To justify the strategy of separating the highlands from the plains discourses were used to create the myth that the tribes in the Tribal Areas were sociologically distinct and also ungovernable. Even after the establishment of the North-West Frontier Province in 1901, the status of the Tribal Areas was never changed. It remains unchanged even today, in spite of the promises made by the government in Islamabad that the region would be integrated into Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa.

The British devised an easy and low-cost method of exercising control over this strategically important region without making massive investment of men and money to set up a local administrative and defence machinery. The tribal maliks and the mullahs received allowances from the Imperial rulers to act as their “eyes and ears” and perform the duties required of them – basically of maintaining law and order and raising levies in times of war. The social power and influence of the mullah network increased tremendously and served the British well by keeping the area largely peaceful. The illiteracy of the people facilitated the tightening of the grip of the religious functionaries over the region.

As a result of this pattern of control, a lot of mobilisation took place in the north-west frontier areas as many pirs and maliks raised their own lashkars and became powerful. Their autonomy in effect strengthened their hands as they became the dispensers of justice and the manufacturer of arms.

This situation paved the way for the second exploitation. Strong links came to be forged between the Tribal Areas and Deoband. The Darul Uloom which was trying to destabilise the British in India by launching an armed movement against them found it convenient to enlist the services of the tribals. They were specially chosen for mobilisation because such activities could be planned in the tribal areas without coming to the notice of the administration.

Then came the third exploitation when Pakistan inherited this autonomous status of the tribal areas in 1947. In the Epilogue the author shows that the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation that brought in Arab fighters into Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban created a close nexus between the clergy in the tribal areas, the Taliban, the clerics in the lowlands of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan.

This historical background helps explain why this region is what it is today. The dogmatic doctrines of the JUI leaders and the closed mindset of the Islamist parties operating there cannot change until this region is given exposure to forces of modernism.

Pakistan should have been able to see through this when the new state was born in 1947. Why it didn’t does not fall within the purview of Sana Haroon’s book. But it is widely known that the Pakistan Army, which has been the most powerful factor in running the state, found it convenient to take advantage of the situation it inherited. The Tribal Areas played a key role in triggering the first India-Pakistan war in Kashmir in 1947-9 when tribesmen crossed into the Valley. Thereafter these tribesmen have been pivotal to all conflicts Pakistan has been involved in.

Frontier of Faith: A History of Religious Mobilisation in the Pakhtun Tribal Area c. 1800-1950. By Sana Haroon. Publisher Oxford University Press, 2011. Pages 239. Rs595.

Source: Newsline February 2011