Why was the North-West frontier of India the scene of so much conflict in the period 1849-1901?

The North-West Frontier of India was a theatre of intermittent fighting between the forces of the British Empire and the local tribesmen throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. There is no single factor that can explain the prevalence of this warfare, and recent post-modernist historiography seems unlikely to assist in unravelling the issue. Our best chance seems to lie in trying to understand the characteristics of the terrain, the inhabitants, and the strategic situation that prevailed on the Indian borders.

The British collectively named their adversaries on the frontier as Pathans, although the myriad clans and sections that made up the population were often divided amongst themselves and enjoyed quite distinct identities. The British portrayal of these differences was often expressed in terms of their clan characteristics, such as their duplicity, or their propensity for collaboration. Thus the Afridis of the Khyber Pass area were regarded as amongst the fiercest of the tribesmen; they 'were the most to be dreaded' according to Charles Masson in the 1820s. (1) The Wazirs and the Mahsuds of the region known as Waziristan were in their turn likened to the panther and the wolf by the former Frontier officer, Olaf Caroe, " the panther is slyer, sleeker and has more grace, the wolf pack is more purposeful, more united and more dangerous." (2) But the tribes were united in two important respects. First, they shared a deep faith in Islam and in their tribal code of honour, the latter known as Pakhtunwali. Second, they enjoyed a strong sense of independence, and were prepared to defend their way of life by force. In this resistance to outsiders and the alien faith of the British, they were assisted, it could be argued, by the physical features of the landscape. The mountainous terrain of the entire region and the harsh climatic conditions tended to neutralise the effect of European technology, weapons and communications which had enabled the British to defeat other colonial adversaries across the globe. However, it should be pointed out that this generalisation seems less valid when one remembers that many of the colonial campaigns that the British fought in the second half of the nineteenth century were conducted under difficult physical conditions. Therefore, it is likely that there is no single explanation for the near continuous conflict on the frontier in this period.

Post-modernist views have recently shaken up the academic discipline of history, and a glance through the articles of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History will reveal a plethora of learned debates which seek to re-examine many aspects of South Asian history. Few have yet tackled the North West Frontier, but there is every expectation that it cannot be far away. An understanding of the methodology of the post-modernist approach can help to trace the angle of attack. The argument would be that it was the failure of the British to crush and incorporate the tribes of the frontier, as they had elsewhere in India, that led to perpetual fighting. Using the model of Orientalism first posited by Edward Said in 1978, the argument runs that was the failure of the empire to fully 'know', or understand its adversary, which is so evident in the literature of the period, and which explains the failure to fully annex the frontier. (3) For Said maintained that a 'discourse' was invented by Europeans about the people they governed, a discourse which often bore little resemblance to the real Orient, which not only reflected the power Europeans had over their subjects in a physical sense, but also kept Orientals in a state of servitude, even when naked force was not evident. Hence Indian officials felt inferior and consequently behaved in a subordinate way. On the frontier, they would state, the British failed to really establish this discourse and the tribesmen remained an enigma to them. Unable to fully 'know' them, they failed to conquer them. Conveniently, a politically correct history is thus established. The frontier tribesmen is transformed from subject of the empire and its armies of academics, to the victorious freedom fighter against oppression.

However, these post-modernist devices seem unconvincing in the cold reality of the actual history of the frontier. The frontier officials found the tribesmen behaviour initially incomprehensible, and their 'discourse' really acknowledged the fighting prowess of the tribesmen irrespective of their desire to dominate them. Later accounts show a remarkable sympathy for the Pathans, and praise for their courage, if a little caution about their loyalty when serving closer to their homeland. The deep respect which so many British frontier guardians had for the Pathans, not unlike the enduring respect for the Brigade of Gurkhas, makes the accusations of the post-modernists nonsensical if not downright misleading.

Although there was respect for the martial prowess of the Pathans, the fighting qualities of the tribal lashkars (war parties) were in fact quite variable. In ambushes, and in short charges, the devoted Islamic warriors, the Ghazis, were formidable. They believed they would be protected by Allah even in death, and if death came at the hand of an infidel, then they would directly enter paradise. It was this conviction which enabled them to sustain relatively high casualties. However, tribesmen lacked the ability to sustain operations in the field. The demands of agriculture, particularly at harvest time, could cause lashkars to melt away. Weather conditions forced the war parties in the Dargai area to break up even through a British force had entered their territory. The independent, or disunited, character of the tribesmen could attract participation from enthusiastic volunteers, but equally each man could decide not to fight. As a result, the guerrilla style of fighting was most prevalent. This tended to evolve into a form of warfare that was difficult to control or conclude. British forces realised that whilst it was easy to defeat a defined force in the field, combating guerrilla opponents was a more challenging task. Tribesmen engaged in sniping, night raids, hit and run attacks on picquets and firefights against withdrawing columns.

The terrain suited this form of warfare. The Tirah Maidan area, for example, remained terra incognita to the British even though it lay only 30 miles from Peshawar, the most important frontier town. This mountain fastness was protected by natural ramparts and it was only penetrated during the operations against the Afridis in 1897-8, having remained inviolate throughout the nineteenth century. British and Indian troops developed a style of warfare suitable to meet the challenge of mountain guerrillas and the formidable terrain. 'Crowning the heights' became a vital pre-requisite for any force attempting to push its way through the hills, and light infantry tactics with close artillery support became the norm. Tim Moreman believes this evolution, although regarded as exceptional by the mainstream of military thinkers, was actually ahead of its time. (4) Moreman concludes that the British and Indian Army's troops became highly proficient when experienced on the frontier, and British officers believed postings to the frontier were far more favourable to the heat and boredom down on the plains. With relatively low casualty rates, and the prospect of promotion of decorations, it is not difficult to appreciate the added attraction to eager young officers.

The ardour for combat for the tribesmen was no less keen. The tribesmen were devoted to Islam, but added a 'fifth pillar' to their faith; the Jehad Fredrick Barth's anthropological research concluded that older, folk values survived alongside Islamic teaching. (5) When conflict arose between true Islam and the local desire to inflict revenge on a neighbour, for example, tribesmen would profess their faith, but plead that doctrinal purity was the concern of the mullah (priest). The mullahs were an integral part of the tribal community, and wielded influence in proportion to their charisma. In communities without maliks (headmen), or without strong leadership, the rhetoric of the clerics could have considerable effects. In the village Jirgah (Council), the body which decided whether the tribesmen would fight or not, the intervention of a mullah could be decisive. His demands for the tribesmen to honour the obligations of their religion, and the immutability of his references and exhortations from the Quran, could only be avoided with difficulty. Once moved by the clerics, and convinced that death would ensure immortality, the tribesmen were in possession of a fighting zeal it was hard to defuse. On the other hand the 'Hindustani Fanatics' of the Black Mountain failed to appear in large numbers during the campaign of 1888, even though mullahs had attempted to mobilise the tribesmen of the whole area.

Conversely in the 1897-8 Pathan Revolt, where as many as 30,000 Pathans rose up against the British, the reasons the Afridis later gave for their participation included concern about a taxation on salt, anger that Afridi women fled the hills for the British Punjab, and because the mullahs had led them against the British (6) The mullahs were not above making some wild claims, including the promise that British bullets would turn to water, which led to explanations on the British side that they were dealing with fanaticism.

Local custom also had a part to play in encouraging resistance. Slights against a family, section or clan could lead to long-term feuding since personal nam (honour) demanded satisfaction. Murders were met with murders, even if years elapsed between them. Actions by the British which resulted in casualties might serve only the fuel the desire for badal (revenge). Equally, local custom was jealously preserved. Many felt anxious that the British intended to remove their independence. The British built roads and telegraph lines across the frontier to improve communications, increase contact with civilisation, which would in turn, they reasoned, pacify the unruly tribes. In fact, the tribesmen felt that the construction of roads into their homelands was evidence of the infidels' desire to change their lives, seize their lands, overthrow their religion and even steal their women. One rumour related to Dr Theodore Pennell, a missionary doctor at Bannu, was that the British sought only to take the milk from the breast of their women and carry them away to England. The threat to their lands, way of life, and womenfolk, seemed real enough to merit fighting the British. Fear of annexation, therefore, fuelled resistance.

The fact that the British did not annex the frontier regions, in the same way as the rest of India, at first sight seems anomalous. The frontier, although inherited after the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, did not fully incorporate the tribal highlands until 1893, after an agreement between the Secretary of the Foreign Department of the Government of India, Mortimer Durand, and the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan. The intervening period of unwillingness to take full control of the region can really be explained in terns of cost. The occupation and garrisoning, not to mention the development of a marginal and mountainous area, gave the Government of India cause for concern. Indian states had been annexed, or incorporated in the Raj, as complete administrations. But the frontier tribesmen barely recognised any authority above the level of the village Jirgah, and to the British, this 'anarchy' seemed unattractive, particularly as the region was sparsely populated and possessed few valuable resources. Yet it would be misleading to say that no areas were under British 'informal' influence or that no annexations took place. Despite the claims by Afghanistan that the Pathans were 'their' people, the British held the Khyber Pass and the vale of Peshawar. Quetta, the Gomal and Bolan valleys, the Kurram valley and the Peiwar Kotal Pass were also in British hands. In 1895, they added Chitral to their possessions. The motive for these take-overs was strategic. The British selectively seized valleys adjacent to passes of military value and thereby secured the routes into India. Three was a determination not to let the passes fall into the hands of the Afghans or the Russians, the latter having annexed most of Central Asia by 1893.

There were other reasons for conflict which the tribesmen themselves generated, and which historians who sympathise with the tribesmen would find difficult to acknowledge. There can be little doubt about the hundreds of records which testify to the trouble-making of individual leaders, or criminals, or of livestock raiders. The Khan of Hangu was an example of the opportunism that could lead to violence. The Khan was acting as an Arbab (middleman) for the distribution of subsidies, a system of rewards for good conduct and loyalty to the Raj. He pocketed the money for himself, and then roused the tribesmen to revolt by claiming the British would no longer pay them. The British responded by crushing the unwelcome resistance, and suspended the subsidies. But criminals could also prove a source of trouble. Fleeing beyond the British Administrative border, the fugitives enjoyed the sanctuary of the tribesmen, since a local code of Pakhtunwali demanded that any visitor be sheltered and given melmastia (hospitality). The culture of raiding the livestock of other tribes and the lowlanders also led to trouble. On the plains and in the British administered areas of the hills, villagers needed the support of the local armed constabulary or the Indian army. Raiding parties were always armed and could reach considerable numbers. A pursuit and a skirmish was often the result, and persistent raiding, rebellion and assassination could lead into a full blown punitive expedition. Identifying individual raiders was often impossible, and the community could police its own hotheads if they were made collectively responsible. Punishment could take several forms, the cessation of allowances, the imposition of a fine, the demand for the surrender of weapons, through to the more extreme incendiarism of properties, the destruction of crops, orchards and livestock.

Above all, the decision to annex or ignore certain tribal lands was made for strategic reasons. The concessions granted to the Afghans in 1893 along the North-West Frontier were a necessity and a response to the concessions made by the Afghans to British interests in the Pamirs. In order to prevent the Russians from absorbing all the Pamirs up to and including the passes of the Hindu Kush, and thus into India, Durand had to convince the Afghans to relinquish their territories in Roshan and Shignan, and accept ownership of the Wakhan Valley, Having had a detachment wiped out by the Russians at Somatash, the Amir Abdur Rahman, was unamused by the prospect of defending the narrow strip of the Wakhan Valley, Nevertheless he consented, and in return Durand trod more carefully with the less strategically vulnerable western frontier between India and Afghanistan. The border that was established cut across some tribal lands, and caused several disputes, and is through to have contributed to the outbreak of the Pathan Revolt of 1897.

In conclusion, the post-modernist interpretation would seem to have a limited scope in the study of conflict on the North West Frontier. The causes of war are never easily explained, but perhaps, based on a culture where fighting is acceptable, and a climate of external uncertainty and domestic crises, a well to resolve disputes by recourse to arms is paramount amongst them. (7) On the frontier, strategic concerns clashed with the lack of political will to take over the expense of the whole border area. It was difficult to ignore challenges to the Raj which the disorder of tribal raiding represented, and punitive action was the result. The terrain was exceptionally difficult, and the special qualities of guerrilla warriors often served to prevent a final conclusion to the problem. For the tribesmen a form of Islamic fundamentalism and a fear of annexation drove their resistance. After the Pathan Revolt, Curzon withdrew the garrisons that were scattered across the frontier, confident that troops could be deployed rapidly in the case of an external threat by Russia, and mindful that better relations with the tribes could be achieved by minimal interference. Punitive operations were still carried out, but greater co-operation developed often in the form of employment, and particularly in the Indian Army. Strong connections developed in some cases, between British 'Political Officers' and the people they supervised. Even closer bonds were established between the Pathans and their British Officers in the Indian Army. The positive outcome of the years of frontier wars was, therefore, that thousands of Pathans served with great loyalty and devotion in the formations that fought alongside the British in the Great War.


(1)Victoria Schofield, Every Rock, Every Hill (London 1984) p138

(2) Cited in ibid, p142

(3) Edward Said, Orientalism (London 1978)

(4) T.R. Moreman, The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare 1849-1947 (London 1998) pxxii

(5) Fredrik Barth, Political Leadership among the Swat Pathans (London 1959)

(6) R.O. Christiansen, Conflict and Change among the Khyber Afidis and Tribal Policy 1839-1947 unpub. PhD, University of Leicester, 1987 p.110

(7) Jeremy Black, Why Wars Happen (London, 1998)

 Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen' Issue 97

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