Jan 18, 2010

Not the whole story

Pakhtun history is mostly written by administrators and ethnographers of the colonial period

By Rafi Ullah

The Pakhtuns do not have their own version of history. Whatever we have about them is written by the outsiders. Who will contradict the inherent bias in such a record? The colonial portrayal of the Pakhtuns, such as violence and fanaticism, are crossed-examined vis-á-vis the local folklore with the stipulation that the latter presents the indigenous account of history. It seems advisable to keep our argument within the confines of the Anglo-Pakhtun wars. Pakhtun history is mostly written by administrators and ethnographers of the colonial period, most commonly called orientalists. They have made and, thus, based their viewpoints about the Pakhtuns on their personal experiences as representatives of the British Empire.

Charles Lindholm nicely explains this point, "… the image of the Pathan varied according to the vacillations of colonial policy. We may discriminate several views: the emissary/guest, represented by Elphinstone and Masson; the naïve imperialist view of Burnes; the treacherous and greedy portrait painted by direct administrators of the Forward Policy; the savage but honourable warriors seen by soldiers of the British army in the wars of expansion; the loyal and gentlemanly Pathans presented by the agents of indirect rule." (Frontier Perspectives: Essays in Comparative Anthropology)

These various pictures of the Pakhtuns by the colonial masters need to be put in proper context. If one seriously wants to understand the Pakhtun society, one must be careful in accepting the colonial writings as authentic. Lindholm further writes, "These pictures are drawn by distinct individuals, but they are also obviously a reflection of particular historical colonial situations."

What are these "particular historical colonial situations"? It is, candidly speaking, a vigorous claim to and belief in the spatio-temporal centrism of Europe. But one has every right to "question the prioritisation of any single centre…. There's no place outside ourselves, or outside whatever it is that we wish to study or move, that can serve as our foundation." (Beverley Southgate) Only belief in cultural irreducibility and de-centrism will help us in appreciating the Pakhtun society in its own right.

The Anglo-Pakhtun wars make an interesting but difficult area of study and research. The colonial masters found the Pakhtuns difficult to subjugate. The latter were decidedly ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of their freedom. They fought in the defence of their homeland. Of course, they were stern in resistance. But their resistance, although violent, cannot be directly attributed to their nature as is interpreted by the colonialists and orientalists. The Pakhtuns were not superstitious, fanatics, or warlike. They were clearer in their strategy and fought out of the spirit of freedom. Wars were imposed upon them. They were not, after all, aggressors. Pakhto tappa, a genre of folklore, testifies this argument.

They (the colonisers) fight in the heart of the village

Get up now you coward, so that I can gird your lions

The Pakhtuns are heroic but their heroism is generally construed in an inappropriate way. Professor A. H. Dani has also not dealt it in a just way. His analysis of the Pakhtuns is not something in which he approaches the development of civilisation in Gandhara (the land of the Pakhtuns). But, still, he seems nearer the point than the orientalists as he sees Pakhtuns' resistance to empire builders and aggressors out of their "sense of freedom".

Charles Lindholm, on the contrary, writes that, "when the Pathans were conquered, and the British attempted to show their mastery, a different aspect of the Pathan was revealed." He is of the view that the Pakhtuns' social system made them resolute to resist the British. This system, according to Lindholm, "operates for a balancing of parties. One is never defeated by the other". He further explains the Anglo-Pakhtun tension in the same way. "Two different systems of values were at complete loggerheads in this situation: the social lineage organisation with its intrinsic hatred of domination and its polity of individualism and betrayal, contra the British class system with its ethos of elitism and its values of fair play and cultural superiority."

Lindholm's analysis of the Pakhtun society is based on his approach and, therefore, hardly represents the insiders' perceptions and understandings. The Pakhtun society is, no doubt, egalitarian but it is by no means hostile to central authority. Pakhtuns like order and peace. They pay respect to their elders and leaders. Pakhto folklore testifies this view. No single evidence can be presented which is spoken out of contempt for authority and leader.

The pakhtuns wholeheartedly accept a person as their leader and consider acquiescence to him as obligatory provided he deserves the privilege. A tappa praises Ahmad Shah Abdali's leadership:

Sons may be borne by any mother

But very few will be borne to equal Ahmad Shah

A Pakhto couplet says:

Leadership is claimed by many

But a few deserve to have the honour

Pakhto folk poetry also disproves Lindholm's viewpoint that the Pakhtuns opposed the British in line with their social lineage system. The Pakhtuns resisted them as per their obligatory nang-e-Pukhtana which kept them uneasy with the aggressors.

The British's claim as the "harbingers of the benefits of civilizations" as well as their oppressive policies failed to awe the Pakhtuns. The latter, thus, remained involved in a series of imposed wars. This phenomena needs to be taken out of the established colonial frame of reference into a new discourse. It should no longer be dealt as something specific to the Great Game of nineteenth and twentieth centuries; rather it must also be approached as a people's history.

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