Book Re­view: Du­rand’s Curse

RETELLING AFGHAN HIS­TORY

India Strategic - - CONTENTS - By Sapna Chand

ARE WE in South Asia his­tory neg­li­gent? This ques­tion comes up every time there is a ma­jor cri­sis or the bor­der heats up. Then, his­tor­i­cal prece­dents are dusted up to avoid re­peat­ing mis­takes of the past. But what good can such an ex­er­cise be if the his­tor­i­cal prece­dent it­self was drafted with an eye on the watch; to beat the dead­line.

Most other im­por­tant coun­tries value their his­tory; their past is well recorded. In con­trast our knowl­edge can be patchy. No won­der we in In­dia find our­selves at a loss when a sit­u­a­tion like Dok­lam crops up. The world knows the Chi­nese ver­sion, ad­mit­tedly ex­pan­sion­ist, but we do not have an al­ter­na­tive text to the so called 1890 treaty. Surely, his­tory in that cor­ner of the world did not be­gin in 1890, and it cer­tainly did not hap­pen then in the way Chi­nese in­ter­pret it.

Another part of the re­gion that has suf­fered enor­mously is Afghanistan. In 1893 an English­man duped the Afghan Amir into sign­ing blindly on a piece of pa­per. This man was the For­eign Sec­re­tary of In­dia, Mor­timer Du­rand. When he ar­rived in Kabul, he told Amir Ab­dur Rah­man: “The Gov­ern­ment of In­dia had de­cided that for the fu­ture (only) the Per­sian text of all com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween them and the Amir would be re­garded as bind­ing.”

Yet, a few days later, the Amir was made to sign only the English text of Du­rand Agree­ment, a lan­guage that he did not know. Con­se­quently Afghanistan lost 40,000 square miles of its ter­ri­tory. And, no one has ever writ­ten about it.

Du­rand’s Curse by Am­bas­sador Ra­jiv Do­gra is the first book to raise fun­da­men­tal ques­tions and pro­vide an­swers to that shock.

One of the mys­ter­ies is the phys­i­cal con­di­tion of the Amir. Was he in a fit con­di­tion to ne­go­ti­ate with Du­rand?

By avail­able in­for­ma­tion, the Amir was so ill by 1890s that he had to be car­ried ev­ery­where in a palan­quin. Dur­ing the more se­ri­ous at­tacks, he had fits and long pe­ri­ods of un­con­scious­ness. Th­ese at­tacks hap­pened be­tween the mid­dle of Oc­to­ber and the end of Fe­bru­ary.

Is it just a co­in­ci­dence that Mor­timer Du­rand should have ar­rived in Kabul in Oc­to­ber? Ap­par­ently, it was a wellplanned move by the Bri­tish who ruled and dom­i­nated much of Asia.

Am­bas­sador Ra­jiv Do­gra has spent hun­dreds of hours por­ing over records that had re­mained locked up so far. Pa­tient work en­abled him to piece to­gether this story and pro­vide clues to th­ese rid­dles of his­tory. The re­sult is a phe­nom­e­nal book.

By a sneak look that I could have, Am­bas­sador Do­gra’s Du­rand’s Curse reads like a thriller. He has cer­tainly the right cre­den­tials for it.

A vet­eran diplo­mat, he is cred­ited with some of the ma­jor for­eign pol­icy suc­cesses; from ini­ti­at­ing the idea of bring­ing Qatar gas to In­dia to ob­tain­ing the Aini Air­base in Ta­jik­istan. And he has the back­ground as a suc­cess­ful writer of both fic­tion and non-fic­tion and also hav­ing great friends like Gul­shan Luthra and joy­ous Prince of Dark­ness Anand Kala.

Un­for­tu­nately, the line that Mor­timer Du­rand drew across a small map in 1893 has bled the Pathan heart ever since.

Peo­ple on both sides of that line re­main rest­less, in Afghanistan and Pak­istan. They con­tinue to ask the ques­tion, why did

the Amir of Afghanistan sign the Du­rand agree­ment in 1893? What forced him to do so?

Th­ese and many other ques­tions have con­tin­ued to haunt gen­er­a­tions of Afghans.

Du­rand’s Curse may also re­veal a new di­men­sion to In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s role. Was Nehru also re­spon­si­ble for Pathan mis­for­tunes by not pay­ing at­ten­tion to their cause as the Bri­tish merged them into Pak­istan? At a meet­ing of the Cab­i­net on July 4, 1947, in the pres­ence of Mus­lim League’s Li­aquat Ali Khan, Nehru did make an at­tempt but was brushed aside by the Bri­tish. He had said: “...about a month ago the press and the Ra­dio in Afghanistan had started a cam­paign giv­ing promi­nence to Afghanistan’s in­ter­ests in the North West Fron­tier and the claim was made that Pathans were Afghans rather than In­di­ans and they should have the ut­most free­dom to de­cide their own fu­ture and should not be de­barred, as the pro­posed ref­er­en­dum would ap­pear to do, from de­cid­ing ei­ther to form a sep­a­rate free State or to re-join their mother-land, viz. Afghanistan.”

Sadly, he went on to add, “Th­ese claims had later been taken up on an of­fi­cial level with H.M.G. and the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia. The Gov­ern­ment of In­dia had re­futed this (as) ir­re­den­tist claim of Afghanistan to the area ly­ing be­tween the Du­rand line and the In­dus River, and had pointed out that the is­sue re­gard­ing an in­de­pen­dent Pathan State was a mat­ter en­tirely for the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia and the Afghan Gov­ern­ment had no lo­cus standi. H.M.G.’s Min­is­ter at Kabul had men­tioned the pos­si­bil­ity that the Afghan Gov­ern­ment’s ob­ject might be to di­vert pub­lic at­ten­tion in Afghanistan from the in­ter­nal eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion which was pre­car­i­ous.”

Was Nehru the his­to­rian, right in claim­ing that Pathans were not Afghans? Did this seal the fate of Afghans? Had Nehru said Pathans were Afghans, maybe the his­tory and car­tog­ra­phy of the re­gion would have looked dif­fer­ent. There are many such amaz­ing chap­ters of his­tory that Du­rand’s Curse tack­les, chal­leng­ing the con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive.

The ac­count put to­gether in the Du­rand’s Curse pro­vides an­swers and pre­sents a spell-bind­ing tale of in­trigue and who­dunit. Hope­fully, this will be the first step to­wards unit­ing the Pathan peo­ple and get­ting them their just due of a united Pash­tunistan.

The world owes it to them.

“The Gov­ern­ment of In­dia had de­cided that for the fu­ture (only) the Per­sian text of all com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween them and the Amir would be re­garded as bind­ing” – For­eign Sec­re­tary of In­dia Mor­timer Du­rand told Amir Ab­dur Rah­man

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