Book Review: Durand’s Curse
RETELLING AFGHAN HISTORY
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