The striking resemblance of Burnes’s account with Nawaz Sharif’s discourse is the prominence of trade and economic progress by advocating peace in the region
Ever since Nawaz Sharif assumed the office of Prime Minister (PM), he has been emphasising the need for redefining our regional policy. The PM’s recent goodwill gesture visit to Kabul reminded me of the visit of Alexander Burnes in 1837 to Afghanistan as a special envoy of the then British East India government. Reading history through archival records such as intelligence reports and official letters is an interesting and unbiased way of revisiting the past. I am sharing here the official correspondence that took place in the 1830s between Alexander Burnes, Afghan King Dost Muhammad Khan and the British government in India. Even though claims were made later that some notes might have been altered by the British bureaucrats, the letters, by and large, present a good insight into the state of affairs and anarchic situation that have usually characterised Afghan society. Burnes’s book Travels to Bokhara, detailing his exploratory visits from Lahore to the Khanates of Central Asia, was an instant hit, establishing his reputation as a respected explorer. The striking resemblance of Burnes’s account with Nawaz Sharif’s discourse is the prominence of trade and economic progress by advocating peace in the region. Those were the days when the so-called ‘great game’ had just begun due to the perceived expansionist moves by the then Russian, British and Persian empires.
The official letters are instructive in many ways besides helping us peep into the distant past. In the 1830s, Amir Dost Muhammad Khan was the ruler in Kabul. The exiled monarch, Shah Shuja, made an unsuccessful attempt in 1833 to reclaim his throne and was living as a British pensioner in Ludhiana. Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab, wrested Peshawar from the Afghan kingdom in 1835 and Dost Muhammad Khan was restless to regain it. Declaring himself a Ghazi and leading a jihadi lashkar (militia) against the Sikhs, he made an unsuccessful attempt at regaining Peshawar. When the Afghan Amir became aware of the arrival of Lord Auckland as Governor General (GG) in 1836, he wrote him a letter soliciting support for regaining Peshawar: “The late transactions in this quarter, the conduct of reckless and misguided Sikhs and their breach of treaty, are well known to your Lordship. Communicate to me whatever may now suggest itself to your wisdom, for the settlement of the affairs of this country that it may serve as a rule for my guidance. I hope your Lordship will consider me and my country as your own; and favour me often by the receipt of your friendly letters. Whatever directions your Lordship may be pleased to issue for the administration of this country, I will act accordingly.”
Auckland, in his reply, first exchanged pleasantries and then expressed a wish that every stakeholder, from invaders to internal reformers, has been expressing himself but to little effect: “It is my wish that the Afghans should be a flourishing and united nation, and that, being at peace with all their neighbours, they should enjoy, by means of a more extended commerce, all the benefits and comforts possessed by other nations, which, through such means, have attained a high and advanced state of prosperity and wealth.” Downplaying the tense relations with the Sikh kingdom, the GG advised the resolution of the issue through diplomatic means. The GG took the opportunity to invite the Afghan ruler’s attention to the commercial use of the River Indus. He informed the Afghan ruler that a special envoy would visit Kabul to discuss commercial relations further.
Burnes was therefore appointed for the expedition: “On proceeding to Peshawur and Cabol you will make inquiry into the present state of the commerce of those countries; inform the merchants of that quarter of the measures concerted, and officers employed, for the purpose of affording security on the Indus (river); encourage them, by all means in your power to conduct their trade by the new route…You will hereafter be furnished with a letter to Dost Mahomed Khan, stating generally the objects for which you are deputed, and soliciting for you friendly protection. From Cabol you will proceed to Candahar, where you will undertake the same inquiries, and invite the same cooperation in the plans in progress for the revival of trade. A flourishing commerce is supposed to have been formerly carried on between the Indus and Candahar, by several mountain routes, which are now shut; and it is requested that you will make inquiry regarding these routes, and the practicability of re-opening them.”
The East India Company had established an empire with many former kings, nawabs and rajas on its payroll. However, in matters of official spending the letter gives a good indication of importance of monetary discipline: “Your salary has been fixed at 1,500 rupees per mensem besides which, you are authorised to charge all the expenses which it may be necessary to incur on account of the Mission. It will perhaps be desirable that you should immediately procure from Bombay such articles as will be required to be given in presents to the different chiefs on your route. They ought not to be of a costly nature; but should be chosen particularly with a view to exhibit the superiority of British manufactures. It is requested that you will have a strict regard to economy in all your arrangements, which you will easily be able to do, as parade would be unsuitable to the character of a commercial mission.”
(To be continued)
The article was originally published in Daily Times on 21th Dec. 2013