Nawaz Sharif in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes — II

December 31, 2013 at 08:15 , ,

Dr Haider Shah:


The Kabul ruler wanted the British government to use its influence in getting Peshawar province restored from Ranjit Singh while the British government desired that the Afghan ruler should establish friendly relations with Maharaja Ranjit Singh

History is a continuum linking the present to the past and its study is only beneficial when the analysis is free of personal prejudices. Instead of fictionalising history, it is therefore better that the characters of the past tell us their histories themselves. We gathered in Part I of this article that the Governor General (GG) deputed a special envoy, Captain Burnes of the Political Department, to Afghanistan to encourage trade and commerce in the region. Captain Burnes was warmly received by the Afghan ruler: “After the interview we were conducted by the ameer’s son to a spacious garden in the Bala Hissar, which had been prepared for us, and where we are now residing.” In a follow up letter, Burnes presents a detailed analysis of the origin of Persian influence and the role of the Shia Kizilbash community in the power structure in Afghanistan in order to assess the Persian threat.

In the wake of expansionist moves by the Persian Empire and later the Russian involvement in Persian and Afghan affairs, the East India Company government became apprehensive of the vulnerability of Afghan kingdoms to external influences owing to their internal feuds. Dost Muhammad, in a letter to his brother, the ruler of Kandahar, narrating the loss of Peshawar and threats to Kandahar, states: “These difficulties obliged us all to have recourse to the English, Persian and Tartar governments. It brought, at last, from the East the English Elchee, and from the West the Elchees of Persia and Tartary.” The political agent at Ludhiana, Captain Wade, also emphasises the internal fractured structure of Afghanistan and, referring to Dost Muhammad, states: “…had it not been for the arrival of the British mission, nothing could have saved him from the combination, which his brothers had formed to overthrow his authority. His sense of danger from internal enemies has made him anxious for the alliance of a foreign power, as his fear of the Sikhs.”

It appears that various Afghan rulers or warlords were mostly motivated by their own survival instincts, thus making the evolution of the modern Afghan state very difficult due to deep rooted ethnic and tribal divisions. In parleys with Burnes, the Kabul ruler and his counsellors went to the extent of suggesting that Ranjit Singh kept Peshawar rather than restoring it to its former governor Mahomed Khan. “…in seeking to keep the chiefs from being dependant on one another; you are certainly neutralising the power of the Afghan nation, and sowing the seeds of future dissension. Your object is to prevent harm; you will also prevent good. You will secure to yourselves the gratitude of Peshawer, of the Eusefzyes, the Khuttucks, and the tribes near the Indus; but as for myself, you open a new door of intrigue…I see injury to myself in Sultan Mahomed Khan, when restored to his chiefship of Peshawar.”

A discourse analysis of the correspondence brings forth the wide gulf that existed in expectations between the ameer and British government despite extensive use of sugarcoated lines in the letters. The Kabul ruler wanted the British government to use its influence in getting Peshawar province restored from Ranjit Singh while the British government desired that the Afghan ruler should establish friendly relations with Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Burnes mentions Dost Mohammad’s frank admission of his weak position against Ranjit Singh. The Kabul ruler woefully narrates the grand history of the Durrani kingdom and then “pointing to the house in which he sat, said, that this is the whole share of that vast empire that has fallen to me, and I cannot therefore be indifferent to the honour of having communication with an agent of the British government.” The wide gap between expectations finally resulted in the inevitable failure of Burnes’ mission. Auckland, the GG, without mincing words, made the British Indian government’s position very clear by addressing the Kabul ruler: “Should you be dissatisfied with the aid I have mentioned from this government, which is all that I think can in justice be granted; or should you seek connection with other powers without my approbation; Captain Burnes, and the gentlemen accompanying him, will retire from Cabool, where his further stay cannot be advantageous; and I shall have to regret my inability to continue my influence in your favour with the Maharajah.”

The presence of Russian agent M Vickovitch in Kabul, carrying his emperor’s letter of support, further fuelled British apprehensions about Afghanistan falling into the hands of the colluding Persian and Russian empires with the intent of entering India. Burnes summarised the demands of the British Indian government: “…just that it was now my duty to tell him clearly what we expected of him, and what we could do in return, You must never receive agents from other powers, or have aught to do with them, without our sanction; you must dismiss Captain Vickovitch with courtesy; you must surrender all claim to Peshawar on your own account, as that chiefship belongs to Maharajah Runjeet.” Dost Muhammad also responded candidly: “Mankind has no patience without obtaining their objects, and as my hopes on your government are gone, I will be forced to have recourse to other governments. It will be for the protection of Afghanistan, to save our honour, and, God forbid, not from any ill design towards the British.”

The failed mission paved the way for the first Afghan war, which will be discussed next and conclusions drawn by linking the present with the past.


The article was originally published in Daily Times on 28th Dec. 2013
Part I | (To be continued)

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