History through the colonial Lensby Opinion Express April 5, 2019 0 comments
Popular culture, as opposed to books, has brought most people closer top real history. Rather than portray the commonality of Indians with Pashtuns, Kesari’s work imposes a White man’s reading of the past. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar’s latest film Kesari is about the Battle of Saragarhi, which was fought between 10,000 Afghani tribesmen and 21 soldiers from the 36th Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army (the colonial army which was different from the ‘Indian Army’ formed post independence). While the film highlighted Sikh valour, it showed how it never got its due as it served British imperial interests. In the process, it also played up the hostility between Sikhs and Pashtuns when fact is much of it was created and fomented by the British with both communities becoming pawns in the great Afghan game. In that sense, Kesari just ended up stereotyping a complex chapter of history.
Let us go back in time, to 1897. Following the decline and fall of the Sikh kingdom, which had extended till Afghan lands, the British took control of the three forts of Lockhart, Gulistan and Saragarhi. Between August and September that year, a general uprising of Pashtuns took place, wherein they attacked fort Gulistan which was repulsed. On September 12, an estimated 10,000 strong force of Pashtun tribesmen attacked Saragarhi. Despite repeated communications sent to fort Lockhart for reinforcements, none arrived. There were attempts to break open the gate but they were unsuccessful. Later, one of the walls was breached. What followed thereafter is considered by many as one of the fiercest hand-to-hand combats in history.
The battle was a result of some propaganda and a cry for autonomy. From time to time, mullahs (Islamic clerics) would incite Afghan tribesmen to wage jihad against the foreign occupiers. Saragarhi is situated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, which was known as the North-West Frontier Province during the British Raj. The area was considered as an occupied territory and till date, Afghanistan does not accept the borders the British drew through Afghan and Pashtun territories. Once the seat of the Gandhara civilisation, it had been predominantly inhabited by Pashtuns for thousands of years and not just the few centuries after the creation of the modern Afghan state by Ahmad Shah Durrani.
The Durand Line border drawn through the Afghan heartland is a colonial British creation. The film has a scene in which Havildar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar) laments that he and his men are a “slave Army” of the British. He doesn’t outrightly vilify the “other enemy” (Afghans). This reflects the dilemma of the Sikh soldiers, who are shown helping rebuild a mosque of the local Afghans and the Afridi tribal sardar (head) declaring that the pag (turban) of the Sikhs wouldn’t be desecrated. Later, that word of honour is depicted as broken. In an earlier scene, there is a depiction of a tribal jirga (panchayat) where a mullah sentences a woman to death by beheading for running away from the house of her husband to whom she was forcibly married. Ishar Singh intervenes and saves her. Here the “us” versus “them” narrative was built up, possibly drawing from a contemporary scenario of a society held together in fear by Taliban diktats.
Truth is there was also the modern way of life among the Pashtuns, a large number of whom were Left-leaning. The major party in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan, the Awami National Party (ANP), is a Left-leaning progressive party. The Afghan politicians, too, espouse the cause of women’s rights. Former Ambassador Rajiv Dogra, who has written a book, Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart, which talks about the Durand Line and British occupation of Afghan lands, says that we must not confuse a battle with the war. A movie on a specific battle will give the impression that the battle is greater than the war. The valour of the Sikh soldiers of the colonial British Army is unquestionable but it has to be seen in the larger context. The Afghan tribesmen were reacting to the British occupying their lands by forcing Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan to sign the Durand Line agreement.
Moreover, Sikhs and Pashtuns do have a cultural history of antagonism. But this was aggravated by the colonial masters for their own selfish ends. The Sikh empire’s writ didn’t go beyond Peshawar even when parts of Afghan territory were under its rule. There was a line that both sides didn’t cross till the imperialists played on the latent insecurities of each side, based on “otherness.” Human rights activist and advocate Tariq Afghan from Upper Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, argued that such stereotyping happens because of a colonial rendition of history. Otherwise, there could be a film on Khushal Khan Khattak, who fought against Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, he says. Khattak was a warrior, poet, writer, politician, tribal chief and a great military leader of that time. Why not glorify him as he was a strong liberal voice during Aurangzeb’s reign? Aurangzeb imprisoned him in the fort of Ranthambore.
He even feels that Indo-Afghan ties run deep because of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Frontier Gandhi), who was a close aide of Mahatma Gandhi and fought for the independence of the sub-continent. “In Pakistan, people call us Indian agents because we are the followers of Frontier Gandhi. Many books have been written by Indian authors on Ghaffar Khan but Bollywood has ignored him and his struggle. This is injustice against the Pashtuns who supported the Congress before Independence. It has a wider dimension than the battle of Saragarhi and could have had an epic reach in soft diplomacy,” he argues.
Indian soft power is projected across the world by Bollywood, which is immensely popular both in Afghanistan and the Pashtun belt of Pakistan. Most people — whether in India, Pakistan or Afghanistan — have a better sense of history through popular culture rather than through books. As such, Kesari only serves to pin the blame for British occupation of Afghan lands on hostilities between the two communities which were microscopic in nature but magnified by the imperialists. Such niceties of interpretation play a big role in cultural diplomacy and the easy stereotyping in Kesari certainly doesn’t attempt an objective assessment of realities.
(The writer is an independent journalist working on cyber security and the geopolitics of India’s neighbourhood, focussing on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Bangladesh)
Writer: AVEEK SEN
Courtesy: The Pioneer