The western media says no country has ever conquered Afghanistan, but the fact they conveniently forget is that not too long ago the Indians conquered and ruled Afghanistan, an episode of history that is carved into the recesses of the Afghan mind.
If there’s one thing that the western media keeps parroting, it is the fairy tale that no power – from Alexander 2300 years ago to Britain in the 19th century or Russia 30 years ago – was able to conquer Afghanistan.
It reeks of ignorance, and reporters in western countries have exhibited a lot of that. Remember, this is the same bunch that swallowed the lie that al-Qaeda was getting help from Iraq, when in reality Iraq under Saddam Hussein was the most secular country in West Asia.
But how could experienced and Pulitzer Prize winning writers ignore facts? Don’t they have armies of researchers at their beck and call? Newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian have excellent research departments that can dig out the region’s history. But they haven’t, which makes you wonder if they are whitewashing the facts – excuse the pun!
The fact is that just 180 years ago Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), the Sikh ruler of Punjab, and his brilliant commander Hari Singh Nalwa, defeated the Afghans and the tribes of the Khyber Pass area. Had it not been for Ranjit Singh, Peshawar and the north-west frontier province of India (handed over to Pakistan in 1947 when India was divided) would have been part of Afghanistan today. Imagine an even bigger operating field for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But first a flashback to the past. Afghanistan had always been a part of India; it was called Gandhar, from which the modern Kandahar originates. It was a vibrant ancient Indian province that gave the world excellent art, architecture, literature and scientific knowledge. After Alexander’s ill-fated invasion in the 4th century BC, it became even more eclectic – a melting pot of Indian and Greek cultures, a world far removed from today’s Taliban infested badlands.
It was an Indian province until 1735 when Nadir Shah of Iran emboldened by the weakness of India's latter Mughals ransacked Delhi. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered in cold blood by the Persians. This was a highly opportunistic and reckless act because for the past 25 centuries India and Iran had respected each other’s borders, and though always a bit nervous of each other, the two empires never tried to subvert each other. But because of his greed Nadir Shah changed the equation. He annexed Afghanistan and asked the Indians to forget about ever getting it back.
However, Ranjit Singh was not prepared to play according to the Persian script. Nadir Shah’s successor Ahmad Shah Abdali had been launching repeated raids into Punjab and Delhi. To check this Ranjit Singh decided to build a modern and powerful army with the employment of Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Germans and Austrians. In fact, two of the foreign officers who entered the maharaja’s service, Ventura and Allard, had served under Napoleon. Says historian Shiv Kumar Gupta: “All these officers were basically engaged by Ranjit Singh for modernization of his troops. He never put them in supreme command.”
After conquering Multan in 1818 and Kashmir in 1819, Ranjit Singh led his legions across the Indus and took Dera Ghazi Khan in 1820 and Dera Ismail Khan in 1821. Alarmed, the Afghans called for a jehad under the leadership of Azim Khan Burkazi, the ruler of Kabul. A big Afghan army collected on the bank of the Kabul river at Naushehra, but Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and the Afghans were dispersed in 1823. Peshawar was subdued in 1834.
The Afghan and Pathans had always considered themselves superior to the Indians. They especially looked down upon Indian Muslims and contemptuously referred to them as Hindko. The fact that the Indians were superior in all respects – wealth, culture, literature, art – mattered little to them, as physical stature and lightness of skin was the only basis for this peacock-like strutting. Says historian Kirpal Singh, “The pride of the Afghans and Pathans was pricked for the first time as they had been defeated by the Sikhs whom they considered infidels. Undoubtedly, they were agitated and used to say Khalsa Hum Khuda Shuda (Khalsa too has become believer of God).”
So how did Ranjit Singh manage to conquer such fierce mountain people? Mainly by using a blend of sustained aggression latter soothed by Indian magnanimity. Of course, his biggest weapon was the scourge of the Afghans – Hari Singh, who in one battle defeated 20,000 Hazaras, the same people who are today tormenting American and European forces. To defeat the cunning and fierce Hazaras on their treacherous home turf was no mean feat but to do that with only 7000 men was the stuff of legend.
Indeed, Hari Singh had become a legend. He realised that to dominate the warlike tribes, the Sikhs had to give them the same treatment the Afghans had given the Indians in the past. Says Kirpal Singh, “Hari Singh set up a very strong administration in the Peshawar valley. He levied a cess of Rs 4 per house on the Yusafzais. This cess was to be collected in cash or in kind. For its realization, personal household property could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village which was not burnt. In such awe were his visitations held that Nalwa’s name was used by Afghan mothers as a term of fright to hush their unruly children.”
Though the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken, the region predominantly populated by turbulent and warlike Muslim tribes could not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there. A force of 12,000 men was posted with Hari Singh to quell any sign of turbulence and to realize the revenue. “The terror of the name of the Khalsa resounded in the valley,” says Kirpal Singh. “Part of the city of Peshawar was burnt and the residence of the governor was razed to the ground.”
Ranjit Singh ensured that the Afghans never again became a threat to India. These are the same people who massacred three British armies, and against whom the Americans and Pakistanis are now totally struggling. The wild tribes of Swat and Khyber were also tamed.
There are three reasons why Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory in Afghanistan and the northwest whereas the Western invasion is foundering.
Firstly, fierce tactics were followed by a period of liberal and secular rule. In fact, secularism was the defining character of Ranjit Singh’s rule. There was no state religion, and religious tolerance was an article of his faith. He refused to treat Muslims like second class citizens. Compare this with the strafing of wedding parties by US and European troops or the instance of Czech troops wearing Nazi uniforms.
When his victorious army passed through the streets of Peshawar, the maharajah issued strict instructions to his commanders to observe restraint in keeping with the Sikh tradition, not to damage any mosque, not to insult any woman and not to destroy any crops.
Two, like the NATO forces in Afghanistan today, Ranjit Singh’s army was a coalition too. The Indian king’s forces were made up of Sikhs and Hindus, while the artillery almost fully comprised Muslims (as the Sikhs and Hindus thought it below their dignity to serve in this new – and to them, non-dashing – wing of the military). Over half a dozen European nations are assisting US troops just as European specialists worked for Ranjit Singh. Also, perhaps for the first time in Indian history the Mazhabis, or 'untouchables', become a regular component of the army. (While betrayals, disunity and overconfidence had been the bane of Indian kingdoms throughout history, another key weakness was that only the warrior castes would do the fighting, which ruled out 80 per cent of others from fighting for their king. Even when in dire situations where tribes such as the Bhils were engaged to fight invaders, they were mostly given side roles.)
However, Ranjit’s Singh’s forces worked with one united purpose and that was to secure the empire. Today, the US is reluctant to do all the fighting, while the British forces are simply not up to the task of taking on the fierce Afghans, rely instead on bribes to keep away the Taliban fighters. Which Afghan will show respect such an opponent? The British, Ukrainians, Poles, Australians, Czechs, and a gaggle of over 40 nationalities are in Afghanistan only to curry favor with America and wrap up their respective free trade agreements. Nobody, it seems, has the nerve to take on the Afghans, except from 30,000 ft in the air.
Around 30 years ago, the Russian general Nikolai Ogarkov advised Leonid Brezhnev’s cabinet not to invade Afghanistan, saying that the country was unconquerable; today NATO generals are asking Barack Obama to get out of the place or else the Americans will have to leave in the same state as they left Vietnam – in their underpants. But 180 years ago the Indians showed how a mixture of ferocity, valour and empathy could tame Afghanistan. And that’s the third reason: at the end of the day, the Indians just did a much better job of fighting.
(About the author: Rakesh Krishnan is a features writer at Fairfax New Zealand. He has previously worked with Business world, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express, Delhi.)