The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is the official name of our neighbour. Given this perfectly clear name, I wonder why the mountainous province of Swat needed to more-or-less “secede” and establish an “Islamic state within a state”. A long time ago, Prince Hamlet warned us that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. If young Hamlet were around today, he would definitely point out to us that there is something strange in the state of Pakistan. The explanation for the present as so often happens, lies in the past.
Photograph: Sherin Zada / AP
The first thing to remember is that the benefits of the British Raj came late to the western extremities of the Indian empire. Swat was officially incorporated into the empire only in 1926 when a tribal chieftain was “conferred” the title of “Wali” by the then viceroy. Contrast this with Mysore, undoubtedly the best spot in India. We in Mysore gained entry into the noble edifice of the Raj as early as 1799. One can say that we had a 127-year lead in getting accustomed to the accoutrements of modern civilization such as habeas corpus and property rights. As recently as 1897, the British led a regiment of (you guessed it!) Sikh soldiers to attack the beauteous and murderous valley of Swat. A young lieutenant who participated in the expedition wrote a book titled The Story of the Malakand Field Force. He refers to the casual barbarism of the enemy who had no qualms about “slashing to death” an injured comrade of the lieutenant who was lying wounded and defenceless on the hillsides. The book has an ominous sentence when it talks about the expedition, which was costly in terms of both money and the lives of soldiers. “Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell.” The young writer went on to become famous. His name was Winston Churchill. Richard Holbrooke, pro-consul of the newly constituted Ameriki Raj, would do well to read Churchill’s book before embarking on quick moves which he may regret later.
The rulers of Swat before they were called “Walis” by the British, used fancier titles. They called themselves “Akhunds”, which apparently has a religious aura to it, or even “Badshahs”, which could actually translate into “emperors”. I am sure Rani Victoria and her heirs were not amused by these pretensions of the Sufi Pathan dynasty in the valley of the divine Suvastu (the Sanskrit name for the Swat river in the Rig Veda)! The British pretty much allowed the Wali to do whatever he wanted inside his domain as long as he did not send bandits and brigands into adjacent, “more settled” provinces. The Wali ruled his state according to the Shariah—but it was a particular kind of Shariah. He had a simple approach. According to him, the Shariah was pretty much what the Wali said it was. One Wali incurred the wrath of many devout Moslems when he arbitrarily invited Christian missionaries to set up a school and said that this was perfectly in accordance with the Wali’s view of the Shariah. Several British observers who had great admiration for “simple brave” Pathans as distinct from other effete inhabitants of the subcontinent were supporters of the Wali’s despotism. Martin Moore refers to administration “without superfluity of paperwork”. Peter Mayne refers to “benevolent autocracy”. It appears that despite his commitment to the Shariah, not many hands of thieves were amputated and hardly any adulterous women were stoned during the rule of the Wali.
In 1947, India was blessed with two outstanding visionaries in Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon. Because of these two tough, far-sighted individuals, the maharajas, nizams and nawabs of India were “integrated” using good old-fashioned armtwisting tactics. In Pakistan, in contrast, Swat and other states were left to continue with antiquated feudal systems. Half-hearted integration took place in 1969-70 primarily because president Yahya Khan had a score to settle with his predecessor Ayub Khan. Ayub Khan’s daughter was married to the son of the Wali of Swat and there were all kinds of personal angles involved. The people of Swat, or more correctly the men of Swat (no one knows the opinions of the women of Swat) have never been happy with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, due process and other such clumsy imperialist neo-colonialist ideas. They are in a sense defending their culture against the evils of globalization and Westernization, as my left-wing friends would argue.
Now the residents of Swat have an opportunity to “secede” once again and live under a contemporary “Akhund”. The real question is whether the bandits and brigands will stay inside their remote valley or venture forth into the surrounding plains. Will Holbrooke have to send in a new version of the Malakand Field Force? And if he does, would it be worth it?
Jaithirth Rao is an entrepreneur and writer. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org