Book Review | Pashtuns: One race, two nations; a bloody present but proud past

The Asian Age.  | Indranil Banerjie

The book brings the reader up to date on the developments related to the Pashtuns both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Cover photo of 'The Pashtuns: A Contested History' by Tilak Devasher. (Photo by arrangement)

Pashtuns have been the subject of enquiry for many centuries now, chiefly on account of their warlike nature, refusal to accept foreign overlordship and incredible tenacity in the face of adversity. Starting from the Macedonian conqueror, Alexander, every invader has learnt the futility of any attempts to break the will of this fierce race. More recently, empires starting from that of the British in the 19th century have been defeated by the warlike Pashtuns. In the 20th century, it was the turn of the Soviets to be humiliated by the defiant Pashtuns and in this century, it was the mighty United States that was humbled by these same people. 

Not surprisingly, a mythology has been built up around the Pashtuns, a race that inhabits large parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have become famous as empire slayers and the Pashtun stands out as a poor but indomitable example of humanity. All this has naturally prompted an outpouring of literature on the Pashtuns, the people, their land and history.

Analyst and author Tilak Devasher is among the latest to wade into the subject of the Pashtuns. What makes his analysis and book different is his holistic approach to the Pashtun people. Previous writers, mostly Western ones, tended to make a distinction between the Pashtuns living in Afghanistan and those living in Pakistan. Some authors, the British, in particular, tried to make out that the Pashtun speaking people living in Pakistan were a race called Pathans while those living in Afghanistan were Pashtun.

This was a completely artificial and specious distinction that led to much error and a distorted view of Pashtun history as well as their contemporary political and geopolitical problems. Devasher clears this false distinction right in the beginning of his book and thus sets the stage for a true understanding of the Pashtun people.

The book begins with the famous quote by Khushal Khan Khattak, the national poet of Afghanistan: “Pull out your swords and slay anyone that says Pashtun and Afghan are not one! Arabs know this and so do Romans: Afghans are Pashtuns, Pashtuns are Afghans.

The author goes on to point out that there “has been a fair amount of confusion about the terms Pashtun, Pakhtun, Pathan and Afghan… Until the Sikh conquests in the nineteenth century and then the British Raj, the Pashtuns were politically united and part of a Pashtun empire that stretched eastwards as far as the Indus River. The Sikh seizure of the Pashtun lands and the bulk of the population between the Indus and the Khyber Pass, and its formalisation by the Durand Line Agreement with the British in 1893, was a devastating blow to the Pashtuns. After having lost a large portion of the Pashtun population, Amir Abdul Rahman expanded his empire northwards, making large non-Pashtun territories part of his empire. Thus, the nomenclature Afghan became a multi-ethnic identity rather than that of a single ethnic group. In the twentieth century, an Afghan law declared all citizens of Afghanistan as Afghan and so Pashtun came to be used more commonly describing the ethnic group instead of the earlier Afghan. In Pakistan, however, Pashtuns still refer to themselves as Afghans.”

Just as the British before them, the state of Pakistan has tried to justify the division of Pashtun lands and promote the fiction that Pashtuns living east of the Durand Line have a different history and ethnicity. The author argues that this has been the cause of lingering tensions. “A critical thread after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 has been the Pashtunistan issue,”  he writes. “The newly created state of Pakistan inherited the British territories and with it the issue of Afghan irredentism. The efforts of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to unite the Pashtuns at the time of the Partition of the subcontinent came to naught but it sowed the seeds of doubt amongst the Pakistani leadership about the loyalty of his followers. Post-Partition, several Pashtun-led Afghan governments, notably those of Mohammad Daoud Khan, intermittently raised the issue of Pashtunistan and about the validity of the Durand Line, and challenged Pakistan’s right to rule over its Pashtun areas.”

“For its part, Pakistan has worked systematically to overwhelm Pashtun impulses for Pashtunistan. This central thread has been one of the key drivers of Pakistan's policy towards the Pashtuns and its efforts to snuff out Pashtun nationalism and have a friendly government in Kabul has been mainly responsible for the current turmoil in Pashtunistan,” Devasher points out. Several chapters towards the end of this book detail how and why the effects of this impulse continue to cause unrest, violence and tragedy both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

The book is not a simple chronological narrative of Pashtun history. Rather, it is an attempt to describe the various facets of the Pashtun character, life, tendencies, history and so on, in order to explain why they remain a troubled people in a continually troubled part of the world. It also brings the reader up to date on the developments related to the Pashtuns both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pertinently, the book discusses the two main contemporary Pashtun political movements: the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  Here too, by viewing the Pashtuns as one undifferentiated ethnic group straddling two nations, Devasher’s book provides compelling insights into the tumultuous and often violent politics of today’s Pashtun lands. No South Asia watcher can afford to ignore this book.

The Pashtuns: A Contested History

By Tilak Devasher

HarperCollins India

pp. 463, Rs.799