COMMENT: The inheritance of loss? —Nazish Brohi
Courtesy to "Daily Times"

What has been lost in this narrative is that the Fakir of Ipi first took up arms against the Raj not to fight against their presence but because the colonial administration decided to forcibly return a girl to her family after she had run away and married a man of her choice

In the debate on militancy in the tribal areas, most of the happily-ever-after formulas resort to arguments of cultural relativism, pulsing with a heart of darkness vibe, centring on the Pashtuns being fierce warriors never subdued by colonisers, possessively autarkist, and part of the area that proved to be the ‘graveyard of empires’.

It may be useful to denaturalise the notions of tribal masculinity, and understand the ‘bearded, turbaned, ruthless and brave warrior’ image as gendered, and as constructed. In fact, there is a cheek-biting irony to upholding the image of tribal warriors as resistance to imperialism, as the image is itself a construction of the British colonisers.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) provide a study of how social construction landscapes a field by selecting and rejecting existing and new material to recreate the indigenous. In this case, the result was the making of a geographic space inhabited by warring tribes into a political space for the production of global warriors.

In the Great Game between the British and the Russian Empires, Afghanistan was the buffer, and the tribal areas the safety valve. The ‘wild lands’ were maintained as much by imagery as by battle. The image of wild, indomitable, fierce Pashtun tribesmen, challenged colonial officers to ‘prove their mettle’ and the frontier was where reputations of bravery and careers were made, from Churchill to Mountbatten.

This excitement of the ‘worthy opponent’ is reflected in Alfred Lyall’s poem, titled ‘The Old Pindaree’:

“And if I were forty years younger, with my life before me to choose,

I wouldn’t be lectured by Kaffirs, or bullied by fat Hindus...

But I’d go to some far-off country where Musalmans are still men...”

The Pathan was an idealised alter ego, the half-barbarian warrior lurking in the self of every British officer. Rudyard Kipling in his poem ‘The Ballad of East and West’, envisioning a standoff between a British officer and a Pathan horse thief, writes:

“They have looked each other between the eyes and found no fault...

They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod

On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber Knife and the Wondrous names of God.”

Yet the tribal warriors chose not to battle against the colonial rulers alongside the rest of India in the 1857 War of Independence, which was the first strong resistance since the British conquest. Instead of this, either lessening their perceived invincibility as warriors or being ‘feminised’ as with the Bengalis who issued a political challenge, they were dubbed as one of the ‘martial races’. Indians who were intelligent, educated and politically engaged were defined as cowards, while those defined as brave were uneducated and backward. By 1914, three quarters of the native infantry was composed of the martial races, and the army’s use of the martial race language with its attendant expectations of valour and loyalty co-opted men into behaviours that ultimately served the state.

Even during the British colonial administration, there was a recognition that these accounts of ‘indomitable, independent warriors’ was a myth. C E Bruce, an officer deputed to Waziristan, wrote in 1938, “For the government to pretend that there is any question of maintaining the independence of tribes is a fiction that cannot pass with honest men...Both economically and in every other way, they are dependent on us...”

That the tribesmen were fighters par excellence was widely acknowledged in British India. In current day Pakistan, guns are declared as the ‘jewels of the Pathan, to be displayed with pride’, and an essential form of their identity and self-statement. Jules Stewart notes in Khyber Rifles, “The Pathan tribes loved nothing better than gun battles...this was their overriding passion — to shoot somebody.”

Yet before the colonial ‘penetration’ of the tribal areas, the Pathans never had guns. They used knives and locally manufactured matchlock jezails (a kind of a musket). These rudimentary weapons were initially wielded against other warring tribes of the area, or for conducting raids into the settled districts, and could not be used against any other better armed force. Modern weapons were acquired by the tribes through an illicit trade in weaponry between British troops, Indian Sepoys, government officials and arms dealers in cantonments across India that continued for over 30 years till in 1898, the North-West Frontier Arms Trade Committee conducted an exhaustive enquiry. A member of the Committee, Colonel Hill concluded, “The most important supply of ammunition to the frontier tribes is that derived from our own regiments.” The Committee’s testimony stated that it was the arms race to keep up with other European armies and their acquisitions that makes the army replace the arms and discard previous weaponry, which found passage to the Frontier through the Raj administrators. So the tribes were armed by a profiteering imperial administration, the troubadours of which then glorified the armed warriors as worthy wielders.

Understanding that the processes of magnification of the tribal image resonated with political interests, can be aided by looking at what has been left out. For instance, one of the most famous historic warriors who fought the British was Mirza Ali Khan, a Tori Khel Waziri Pashtun, a mastermind general of uprisings and a tactician who led the British army in wild chases in the region and was never caught. He was the Fakir of Ipi.

Recently, he has been cited as a precursor of the Taliban leadership, a hero who valiantly fought for the cause of religion. What has been lost in this narrative is that the Fakir of Ipi first took up arms against the Raj not to fight against their presence but because the colonial administration decided to forcibly return a girl to her family after she had run away and married a man of her choice. She belonged to a Hindu family but converted, and came to the Ipi Faqir for protection. The Fakir renamed her Islam Bibi, making the battle for a woman’s right to choose into a symbolic battle for Islam itself. His fight for Islam is remembered; the fact that Islam was a woman is forgotten. So though the Fakir was the quintessential tribal guerilla, women choosing their own marriage partners continued to be seen as an aberration incompatible with tribal traditions.

To point out that a tradition has been invented does not invalidate its current relevance or reality. It does however corrode the fatalism that underlines the tribal question. Examining tradition and culture as a phenomenon of transmission allows a gateway to other possibilities.

The Imperial gaze, Medusa-like, led to an ossification of the tribal identity. The covenant was left untouched by the Pakistani state after independence when the tribal agencies signed an Instrument of Accession in return for continued allowances and subsidies. The grounds for protecting this status quo were ‘customs and norms’.

Post-independence, the state relied on Islamic rhetoric to combat Pakhtun irredentism, whereas ironically Islamic militancy is now perceived by many as a Pakhtun intifada, while the militants themselves are attacking the bastions of Pakhtun male culture: the hujra, the mosque and the jirga.

Orientalist scholar Grima writes that sharing tales of misfortune and narrating despondency (gham) is the ritual and culture of Pakhtun women. As a culture of war was created and perpetuated, a culture of mourning and the romanticism of suffering took root. Now both are an industry.

Nazish Brohi is a social activist and an author. She can be reached at