There are a slew of books on Afghanistan. Why did you choose to write Durands Curse?
Afghanistan is of episodic interest to historians. If there is a war, they spring forth to produce volumes. Even when historians engage, it is the ones from West whose version prevails. The few Afghan works are quickly consumed by the flames of the next war. There is hardly any Afghan record to go by.Everything suggested that the manner in which the Durand agreement was signed was a dark chapter in Afghan history. Was the Amir in his right senses or was he ill or drugged when he signed away his territory? Why was Salter Pyne knighted for his role in the signing of the agreement? All the previous books are silent on how and why it happened. Thats why Durands Curse was necessary.
What would you say about the tenacity of the Afghans?
Each great power, ranging from Alexander to Genghis Khan, the Mughals, the British, the Russians, the Americans and even a regional power like Pakistan has tried to conquer Afghanistan.But Afghans refuse to bend. That’s why Alexander had famously said: ‘May God keep you away from the venom of cobra, the teeth of tiger and the revenge of the Afghans’.
What were the facts that surprised you while researching for the book?
When I began researching for the book I was intrigued by the surreptitious manner in which the Durand agreement between British India and Afghanistan was signed in 1893. Yet, for such an important event, history books gloss over it.
Luckily, I chanced upon an intriguing personality called Salter Pyne, an English engineer employed by the Emir. By the time the Durand agreement was signed, Pyne was a powerful figure in Afghanistan, next only to the Amir himself. There was something dubious about the whole affair. What was Pyne’s role in the Durand Agreement and why did Amir Abdul Rahman sign off a huge chunk of his country without demur?
So research for the book was like solving a mystery or a puzzle. For instance, I found that the father of the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was a munshi in the Kabul court and the only non-British allowed to keep a record of discussions. Shortly after the Durand agreement was signed, he was told by the English in Kabul that his life was in danger. So he fled to India where he was promptly arrested by the British, ostensibly on spying charges. Was he, therefore, set up by his British colleagues to flee Kabul, so that he could be trapped in Lahore and those records could be seized from him? Oddly enough, he was released within a few days and went on to serve as Afghan Ambassador in London. Isnt that strange? Ordinarily no government would accept as an Ambassador a person whom they had arrested as a spy!
What was the role of the British like in Afghanistan?
The empire packed up, but it left behind the seeds of long-term discord. The British guiding mantra throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can best be summed up as, On principles there should be no compromise and on compromise there should be no principles.
To clarify, what it really means is this, where British interests are involved principles must be held supreme, but when it concerns the interests of others, principles could be given a wide pass by the British.
As rulers, the British whims set the rules.
Do you believe that today there are a significant Pashtun speaking population within Pakistan that really opposes the Durand Line?
We will be making a mistake if we say that map making is no longer possible. Kurds have been a part of Iraq for long years. Yet, over 90 per cent of them have recently voted for independence. Look at what happened to Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
In a different context could Brexit have been considered a serious outcome a few years ago. So public mood can swing to extremes. All it takes is a spark and a sense of injustice. Sadly, Pathans in Pakistan do not occupy the same pedestal as Punjabis do.
How do you see India’s role in Afghanistan?
New Delhi has been a steadying influence; not just in recent years but almost ever since Independence. We have built schools, hospitals, hydroelectric dams, highways and most importantly a sense of confidence among the people that India is a friend for all seasons and all reasons.
About the Interviewee: Rajiv Dogra is a writer, television commentator and artist. A career foreign service officer of the 1974 batch, he was Indias Ambassador to Italy and Romania, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations Agencies in Rome and the last Consul General in Karachi.
An active public speaker, Dogra is one of Indias foremost commentators on foreign policy and strategic affairs and is noted for his considered and assertive views. He is the bestselling author of Where Borders Bleed, regarded as one of the most authoritative books on IndiaPakistan relations.