Welcome return of the Pathan


My childhood Kabuliwala was not trapped in the pages of a book or rolls of a film. We lived in Old Delhi, in a small bylane of Chandni Chowk near the fabled Fountain. It was called Katra Lachhusingh. Come winters and two kinds of aliens descended on Delhi. One was the Tibetans. No, these were not refugees fleeing Communist persecution. It was 1955 and Dalai Lama was still happily settled at Potala palace. The Tibetans used to come to plains in winters every year to trade and to escape the cold in the bargain. While the young bought and sold, the older ones visited the bylanes for alms. Dressed in their multi-layered cloaks, their prayer wheels whirring, they presented to me a peep into the world beyond the immediate surroundings.

The other aliens were the Pathans. The Kabuliwalas never asked for alms. The song about Abdurrahaman, the pistewala Pathan was very close to reality. These tall Pathans, with flowing beards and bellowing voice, attracted a large crowd of urchins. They spoke in reasonable Hindustani. We questioned them about their country, their camels and their gardens. Then, on being prompted to do so, we goaded our mothers into buying some of their pistachio and almonds. Thus, the visit of the Pathan was a pleasure in more ways than one.

Another Pathan known in those days was Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, better known as the Frontier Gandhi. This tall man considered himself a human being, a Pathan and a Muslim, in that order of priority. If there could be a visual image of the ideal of his followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars, it was the Khan in person.

That was the image of Pathans in the minds of children in the early fifties. We did have jokes about the Pathan eating his bar of brown washing-soap which he had bought, thinking it was a piece of cake. We had stories about the bravery and bravado of these tall men, stories of their kindness to children, a trait which only the brave can possess.

Then came the Russians and their retreat that strengthened the image of Afghans as a brave people, firm in their resolve, invincible. On the day of the invasion, a magazine cover showed the Russian bear getting his foot caught in the Afghan trap. On day one of Russian occupation, the world believed that once you get involved in Afghanistan, you want to get out and it is not easy.

The Russians got out with a bloody nose and the Arabs and Pakistanis moved in. That changed the image of the Pathan forever. He was forced from the status of ever-independent, self-willed bloke to the scheming, wily, meek follower of foreign mercenaries. He slid into the role of the hated terrorist. In all the battlefields of the world where someone or the other was pitted against someone fighting in the name of Islam, we heard of the presence of Afghans.

All theatres of conflict boasted of the Afghan terrorist who would kill innocent, unarmed men, women and children, who would attack stealthily and then slip away like a rat.

I saw these images and compared with those childhood memories. These are few renegades, who are there in every society, I told myself. These do not represent the Pathans. He was kind and ruthless. He did not know how to slip in and out. He looked the enemy in the eye. Then I saw images on the TV, which shook this belief. In Kabul, a woman in burqa was led to the middle of a football stadium packed with thousands of cheering Afghans. She was made to kneel, a turbaned Taliban brought a Kalashnikov to her head, there was the report of the weapon, a small plume of dust rose a metre ahead of the kneeling figure where the bullet hit the ground, and the woman pitched forward.

Public executions do take place in many Islamic countries. I expected the crowd to be somber, reflective. They did not even know who she was, what was her offence, whether she got a fair trial, what she looked like behind that all-covering burqa. Yet, when the shot was fired, the crowd went ecstatic. There was jubilation. I had only one word for each person in that crowd. They were cowards.

I could have been wrong. After the Taliban fled from Kabul, I saw in a newspaper the image of an old Dervish in tears, as he could whirl around again for his prayer-dance ritual, a blessing he had been denied during five years of Taliban rule. I saw Pathans making a bee-line for the barbers’ shops and for the music stores. The tears of the Dervish seemed to be pleading the defence of compulsion. The crowds at the barbers’ shops and music stores seemed to corroborate it. Yes, we were misled into welcoming the Taliban in Kabul, the simple Pathan was honest enough to admit. The rest was compulsion.

Finally, came the admission at Konduz that it was the Pakistanis who played the controlling role in Taliban affairs. A large number of Taliban who wanted to surrender were shot dead by these foreigners, who had come as guests of those very hosts whom they were killing. With General Musharraf pleading for the lives of his countrymen trapped in Konduz, the picture of the Pathan again underwent a change. What we thought was the deranged, degraded Pathan was actually a different animal called Taliban. An animal on a leash held by Pakistan.

Pakistan, which has not seen a day of peace or prosperity since it broke away from India, has been always led by those who live on alibis. Unable to create an atmosphere for democracy in their country, these self-appointed rulers look for reasons for Pakistan’s misfortunes beyond their borders and they tend to create their power base too beyond these borders. The 1971 debacle forced Pakistan to look elsewhere for recreating a justification for its existence as an Islamic State. The Russian misadventure provided that opportunity in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden brought in money and Arabs. In these calculations, the Afghans became willing tools. Any tool is discarded when it becomes useless. The Afghans, with their confidence, sense of honour and long tradition of hospitality could not even imagine this exploitation by their guests.

Is there a lesson for anyone in the traumatic experience of the once-proud Pathan? Past is meaningless except that it helps us in avoiding falling in the same pit twice, it helps others too avoid it. Pakistan’s Afghan misadventure is not the end of its attempts to expand its influence through Islamic bandwagon. There will be future victims of Pakistan’s undemocratic leaders’ desires to build popularity through foreign alibis and foreign successes. There are clear indications that Myanmar is about to fall in this trap. The military leaders of that country have been hobnobbing with Pakistan Generals to gain nuclear know-how as well as some relief from their present international isolation.

It will be an irony of the highest order if Operation Enduring Freedom results in the rise of another renegade nuclear power close to India. Meanwhile, with Pakistan’s role in Afghan affairs fully exposed before the world, the Pathan can cast aside this image-sullying yoke. In India, at least he will be welcome this winter with his pistachios and almonds.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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