Anxieties of Empire: Examining Frontier Governance in 19th Century British India

By Zaib un Nisa Aziz
2013, Vol. 5 No. 09 | pg. 2/6 |

The British found it necessary to establish some sort of authority and influence in the trans-Indus districts as well as Hazara. The Frontier provinces were divided into two Commissionerships; the Commissionership of Peshawar and the Commissionership of Derajat. Each district became the charge of a Deputy Commissioner.15The British aimed to keep the ‘unwieldy tribes’ from entering into the British settlements. This would be the defining feature of what would come to be known as the Closed Border Policy.16 British officers and tribesmen living on the British territory were prohibited from going across the Frontier. Tribesmen living in the hills were denied access to British territories, including their markets and in many cases the tribes’ land on the settled plains17. This arbitrary segregation between the settled and unsettled populations was in stark violation of the history and sociological reality of that area. As has been noted above, people living across the administered borders shared deep cultural, familial and economic ties. As such the local population did not accept such a division. The British decided to take a series of steps in order to coerce the inhabitants into submission. A considerable militia was raised which did not operate as regular policemen but were given the specific task of subduing the local population and defending the border. This body initially worked under the Border Police and later given the name of the Frontier Constabulary (FC). If they felt the need to do so and indeed they did so a lot, the FC would seek the help of the military. Eleven military operations took place in the twenty years succeeding the Indian Mutiny 185718. Punitive expeditions were by no means the only coercive method used to engender obedience – there were also bandish and baramta. The first was a blockade which was a means of exerting economic control over an offending tribe. The tribe was excluded from markets, land, or grazing in the neighboring district. This method was effective eventually but slow and it was difficult to enforce precisely because the border meant little to people on both sides. The second strategy – baramta ­ – resulted in the seizure of persons, animal or property belonging to an individual or a tribe at fault19.

It can be seen that these three punitive measures involved the idea of collective punishment. It sought to exploit a communal sense of responsibility within tribes. Caroe, who was a British colonial officer in the 20th century, discusses the justification of this approach as follows:

In any tribe with a living tribalism the outstanding feature is that the tribe as a whole, and every member of it, is responsible for the misdeeds of any of its members, just as it and they are entitled to share in any benefit or advantage secured by any member. It follows from this principle that an aggrieved party can enforce his remedy against any tribesmen on whom he can lay hands. That is the essence of tribal responsibility, a system which admits the justice of baramta as an effective weapon for securing rights and claims. The baramta weapon works best, when enforced against the tribal section actually responsible, or to which the aggressors actually belong; the smaller section on which pressure can be brought, the more likely is restitution20.

Actually, the idea of collective punishment idea rested on the assumption that tribes would govern themselves in order to avoid such indiscriminate destruction. Central to the closed border system was the idea that ‘coercion is discriminating mercy, which the instructions of government inculcate’. Administers felt that the Frontier tribesmen must be made to fear the British in order for them to effectively govern.21 William Merewether, who was Commissioner of Sindh, was a key propend of such a course:

It is a great mistake to suppose that these wild tribes can be kept in order by simple arrangements and negotiations. They regard them as signs of weakness and only become more bold and insolent each time that their lawless acts do not meet with the punishment they deserve. Soft measures will never answer. They must be made to feel the strength of paramount power, and then anything can be done with them22.

Administers also tried to ensure the loyalty of the tribes by making agreements with them. During the first twenty years, a number of agreements were signed with tribes residing on the British controlled territory. A typical agreement would contain several clauses including a general clause declaring friendship and goodwill followed by a statement of the services required of the tribe such as security of the border, control of raiders, protection of communication, a clause prohibiting the tribe from giving refuge to outlaws and one guaranteeing an annual allowance contingent on good behavior. The allowances known as muwajib were an important tool in the management system. These payments were made in order to induce the tribes to facilitate the order the British sought to impose. All allowances however were conditional and subject to forfeiture in part or in whole should the tribe or any member of the tribe commit an offence23.

The closed border system was obviously a classic manifestation of the carrot and stick policy. However, the frequency with which the ‘stick’ was used is testament to the fact that British authorities failed to establish the kind of order they aimed to. Critics pointed out those military operations were costly and frontier warfare was both lengthy and ineffective. Secondly, collective punishment enhanced the sense of solidarity between tribesmen and created resentment against the British. Lastly, disallowing British officers to go beyond the border precluded them from gaining intelligence and information. Although it had been the preferred policy of the Punjab Commission for the last few decades, it was being seriously reconsidered by the late 1860s. Much of this change was brought about by a young colonial administer named Robert Sandeman. As Deputy Commissioner of the District of Dera Ghazi Khan, he put into a practice a system which was based on detailed knowledge of the tribes beyond the Frontier and personal interaction with them. The Sandeman system consisted of three features. The first involved developing relations with key tribal leaders by gaining their trust. The second was the installation of a system of tribal levies which would recruit local tribesmen. These levies would provide the manpower for local militias who in turn were the key to ensure order in the Frontier. The third element in his system was the use of ‘traditional’ institutions particularly the Jirga or the tribal council. Sandeman initially faced opposition from senior administers particularly Merewether who still championed the iron fist approach of the closed border system. However, Sandeman’s approach saw significant success in Dera Ghazi Khan and later in Balochistan where he served as First Agent of the Governor-General.24 It had far reaching consequences for future of frontier governance in India as well as beyond it. The changes he brought would have an influence in administrative policies pursued by the British from here on out.

Crime and Punishment

The maintenance of order was severely undermined due to the high incidence of crime in the Frontier. The links between the ‘settled’ and ‘tribal’ populations posed an acute problem when it came to the capture of criminals. Although tribal agreements included undertakings refraining tribes from protecting criminals, this undertaking was never carried out. The extension of hospitality is a central feature of the Pakhtun custom. It is incumbent on a house observing the custom to provide help to a party, even an enemy who seeks it. Should the desired favor not be granted, the host party will incur dishonor.25 “The giving of hospitality to the guest is a national point of honor so much so that the reproach to an inhospitable man is that he is devoid of Pakhtu, a creature of contempt.”26

Persons convicted under the Indian Penal Code often fled from ‘justice’ and these ‘fugitives’ found refuge amongst the local population. Increasingly, it was felt that there was no solution to the outlaw problem. Writing from administrative perspective, Caroe argues that the problem lay in the nature of British law which was ill-suited to the people of the Frontier.

The British judicial system, with its lawyers and its appeals and its European scale of criminal values was hopelessly out of accord with Pathan sentiment, not only in the tribal territory but within the districts also. The rigidity and magistracy emphasized the advantages, in the eyes of many, of the freer life on the other side of an arbitrary border. The law frequently outraged strongly held convictions. Where it imposed sanctions and penalties not justified by custom, there would be no hesitation in evading it by giving false evidence or by absconding; where the law of evidence secured the acquittal of persons whom everybody knew to be guilty there would be contempt for processes regarded as fussy, niggling and even unjust. The whole thing, for years was a garment that did not fit.27

The state of affairs warranted a change in plans. In what can be considered a nod to the Sandeman sentiment, it was decided that some measure should be taken to involve the districts themselves. This attempt to modify the law to suit local exigencies found its fruition in the first version of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in 1872.

This Regulation acted as a supplement to the existing law rather than a substitute for it. It authorized settlement of issues such as blood-feuds, disputes about women and generally questions of ‘honor’ to be dealt with by tribal jirgas or the Council of Elders. Importantly, this council was not independent but appointed by the magistrate who had the power to direct a case to it. They acted as type of tribal jury but were not bound by the laws of evidence and other procedures. This system was only used when it was felt by colonial authorities that procedural technicalities of ordinary law made it unlikely for them to arrive at the facts of a particular case28. What emerged was a system which was a mix of law and custom but that satisfied the requisites of neither. More importantly, the inefficacy of the law can be gauged by its inability to control crime in the Frontier.

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