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

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

In On Liberty, Mill continued with his argument that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians providing the end of their improvement.”72 The two seemingly contradictory impulses of positive law: the universalizing impetus to civilize and hence render equal and the particularizing drive of differentiating and hence subjugating the native; are at the heart of the colonial project. The dual considerations that occupied that the colonial administration necessitated the emergence of a plural legal order. “The colonial legal order was by its very nature a plural legal order. Multiple legal authorities were created out of the imposition of colonial law and the persistence, protection and invention of indigenous legal practices.”73 Which consideration would take primacy and what kind of legal regime could be implemented in what setting was largely dependent on the local contingencies as well as political and strategic concerns. A single hierarchal order was simply not feasible in a colony as vast and diversified as India. The construction of the colonial state was a cumbersome process with the colonizers facing myriad challenges and exercising different levels of authority at in different parts of India.

Jurisdictional politics in colonial settings was irresistible to all parties. Colonizing powers in most places sought both to limit the costs of judicial administration and to extend jurisdiction over European settlers and agents and their allies. Colonizers erected jurisdictional boundaries that were precise but inherently unstable and, therefore, subject to frequent revision. The elaborate rules required to establish appellate procedures, regulate access to courts, and define who could serve as witnesses and legal personnel were forced to change as quickly as they were assigned. Indigenous actors used the rules to move strategically through the legal order, and their successful maneuvers revealed to colonial administrators flaws in the architecture of the plural legal order. For all these social actors, disputes over the rules structuring this complex legal order were not merely procedural conveniences or tactical weapons but important, even vital, symbolic markers of the boundaries separating colonial constituencies. The boundaries, in turn, signified judgments about the character of these groups and the qualities that separated them from one another jurisdictional politics thus neatly merged cultural discourse about difference and conflicts over the location and scope of colonial political authority.74

The British experience in the Frontier exemplified precisely such a scenario. The construction of the Frontier districts began with an arbitrary boundary the chief function of which was to serve as a jurisdictional boundary. This British sought to legally create and then reify a cultural difference between the “settled” and “tribal” communities – an endeavor which was constantly undermined by the local population. The analysis of archives discussed earlier manifests clearly that the British law and procedures were considered to be hopelessly inadequate to achieve the aims of the administrators there. By constantly challenging and disregarding the boundaries set up by the British, the Frontier tribes mounted a significant challenge for the colonizers. Thus they decided to revisit the law and more importantly reconsider their commitment to the ‘assimilationist’ element of the project. In other parts of India such as central Punjab and Bengal, the racial ‘inferiority’ of the ‘Hindoos’ and “Mohammadans” warranted the active implementation of English law with its reliance of English legal sources and procedures. In the Frontier however, the backwardness of the ‘tribes’ made them unfit to partake in English legal processes.

As the nineteenth century entered into its final phase, the aim of civilizing the native tribesmen was surrendered and the sole aim of frontier governance became the guarantying of imperial security. The rise of the territorial empire and the rise of Russia as a threat to the jewel in the British crown is the final factor explaining the unique legal regime that was implemented here.

Clash of Empires and Colonial Cartography

In 1874, Benjamin Disraeli came to power and sought to initiate a new and more aggressive stance against Russian pressure in Central Asia. British interference in the Persia and Afghanistan increased. Concerns regarding British involvement in the country, particularly the permanent stationing of British garrisons nearby heightened Afghan tensions about a hostile environment. The result was the Second Afghan War in 1878. The British successfully attacked Afghan territory and the Amir of Afghanistan abdicated in favor of his son. Following the war, a joint Russo-British commission was set up to determine the border between Russian and Afghanistan. The British continued to pressure Afghanistan for more concessions. In 1892, the Afghan Amir travelled to London to negotiate directly with the British government. However, London asked him to reach an agreement with the British colonial authorities in India and reach an agreement on the eastern frontier of Afghanistan75. The British appointed Indian Foreign Secretary, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand to travel to Kabul and negotiate on behalf of the British. The negotiations were contentious but eventually a decision was reached “Dir, Swat, Peshawar and Chitral should be British. In return the Afghans secured some strategic strong points, notably Asmar, which gave them access to Nuristan and various of Afghanistan’s eastern regions.” At the very end of the negotiations, Durand suggested that Afghanistan should retain the Birmal tract of Waziristan. This would result in the division of Waziristan and the tribal people living there. Nonetheless, the Amir agreed to this result.76

The actual drawing of the line was another matter. The demarcation process continued between 1893 and 1896. “The British were unequivocal about their empire's need to have "scientific frontiers" that had to be demarcated under "European pressure and by the intervention of European agents".77 The designation of borders relied on cartographic knowledge – a central instrument in colonial governance.

In the first section of this paper, I discussed the modern conception of space as a rex extensa, fixed and absolute. Cartography understands space as pure quantity, abstracted from experience and time. As a form of representation, it is defined by explicit measurement of space. Cartography is the means through which this absolute space is represented. When the cartographer looks at the world, he looks upon it with a sense of mastery, as a world of absolute space (and time) from which all uncertainties and ambiguities could in principle be banished and in which human calculation could uninhibitedly flourish. Such a conceptualization is underpinned by the assumption that space and the process through which space is defined can be divorced.

As territoriality became as a central concern to the modern empire, the value and centrality of territory to the modern empire, the value of maps increased manifold. Cartography emerged as indispensible tool to imperial administrations because it was a means of demarcating and defining the territory occupied. “The idea of “empire” is constructed through cartographic representation for the benefit of one group but that exclude the inhabitants of the territories represented. “Imperial mapping” is thus an ironic act, postulating as it does a double audience: the population in the mapped territory remains ignorant while another population is actively enabled and empowered to know the mapped territories.”78

The map also claims to be a mimetic and an exact correspondence with the reality on the ground. It places the viewer/user of the map outside it.79 The claim to scientific exactitude and objectivity of European maps was has been a defining feature of their discursive power. “Cartographic science became, within European discourses, a crucial marker of difference between Europeans (the knowing Self) and non-Europeans (the un-knowing Self).”80

The irony of both of these assumptions was felt in the case of construction of the Durand Line. The boundary sought to impose a particular order on the inhabitants of the Frontier, arbitrarily dividing them into two domains. Since the understanding of space that undergirded this policy was an absolute one, it remained consciously blind to the relation between people and spaces. In this way, the British authorities reenacted the policy of dividing historically connected communities of the Frontier into different spatial zones. Only this time, the division was on the international level.

Secondly, the administrations celebration of objectivity was brought into sharp relief by realities on the ground. British claims to the scientific nature of their frontiers notwithstanding, the maps that Durand relied on were inaccurate and misrepresentative. This is proven the fact that when “the demarcation teams went out into the field to try to delimit the boundary, there were areas represented on the map which did not exist on the ground and vice versa. The demarcation team tried to make the line as sensible as possible by using natural features, such as mountain crests, streams and rivers as boundaries, thus splitting up areas of river drainage. They also tried to set up boundary pillars so that there was some physical evidence of the boundary. However in many cases it was not clear where the boundary ran. It is not much of a physical feature and the unknowing can easily cross it unaware.”81

It is evident that the demarcation of boundaries is an exercise in power and in this case specifically the power of the colonial state. Strategic concerns regarding “the simultaneous expansion of British and Russian empires in heartland of Asia” were what drove British policy. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India at the time envisioned at “three-fold frontier.” “The first frontier, at the edge of directly controlled territory, enabled the colonial regime to exercise full authority and impose its legal and political order. The second frontier, just beyond the first, was a zone of indirect rule where colonial domination proceeded through existing institutions of social control. The third frontier was a string of buffer states which, while maintaining formal political autonomy and trappings of statehood, aligned foreign relations with the interests of the British.”82

This would form the blue-print for the ‘creation’ of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in 1901. The new province was made up of five districts: Hazara, Peshawar, Kohat, and parts of Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. Between the “settled areas” of NWFP and the Durand Line, a tribal belt would be established. The control of this belt called Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)83 would lie with the center and it was to serve as a “buffer to buffer.”84 British law as it was applied to the rest of India was not applicable in this zone since the administrators maintained that “‘rigour is inseparable from the government of such a people. We cannot rein wild horses with silken braids’.”85 The Pashtun Tribes living in FATA were not British subjects in the formal sense yet they were considered to occupy British territory. Moreover, they were subject to the Frontier Crimes Regulation which though unique was nonetheless a British law. The designation of such a zone was meant to facilitate order and ensure territorial integrity. But tribes on either side of the Durand Line continued to disregard it. Incessant tribal resistance continued to prompt punitive expeditions. The revolts of the tribes impelled the British to the first use of aerial bombardment in the history of India, in the early twentieth century. The tribes maintained their traditional links with Afghanistan while negotiating with FATA’s special status.86

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