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

By Zaib un Nisa Aziz
2013, Vol. 5 No. 09 | pg. 1/6 |

In May 2012, Shakil Afridi received a sentence of thirty-three years “rigorous imprisonment” and a large fine for aiding foreign intelligence gatherers in their quest for Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani state did not charge Afridi – a doctor from the Khyber area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – under the national criminal code, where they would have risked a controversial public trial and a possible death sentence. Instead, Mohammad Nasir Khan, assistant Political Agent of Bara, Khyber Agency, announced on May 23rd, 2012 that Dr. Afridi had been tried “in a secret place in Peshawar” 1 and was convicted but had the right of appeal before the Khyber Agency Political Agent under the laws of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).2 In reality, the trial of Shakil Afridi was meant as a symbolic rebuff to American pressure in the midst of ongoing political estrangement with the United States; the Pakistani state sought to achieve this while avoiding the burden of regular criminal codes and legal procedure, as well as questions of civil and political rights, by utilizing the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) despite this process being wholly contradictory to the principles undergirding an ostensibly democratic constitution.3

Anxieties of Empire

This incident is one in a series of dramatic episodes which engulfed this region in the past decade. The Frontier region of Pakistan is a place which has come to stir fear and breed myth and fiction. Yet the tendency to perceive the Frontier as a place filled with mystery and marked by isolation is by no means a new one. It goes as far back as the earliest foreign encounters with this area. With the expansion of European in the region, particularly the colonization of by the British, the Frontier emerged as a place occupied by “savage” and “fanatic” tribesmen who were ill-suited to the sensibilities of modern political order. This paper attempts to make sense of the philosophical underpinnings, as well as the political considerations, that explain British policies in the Frontier from the time of formal annexation of the Punjab in 1849 to the creation of the new province of North West Frontier Province in 1901. The paper pays particular attention to the legal regime implemented in the Frontier, particularly the Frontier Crimes Regulations. The primary contention of this paper is that the content of this legal regime was based on, and is inextricably tied to, colonial understandings of the frontier space and the people who inhabited it. By examining the history of British engagement in the frontier, this paper challenges the notion that there was any single governing vision dominating the colonial project. On the contrary, this was a variegated, differentiated and heterogeneous venture which responded to political changes both in the colony and the center. This paper shows that the Frontier came to manifest the contradictions in the colonial project of the 19th century, simultaneously becoming the limit of imperial reach and place where colonial power was most forcefully felt.

British India in 1860

This paper is divided into five sections. The first is an examination of the initial years of British formal control in the Frontier. This section examines how the modern idea of territorial boundaries contested traditional links among the tribes of the Frontier. Moreover it discusses the different policy measures and Frontier management systems which were under discussion within the colonial administration. The second section uses archival evidence to show how, in the late nineteenth century, the overriding concern of the British was the incidence of and the level of disorder prevalent in the frontier. This concern resulted in the creation of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) 1872/1887/1901. This section delineates the crucial powers that the FCR accorded the executive and the process through which these were gradually increased. This was also the period in which British administrators stressed the ‘exceptional’ nature of the tribesmen, which rendered them unsuitable for British law.

In the next section, it is shown this exceptionalism contradicted the legal school of thought that dominated British law in India at the time, known as ‘utilitarianism.’ It briefly delineates the history of utilitarianism and its proponents in India. The basic thrust of this doctrine was on the transformation of India through a in its laws and institutions. Hence, the introduction of grand legal codes and English procedures dominated this era. In the high noon of this Age of Utilitarianism, the Frontier was a space which was considered and justified as being immune to the transformation being brought by the colonizers. Next it is argued that this contradiction can be resolved by examining the link between positivist jurisprudence and imperial expansion in the 19th century. In this section a symbiotic link is revealed between positivist jurisprudence and the creation of difference, which was so crucial to the imperial state. It also shows how such legality facilitated the emergence of a pluralistic colonial legal order. Finally, the paper concludes with an examination of geopolitical developments that led to the demarcation of the Durand Line, the creation of the new Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), and the buffer zone of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Here the connection between space and power is revisited with particular focus on the discursive power of cartographic knowledge and the use of maps in the drawing up of new borders.

Beginnings: The British Arrival in India and Pakistan

The British arrived in Peshawar in 1849 after definitively defeating the Sikh kingdom which led to the formal annexation of the Punjab province. The space which would come to constitute the Punjab province under the British rule was larger than it had been under the Sikh regime. The British had also taken over Peshawar and other frontier districts. However the northwest boundary of the province was demarcated along the old Sikh limits. This served as the administered border and divided the ‘settled’ districts from the ‘tribal’ ones. The British made no attempt to advance into the highlands.4 In Peshawar as well as in Bannu and Derajat the line of administration stopped at the foothills.5 Between the Indus and this administered border, the British formed four districts from north to south, Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. Further down south was the fifth district – Dera Ghazi Khan bordering on the Baloch country.6 Two-thirds of the Frontier lay in the Punjab with the rest being controlled by Sindh authorities.

It is important to note the boundary of Punjab did not border any foreign power. At this point, the boundary separating from British India had not been established. Instead, the administered border separated the Raj from the ‘wild tribes’ living in the hills. The Frontier ran over a thousand miles and was inhabited by Pakhtuns, Balochis and Baruhis many of whom lived in the hills but had land and relations on the British side of the Frontier.7 There was no tribal belt separating the administered border from the foothills of the Kingdom of Kabul. The British referred to the territory beyond the administered border as ghairilaqa (unadministered territory) or Yaghistan (the land of the rebels).8 But though the British made this distinction, the boundary largely remained a notional one. The tribal nexus was extremely strong. People crossed the borders regularly and with ease and people could not be considered socially or economically different.9

The nature of the Frontier was incongruous with the modern notions of territoriality and borders. Modernity commences with the transformation in the meaning of space. Since the Cartesian revolution, space was understood as flat, meaningless and isotropic. The consideration of space as a tabula rasa creates the conditions of possibility for it to be engendered, molded, divided and conquered. Such a conception of space was a necessary pre condition for the emergence of the modern state which is why the question of territoriality is so central to it. Three characteristics are crucial to territoriality: First, it must provide classification by area, a form of communication by boundary and a means of enforcement of control. For states, it is an extremely effective means of classification because it does so by area and not by type. For this classification to be effective, territoriality needs only important marker – the boundary. The territorial boundary may only take a symbolic form so long as it functions as a marker for exclusion. It can be a most efficient strategy for enforcing control as well by dividing, separating and parceling spaces. Significantly, territoriality is a means of reifying power which is why the assertion of territorial control is so important for states. The territory is the source of a state’s power and also the physical manifestation of its control10. This why the need to enforce divisions set up by boundaries is a central concern for the modern state. Boundaries represent a modern conception of lines. As a corollary to the modern understanding of space a “multiplicity of inert things (emphasis original)”11, lines in modernity are dead as well. Lines function as connectors between fixed points in space and as such are neither dynamic nor active but “the quintessence of the static.” “Once the trace of a continuous gesture, the line has been fragmented – under the sway of modernity – into a succession of points or dots.”12 This allowed the line to be a symbol of fixity as well as division.

The British intended to make such a line of division between the administered area and the tribal area separating the settled (civilized) districts from the hills (barbaric) but such a division proved impossible to enforce. Given their importance, boundaries have been a space where the state is most assertive and makes it power most visible. But for the British, this boundary represented no such thing. “Despite the pretence that the border marked a clear distinction between spaces of order (that is British territory) inhabited by British subjects and spaces of disorder (that is yasghestan) inhabited by tribesmen of the hills, the truth of the matter was rather more complicated.”13 Robert Sack has shown that while defining responsibilities territorially can be efficient, “ it can also create inadvertent spillovers and mismatches when the territorial definition becomes a substitute for not knowing what it is that is being controlled.”14 Ultimately, the British divisions between “tribal” and “settled” were a product of their local knowledge, and were constantly undermined. The examination of their administrative experience reveals that the territoriality that the British wanted to enforce was constantly thwarted and challenged by the local population. It is this experience that colored and influenced their management policies in the Frontier.

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