Tribal warriors: a response to Farhat Taj – by Ishtiaq Ahmed

For me, ‘tribal’ is not synonymous with Pukhtun. All Pukhtuns are not tribals, even when most tribals are Pukhtuns. Within tribals, the awareness about badal or retaliation upon which Pukhtunwali is based keeps them under control in such situations, but not in other situations

It happens, though seldom, that the central argument in an op-ed gets sidelined by a stray sentence. If someone were to ask me to tell what really was the bottom line in my op-ed ‘The 1947-48 Kashmir War’ (Daily Times, March 16, 2010), I would not hesitate a minute — it was to establish that the Kashmir War of 1947-48 was an irresponsible adventure.

However, what has captured the fancy of some people is the following formulation: “The tribal warriors quickly forgot the mission they were supposed to achieve, and succumbed prey to a vice deeply rooted in their culture and history — looting, pillaging and raping.”

Some Pukhtuns found such wording objectionable. Within a matter of a few hours, I was branded a Punjabi chauvinist, an agent of the Pakistan military and much worse. I wrote another op-ed ‘Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Islam and non-violence’ (Daily Times, January 26, 2010), which the Pukhtuns liked very much but some Punjabis did not. The latest Pukhtun tirade is therefore quite ironical.

Let me admit that the formulation above is not one of my most precious ones, but I do not think it is entirely off the mark in relation to my understanding of culture. By culture I mean socially transmitted recurring behaviour patterns. They include beliefs, practices, customs, institutions, and ways of thinking and behaving. But cultures are anything but coherent systems. They are full of contradictions and tensions.

Cultures do not change, but change all the time; cultures are supposed to be consensus-based, but never are; those who speak on behalf of cultures actually speak for themselves. Cultures are full of confusion and tension and conflict. Within cultures there are many subcultures just as within nations there are many sub-nations and regional configurations. Therefore, when one finds something objectionable in a culture, it does not necessarily mean an indictment of that culture as a whole. I love Spanish music and its artistic achievements, but detest bullfighting because that spectacle is bloody and grotesque. The beast is struck by long daggers one after the other while thousands of spectators derive sadistic pleasure. Bullfighting is intrinsic to Spanish culture, but it is not the only measure of Spanish culture.

Those who believe in the purity or flawlessness of cultures or nations are the upholders of hollow myths. Pukhtunwali in the tribal areas is the most complete system of shutting out women from public life, while it simultaneously enables men to access the maliks and chiefs and take part in discussions on an egalitarian basis. Can one not condemn one aspect but praise another aspect of Pukhtunwali? I am most comfortable in Punjabi culture, but not all forms of it. Just go to any village a 100 kilometres away from Lahore and you will find the age-old caste divisions still a social fact. The landowners sit on chairs while the artisans and poor are always sitting on the ground. What is so great about such Punjabi culture?

When referring to the tribesmen who took part in the 1947-48 Kashmir War, I was not even in a remote sense thinking of all Pukhtuns. For me, ‘tribal’ is not synonymous with Pukhtun. All Pukhtuns are not tribals, even when most tribals are Pukhtuns. Within tribals, the awareness about badal or retaliation upon which Pukhtunwali is based keeps them under control in such situations, but not in other situations. European mercenaries who fight bloody wars in Africa tend to be ‘normal’ Frenchmen or Englishmen at home.

We have people claiming Pukhtun ancestry in Punjab, Bengal, Hyderabad Deccan and even in Tamil Nadu. The Khans of Bollywood are the heartthrob of millions, Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and his brother Yusuf Pathan play great cricket. The Thespian, Dilip Kumar or Yusuf Khan, is a fine gem of Pukhtun ancestry. The late Madhubala is considered as the most perfect beauty that graced the silver screen. She was a Durrani Pukhtun by origin. So, for me Pukhtuns are not genetically prone to violence.

Yet, all this does not nullify a recurrent historical fact. From at least the time of Mahmud of Ghazni (around 1000 AD), invading armies have recruited warriors from the tribal area when they descended into the plains of the subcontinent. Such warriors looted, pillaged and raped wherever they went. The last of the bloodiest invasions were launched by Nadir Shah (1698-1747) and then Ahmad Shah Abdali (1722-1773) who raided India nine times, each time spilling innocent blood and causing destruction. A Punjabi saying from that time portrayed it in the following words: ‘Khada peeta laahey daa, te rehnda Ahmad Shahey daa’ (what we eat and drink is our property; the rest Ahmad Shah will take). Maharaja Ranjit Singh and afterwards the British put a stop to such raids on Punjab from the northwest.

Tribal lashkars were again in currency at the time of the partition of India. I have personally collected evidence of such hordes attacking Hindus and Sikhs in Jhelum, Gujrat and Lahore in July-August 1947. Again in 1965, when we were at war with India the qabailis (tribals) came down to Lahore for jihad. When they realised that it would entail getting strafed from the air by Indian fighter jets, they refused to move towards Wagah. Instead they turned on the shopkeepers of Lahore, taking away their things, eating without paying and generally creating a serious law and order situation. Altaf Gauhar has vividly described such scenes in his book on Ayub Khan. I am myself witness to that episode because I was in Lahore at that time.

Now, the central question is: why were the tribals and not any other group from somewhere else in Pakistan chosen to go into Kashmir in 1947? The answer must be that they alone had the reputation of being ruthless fighters, fully armed and not averse to killing. Then another question needs to be posed: what could be the motive of such warriors to join that war? The answer is that since they joined voluntarily an expedition that put their life at risk, they were at the minimum prepared to kill. That they looted, pillaged and raped as well shows that those were even stronger motives. It is not surprising they easily became cannon fodder during the Afghan jihad and now the Taliban prey on them. Pukhtuns from the settled areas, those who have received education and enjoy a better standard of living, are very different from them.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times

3 responses to “Tribal warriors: a response to Farhat Taj – by Ishtiaq Ahmed”

  1. Undoubtedly you are a Punjabi chauvinist,otherwise you should have analysed the Kashmir war till the end . what were the circumstances which led to the ending of the war ,whereas the triable were confident in capturing Srinagar .
    Secondly why would Pakhtuns kill themselves by the Indian jet fighters ,when the Lahoree Punjabis were taking refuge with Khans Khawanians of Mardan . I am personal witness to these Punjabis , they included Punjabi Actors and actresses also .
    secondly the looted Mal was according to the tenants of Islam which define Jihad . Mal Ghnamit is legal as per concept of Jihad . it was there in the time of Mohammad Peace be Upon him ,if you are a Muslim and not a liberal so called civil society member .Rape is the outcome of a Punjabi chauvinist. Ajab Khan Afridi was a Pakhtun , he kidnapped Miss Elyes and was with him for 9 days but never raped her . She was so much impressed by the charactor of Ajab khan Afridi,that she visited Ajab khan Afridi”s village , when she visited Pakistan in 90s
    I hope you elaborate the most controversial End of Kashmir Jihad .