Capitulating Rajas: why Taliban might not be resisted

My new piece for The Friday Times

South Asian history is a tale of capitulation of local elites before external invaders. Be it the Aryans, the Mongols or East India Company officials, we have always relented, and sometimes quite painlessly. This is an area of history that remains less explored as it conflicts with the grand narratives of ‘resistance’ and nationalist myths we love to construct.S

A phrase locked into our cultural memory – Hunooz Dilli Door Ast (Delhi is as yet far away) explains this historical pattern. It has become a metaphor for the insularity of the elites and the powerlessness of the common people. The complacency that Delhi, the capital of the Islamic empire was not accessible to the hordes of invaders, was the tragic reaction by debauched kings, local Rajas and their henchmen who were either men of straw or active collaborators.

Each time the strong centre collapsed, small, autonomous kingdoms emerged and this has been the pattern through every chapter of Indian history since ancient times. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Mongol armies clashed with Indian ones on the banks of the rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. It was in the ‘doabas’ of the Punjab that the Mongols practised their fiendish scorched earth policy. Lahore was captured, sacked and burnt numerous times. In 1221, Changez Khan’s forces crossed the Indus in pursuit of Jalaluddin Khwarizm Shah, ravaged vast tracts of the Punjab and sacked Multan and Lahore. Two decades later, in 1241 the Mongols attacked again, and sacked and burnt Lahore.

Twenty-first century Rajas cannot halt the march of the neo-invaders. The medieval nobility’s successors, Pakistan’s rent-seeking bourgeoisie, the mercantile civil-military establishment and a powerless, fed-up public might just cave in

In 1246, 1260 and in subsequent years during the time of Sultan Balban, the Mongols attacked and ravaged the countryside umpteen times. Alauddin Khilji defeated them in 1291 and 1298 and his successor Ghiyazuddin Tughlaq defeated them in 1305. Ghiasuddin Tughlaq who was Governor of Lahore before he became ruler of Delhi in 1320, is said to have fought 29 battles against the Mongols.

The Khilji dynasty declined and collapsed when Delhi was attacked by Taimur Lung (also known as Tamerlane in the West), in 1398. Through these invasions, Punjab and other parts of northern India became wastelands, uninhabitable save for fortified walled cities, which were also service stations for external armies. Taimur invaded the region with the torch of the Islamic faith in hand and enforced the laws of the Quran over Chingiz Khan’s shamanist laws. His invasion of India was in part intended to crush its mostly infidel rulers and to plunder its wealth.

After the fall of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century, there was a free-for-all competition among the court’s crafty nobles. Plebian revolts, lawlessness and land-based struggles, not unlike today’s Frontier, also weakened the remnants of the Mughal Empire. Local robber bandits with a redistributive style assumed an alternative position to the state in the public imagination.

History also testifies to the fact that maladministration was an ugly reality in the Delhi of the nineteenth century. In 1757, the Delhi Police Chief was known to protect burglars much like what happens in many parts of India and Pakistan today. Saadat Khan, a noble of Oudh, a precursor of Mir Jafar in Bengal, goaded Nadir Shah to invade Delhi and plunder its riches. Thus another invader found a local ally.

Once Nadir Shah had looted and plundered Delhi, Saadat Khan fell out with Nadir Shah over a sharing of the spoils. His greed not only destroyed Delhi but also his life. Self destruction, at its basest best has been the fate of crafty collaborators.

Public beheadings in Swat of 2009, destruction of schools, clinics, bridges, police stations and civil administration outposts are hardly new tactics. The Mongols did it throughout the middle ages, and Nadir Shah and later Ahmad Shah Abdali also resorted to the same techniques. For example, during Nadir Shah’s 18th century invasion of Delhi, all local uprisings were crushed and Chandni Chowk witnessed a general massacre. Some accounts report that about twenty thousand or even more were killed, and thousands of women were captured.

Later, Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1757 and 1760 was successful in invading and re-enacting the tragedy on Delhi. Before Abdali could succeed, from 1753 to 1757, a civil war led by Safdar Jung and his allies the Jats, plundered old Delhi in those days. As always, the poor were the immediate targets of such violence. Jat Gardi became a menacing term and a living scare in the city. At this time, a young Minister, Imadul Mulk, brought peace to Delhi.

The Emperor, representing the central state, became irrelevant to the power game. A bankrupt King to begin with, he could not even arrange for the salaries of his troops. Soldiers and officials rioted frequently. When Abdali finally arrived in Delhi, the unpopular Imadul Mulk’s troops deserted to the well-organized troops of Abdali, whose invasions led to large scale violence. Corpses floated in the canals and other water reservoirs, and this resulted in the outbreak of cholera in Delhi. Abdali’s soldiers indulged in free-for-all looting.

The decadent elites of the Delhi Sultanate were as insular as those we find in today’s Islamabad and Lahore. Let the jihadis capture FATA and establish emirates there and let their FM Radios blare loud declarations of democracy as ‘kufr’, they say. Now, we have a new emirate that will enforce ‘Shariah’ in the Swat and Malakand divisions after every remnant of the old, crumbling state has been demolished and blown up. The political government terms this a victory, the right wing media has described it as a sagacious move and the mighty Pakistan Army is a silent spectator. The will to resist and fight the imposition of a narrow brand of Islamic theology therefore is ideologically, militarily and politically unchallenged.

Amid the violence of Swat, the octogenarian leader of the Awami National PartyAfzal Khan Lala,has stood his ground. He had the courage to tell the Pakistan Army, the natural successor of the Sultanates and the colonial Empire, that their acquiescence to extremism and terrorism was a blunder.

President Zardari’s credibility has hit such a low that his desperate statement that “The Taliban have captured parts of Pakistan and they are on their way to seize the rest”, has not been taken seriously. Instead he has been rejected as a puppet of evil America. We have been wedded to the false impression that other than the FATA belt, the Taliban’s appeal would not lead to theocratic statehood. Such an erroneous construct has been undone due to the state’s failure to halt the Taliban’s continuous penetration into settled areas of the NWFP.

Today, Pakistan’s security apparatus holds that a few thousand armed Taliban are pitted against the nuclear state. But in Punjab and many parts of Pakistan they have sympathisers, especially in the media that now relays live radio broadcasts of bigotry. It appears that twenty-first century Rajas cannot halt the march of the neo-invaders. The medieval nobility’s successors, Pakistan’s rent-seeking bourgeoisie, the mercantile civil-military establishment and a powerless, fed-up public might just cave in. The entrepreneurs and petit-bourgeoisie are already giving in by burning CD shops, refusing to run barber shops, and the liberal intelligentsia is hiding behind closed doors.

The most dangerous sign of the times is the anti-US rhetoric, appropriated by the extremists, which has confused an exploited citizenry. Key segments of Pakistan’s power-wielders and thinkers are silent, trying to skirt around the issue and naively shrugging off the imminent threat. If anything, sections of the state agencies share this anti-US sentiment; and sadly it appears that there shall be many hosts to the new invaders. In medieval Delhi, Bengal, Oudh and Ranjit Singh’s darbar, capitulation was the name of the game.

The Indus Valley’s mysterious ruins of Harappa and Mohenjodaro testify to the fact that they could not resist invaders. However, the curse of history is neither deterministic nor beyond resistance. If only we were to pay heed to the lessons of history.

Raza Rumi blogs at and edits Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama e-zines

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