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Pathans and their gun culture

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Pathans and their gun culture

Most of the terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan happen to be ethnic Pathans. The Pathans — also known as Pashtuns, Pushtuns, Pakhtuns, and Pakhtoons are seminomadic people (more than 60 tribes), numbering about 26 million in Pakistan and some 11 million in Afghanistan. Pathans are Muslims and speak Pashto.

After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the Pathans raised the demand for the creation of an independent Pushtunistan, bordering Pakistan.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described them as ‘snakes in the backyard’.

“It’s like that old story – you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors. Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard,” Clinton said during a joint news conference with Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

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As Lindsay Maizland points out in her study for the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations, the Taliban in Afghanistan are predominantly Pashtun. Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington DC adds that while over the years they have gathered support from some other ethnicities also by appealing to religious conservatism, its leadership is still overwhelmingly Pashtun, and seen as such by most of the other peoples. The Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP), a serious security threat to Pakistan now, is also exclusively Pashtun/Pathan.

Ever wondered why? What makes these Pashtuns/Pathans predisposed toward terrorism? In the following, we will analyze this phenomenon in all its dimensions. 

Most of us, young or old, would have certainly heard a famous song Aao bacchon tumhein dikhayein jhaanki Hindustan kee (Come, kids, let us show you a glimpse of Hindustan).

The film was titled ‘Jagriti’ (1954). The song was written and sung by Kavi Pradeep and the music was composed by Hemant Kumar.

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The words are so fiery and the music so soul-stirring that it literally gives goosebumps.

Also Read: The day Pakistan swore by the Quran and betrayed Balochistan

Three years later, realizing how inspirational it was, the Pakistanis plagiarized it. In 1957, they produced a film called ‘Bedaari’.

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Incidentally, the meaning of the title is also the same as that of Jagriti, that is, wakefulness or alertness.

The title of a very popular song in the film is Aao Bacchon Sair Karaayen tum ko Pakistan ki (Come, kids, let us take you on a trip around Pakistan). The song was written by Fayyaz Hashmi and sung by Saleem Raza & chorus.

The music of the song is copied almost note-by-note from Hemant Kumar’s music.  You must listen to it to believe it.

However, let us have a look at those words in the song that glamorize the Pathans:

Ye ilaqa sarhad ka hai sab ki nirali shaan yahan

Bandooqon ki chhaon me bacche hote hen jawan yahan

Thokar me zalzlay yahan muthi me toofan yahan

Sar se kafan bandhe phirta he dekho har ik pathan yahan

(Loosely translated, it means that this is the frontier region where the people are characterized by their majesty, pride, magnificence, and style. This is the region where kids grow up under the shadow of guns. This is the region where the men are so strong that they pack a storm in their hands—they would make the earth tremble like an earthquake if they were to stomp it. Every Pathan here moves around with his funeral shroud draped on his head, that is, he is ever prepared to die.)

From 1957 move over to 2023 and you find that the mastermind of the Peshawar mosque bomb blast that killed a hundred people and injured 221, is also a Pathan—Sarbakaf Mohmand.

The Persian composite word Sar-ba-Kaf means one who carries his head in his hands, that is, he is ever ready to die—the same sentiments that were expressed in that film’s song. Sarbakaf assumed this particular name because he believes in the myths of valor and martyrdom woven around people of his race. He seems to have taken the decades-old poetic glamorization of Pathans literally—that is, simply a victim of his own image.     

Who are the Pathans?

As the celebrated author Sir Olaf Caroe, ICS and Governor of the North-West Frontier Province in British India, writes in his famous book ‘The Pathans: 500 B.C.-A.D.1957’, the word Pathan is the Indian variant of Pukhtanah, the plural of Pakhtun. I agree with this etymological derivation. He also discusses the ethnicities of the various tribes of the region who inhabit plains and open plateaus on one hand and the highlanders on the other. The former has traditionally been called the Western Afghans (Abdalis-Durranis and Ghilzais) and the Eastern Afghans (mainly Yusufzais). Amongst the highlanders, we have the Afridi, Khatak, Orakzai, Bangash, Wazir, Mahsud, and Turi tribes, etc. He also clears another popular confusion—about the words Pakhtun and Pashtun. Pakhtu is the language spoken by the northeastern tribes, and Pashtu by those in the southwest.

Their Indomitable Love of Freedom Is a Hoax

Yet another myth woven around the Pathans is their love of freedom. Actually, it is their innately undisciplined, obstreperous character, rustic unruliness, and insubordination that have been glamorized as the love of freedom. Basically, they do not want to live under the restrictions imposed by any civilized society. The Persian word Sarkash describes their character of inveterate contumacy very well. In his cheap politicking, Ronald Reagan had regularly exalted the Afghan Mujahideen as freedom fighters for the simple reason that they were fighting with America’s archenemy, the Soviets—US governments since 2001 have not been as stupid and went on to wage the Global war on Terror against them! Supporting this myth, some people have ‘imagined’ that the word Pathan is a corrupted version of Pahtan which was derived from the word Batan. Nirodbhusan Roy says in ‘Niamatullah’s History of the Afghans that the word Batan means ‘delivered’, or ‘set free’. Since this contrived etymological derivation was created only to support a myth, I do not agree with it.

That the Pathans have never been subjugated is a simple distortion of history. They never stood any chance in pitched battles against regular armies armed with superior weaponry. However, they also knew that their land was so inhospitable that no conqueror would find it economically viable to maintain a large garrison there just to keep them under perpetual control. As such, no victor would bother to establish a proper administrative setup there replete with the state’s administrative and military resources as the land could not yield significant revenue. Kabul was, in fact, the poorest subah in the entire Mughal Empire and yet demanded the highest military expenditure on it. The Kabul subah typically yielded 81% less revenue than say, the Agra subah or Lahore subah.  

Hence, in effect, all that the victors in history succeeded in was merely subjugating the Pathans temporarily—it was not really worthwhile to waste resources on governing them and trying to change their incorrigible way of life. This left them, for all practical purposes, to their old ways of life. If they became more unruly than was acceptable, punitive expeditions would be sent to the interior areas. You could call those expeditions the precursors of modern-day COIN or counterinsurgency operations. But eventually, they would have to go back. And thus it continued throughout the Mughal rule. ‘Insurgent-type behavior’ thus became a part of their collective psyche and value system. The situation remained essentially the same with the British also. Though they subjugated them, establishing government there was not to be cost-effective and hence they were happy keeping the region as a buffer zone with Afghanistan and left them to their ways through the Frontier Crime Regulations 1901.

What is Pashtunwali?

Historically, the Pashtuns have been obstinately clinging to their primitive values and way of life. There is a psychological reason for it. They know that, for several historical reasons, they have fallen far behind people of other ethnicities in the march of civilization in terms of every single parameter including education, culture, various skills, etc. This has bred a collective, deep inferiority complex. Their hanging on obdurately to their primitive values is just a defense mechanism to cope with that inferiority complex.

Sir Winston Churchill the Prime Minister of Britain from 1940 to 1945 during the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955.

Winston Churchill (in ‘My Early Life’, Chapter 11: The Mahmund Valley) has eloquently described them in his characteristic forthright manner, “The Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician, and a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal fortress…Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud…Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid.” Of late, some Muslim scholars, such as Nadjma Yassari of the Max Planck Institute and Maliha Zulfacar of the Social Sciences Department, Cal Poly, USA, for obvious parochial reasons, have added many respectable qualities to Pashtunwali.

There are allegedly several components of the Pathan’s code of conduct/way of life called Pashtunwali or Pukhtunwali (also known as Nang-e-Pukhtun) such as Badal (the obligation to take revenge for a wrong, real or fancied); Melmastia (hospitality and protection to every guest); Nanawati (right to seek asylum); Nang (honor); Sabat (loyalty); Turah (bravery); Khegaṛa/Shegaṛa (righteousness); Groh (faith); Pat, Wyaar, Meṛaana (respect, pride, and courage); Naamus (protection of women); Nang (honor); and Hewaad (country), etc.  

The Gun Culture of Pathans

Pakistan has the biggest arms market, where Kalashnikovs are cheaper than smartphones Pic: www.freepik.com

However, the single most important of them, in every interpretation of Pashtunwali, is Badal (Arabic word meaning revenge) that, beyond doubt, quintessentially characterizes a Pathan—a Pathan lives and dies for revenge. This is largely responsible for their contumacy and the gun culture that goes with it. A Pathan is not considered man enough if he has to look up to some ‘authority’, police, judicial system, or the government to do justice to him. It is for him to seek justice for himself through his gun. When they could do it with swords, they did it with swords; when guns arrived, they were immediately perceived as great ‘equalizers’ demanding nothing unusual in bodily strength and they took to the guns like no other people in the world. Recall the lines from their film ‘Bedaari’ mentioned above speaking of kids growing up under the shadow of guns, and you would understand where the roots of the gun culture lie.

Since the colonial system would not allow them to possess as many guns as they needed, they fell back on illegal guns—simple! There is a saying amongst them, which means that even if the fire in your kitchen is cold, the barrel of your gun must be hot—meaning, even if you are so poor as not to be able to afford food, you should have a gun and you should have fired it for exacting revenge or whatever you perceive by honor. Incidentally, Gen. Musharraf himself had also spoken of the ‘Kalashnikov culture’ in the region. In 2001, he started a campaign also to counter it. For obvious reasons, it had no hope of succeeding. The Geneva-based research group Small Arms Survey maintains that out of some 18 million arms in Pakistan, only about 2 million are legal; the rest are all illegal!

On-Screen Undue Glamorization of Pathans

A recent film in India called ‘Pathan’, replete with gravity-put-to-shame stunts typifies the on-screen undue and unwarranted glamorization of Pathans. In this film, the lead character is a former R&AW agent, an Indian army soldier/covert operative fighting in Afghanistan, who is severely injured in trying to save a village from a missile attack. He is comatose for nearly a month and the villagers who tend to him, name him ‘Pathan’.

The question is why should they name him ‘Pathan’ and not something else? This is clearly an underhand, despicable attempt to glamorize the Pathans through the film. The villagers tended to the comatose man for nearly a month. This means they must have washed him and cleaned up his bodily functions (urination and defecation) also—necessarily by undressing him. Now, two possibilities exist. First, they could have found him circumcised, and understood that he was a Muslim. Question is, why they had to call him Pathan, and not something else?

There is no case that, in their opinion, the only brave among Indian Muslims could be Ashraf Pathans, who are so few in the country. Debunking the popular myth of the bravery of Pathans, readers must know that out of the 21 Param Vir Chakra winners in India (the highest gallantry award); there is only one Muslim, Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid from Ghazipur, UP. He was not a Pathan but came from a family of tailors.

There is no reason to believe that the villagers who tended to the lead character were so ignorant that they knew nothing about India and Muslims in India even though many of them have been spreading mayhem in Kashmir for 33 years. For several decades, people of the region have been moving around in the world—their leaders regularly go abroad and with mediums like TV, Internet, and mobile phones, their knowledge about the world cannot be what it was in 1901! I mean, why they could not have associated him with the much more populous Ajlaf/Pasmanda/Arzal Muslims in India and call him say, Ansari?

Second, if they found him to be uncircumcised, why could they not call him by a very widely known appellation say, Pandit or the like? We cannot run away from the fact that calling him ‘Pathan’ is to accentuate the character’s Muslim identity and a covert attempt to bolster the myth of the Pathans being innately daring, etc.!

Pathans Have Become Victims of Their Own Image

You analyze the behavior of the terrorists of this region anytime and you will realize that a significant part of the problem arises because of the unnecessarily hyped glamorization of the stereotypes associated with the Pathans. It has become such a dangerous cultural trope that they have become victims of their own image. Even for the recent Peshawar mosque suicidal bomb blast that killed 100 people (mostly police officers) and injured 221 others, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) commander Sarbakaf said that it was a revenge action (that is, Badal) for the killing of his brother Umar Khalid Khurasani who was killed last August in Afghanistan and the Pak army’s Special Forces having killed 33 TTP cadres in Bannu where they had taken police officers, hostage.

Also Read: Balochistan – a living hell in moth-eaten Pakistan -1

Pathans have a psychological compulsion in continuing to remain what they are—they know that once they leave it and try to join the mainstream, they would be so far behind the others that it would be nearly impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the world. In desperation, they are clinging to whatever they have. That is precisely the reason the TTP is demanding that the merger of their land, the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), with the regular province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa must be reversed and they should be allowed to live the way they had been living in 1901!

We the people of this region are now paying the price of our historical mistake—unnecessarily glamorizing certain obnoxious personality traits of the Pathans.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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