Published On: Sun, Jan 17th, 2010

Conquering Afghanistan: What the West can learn from India

By Rakesh Krishnan

If there’s one thing that really gets me worked up, it is this: the western media keeps peddling the fairy tale that no power – from Alexander 2300 years ago to Britain in the 19th century and Russia 30 years ago – was able to conquer Afghanistan. To me it reeks of ignorance, and reporters in western countries have exhibited a lot of that. Remember, this is the same bunch that devoted reams of newsprint to the lie that al-Qaeda was getting help from Iraq, when in reality Iraq under Saddam Hussein was the most secular in West Asia.

But how could experienced and Pulitzer Prize winning writers ignore facts? Don’t they have armies of researchers at their beck and call? Also, newspapers like the NYT and The Guardian have excellent research departments that can dig out the region’s history!

The truth is that just 180 years ago Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) and his brilliant commander Hari Singh Nalwa defeated the Afghans and the tribes of the Khyber Pass area, in the process securing India’s north west border. Had it not been for Ranjit Singh, Peshawar and the north-west frontier provinces of India (now in Pakistan) would have been part of Afghanistan today.

But first a flashback: Afghanistan had always been a part of India; it was called Gandhar, from which the modern Kandahar originates. It was a vibrant province that gave us excellent art, architecture, literature and scientific knowledge – a world far removed from today’s Taliban infested badlands.

It was an Indian province until 1735 when Nadir Shah of Iran emboldened by the weakness of the later Mughals ransacked Delhi and everything on the way. This was a highly opportunistic and reckless act because for the past 25 centuries India and Iran had respected each other’s borders, and though always a bit nervous of each other, the two empires never tried to subvert each other. But because of his greed Nadir Shah  hanged the equation. He annexed Afghanistan and asked the Indians to forget about ever getting it back.

However, Ranjit Singh was not prepared to play according to the Persian script. Nadir Shah’s successor, Ahmad Shah Abdali, had been launching repeated raids into Punjab and Delhi. To check this Ranjit Singh decided to build a modern and powerful army with the employment of Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Germans and Austrians. Two of the foreign officers who entered the Maharaja’s service, Ventura and Allard, had served under Napoleon. Says historian Shiv Kumar Gupta: “All these officers were basically engaged by Ranjit Singh for modernisation of his troops. He never put them in supreme command.”

After conquering Multan in 1818 and Kashmir in 1819, Ranjit Singh led his legions across the Indus and took Dera Ghazi Khan in 1820 and Dera Ismail Khan in 1821. Alarmed, the Afghans called for a jehad under the leadership of Azim Khan Burkazi, the ruler of Kabul. A big Afghan army collected on the bank of the Kabul River at Naushehra, but Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and the Afghans were dispersed in 1823. Peshawar was subdued in 1834.

The Afghans and Pathans had always considered themselves superior to the people on the Indian side. They especially looked down upon Indian Muslims and contemptuously referred to them as Hindko. The fact that the Indians were superior in all respects – wealth, culture, literature, art – mattered little to them, as physical stature was the only basis for this peacock-like strutting. Says historian Kirpal Singh, “The pride of the Afghans and Pathans was pricked for the first time as they had been defeated by the Sikhs whom they considered infidels. Undoubtedly, they were agitated and used to say Khalsa Hum Khuda Shuda (Khalsa too has become believer of God).”

So how did Ranjit Singh manage to conquer such fierce mountain people? Mainly by using a blend of sustained aggression latter smoothened by Indian magnanimity. Of course, his biggest weapon was the scourge of the Afghans –Hari Singh Nalwa, who in one battle defeated 20,000 Hazaras. To defeat the cunning and fierce Hazaras on their treacherous home turf was no mean feat but to do that with only 7000 men was the stuff of legend.

Indeed, Hari Singh had become a legend. He realised that to dominate the warlike tribes, the ikhs had to give them the same treatment the Afghans had given the Indians in the past. According to Kirpal Singh, “Hari Singh set up a very strong administration in the Peshawar valley. He levied a cess of Rs 4 per house on the Yusafzais. This cess was to be collected in cash or in kind. For its
realisation, personal household property could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village that was not burnt. In such awe were his visitations held that Hari Singh Nalwa’s name was used by Afghan mothers as a term of fright to hush their unruly children.”

Though the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken, the region predominantly populated by turbulent and warlike Muslim tribes could not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there. A force of 12,000 men was posted with Hari Singh to quell any sign of turbulence and to realise the revenue. “The terror of the name of the Khalsa resounded in the valley,” says Kirpal Singh. “Part of the city of Peshawar was burnt and the residence of the governor at Bala Hissar was razed to the ground.”

Ranjit Singh ensured that the Afghans never again became a threat to India. The wild tribes of Swat and Khyber were also tamed. These are the same people who massacred British armies, and against whom the Americans and Pakistanis are now struggling.

There are three reasons why Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and in Afghanistan and the northwest while the West is floundering.

First, terror tactics were followed by a period of liberal and secular Sikh rule. In fact, secularism was the defining character of Ranjit Singh’s rule. There was no state religion, and religious tolerance was an article of his faith. He refused to treat Muslims like second class citizens. Compare this with the callous strafing of wedding parties by US and European troops or the Nazi
uniforms being worn by Czech troops.

When his victorious army passed through the streets of Peshawar, the maharajah issued strict instructions to his sardars to observe restraint in keeping with the Sikh tradition, not to damage any mosque, not to insult any woman and not to destroy any crops.

Two, like the NATO forces in Afghanistan today, Ranjit Singh’s army was a coalition too. The Indian king’s forces were made up of Sikhs and Hindus, while the artillery almost fully comprised Muslims (as the Sikhs and Hindus thought it below their dignity to serve in this new wing of the military). Over half a dozen European nations are assisting US troops just as European specialists worked for Ranjit Singh. Also, for the first time in Indian history, Mazhabis, for centuries considered untouchables, become a regular component of the army.

However, there is a key difference – Ranjit’s Singh’s forces worked like clockwork with one aim in mind and that was to secure the empire. Today, the US is reluctant to do all the fighting, the British forces are simply not up to the task of taking on the fierce Afghans and relies on bribes to keep away the Taliban fighters. Which Afghan will show his opponent respect if they bribe them
not to shoot? The Ukrainians, Poles, Australians, New Zealanders, Czechs, and who knows how many more nationalities, are present in Afghanistan clearly to curry favour with America and wrap up their respective free trade agreements. Nobody, it seems, has the balls to take on the Afghans, except from 30,000 ft in the air.

Around 30 years ago, the Russian general Nikolai Ogarkov advised Leonid Brezhnev’s cabinet not to invade Afghanistan, saying that the country was unconquerable; today NATO generals are asking Barack Obama to get out of the place or else the Americans will have to leave in the same state as they left Vietnam – in their underpants. But Hari Singh and Ranjit Singh showed how a
mixture of ferocity, valour and compassion could tame Afghanistan. And that’s the third reason: at the end of the day, the Indians just did a much better job of fighting.

Rakesh Krishnan is a features writer at Fairfax New Zealand. He has previously worked with Business world, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.

  • anan

    Rakesh, Iran is an Ayran civilization like South Asia; at least before Zorastra. This is the cause of the close connection between ancient Pharsi/Avesta and Vedic Samhita Sanskrit.

    Afghanistan is part of this shared Aryan civilization. It has alternated between Persia and South Asia many times over the past many millenia.

    There are 44 countries contributing troops to ISAF. Over a dozen countries are making substantial contributions. The number of non US troops is likely to reach fifty some thousand.

    This is not even discussing the ANA and ANP. This is primarily a war between the ANA/ANP and the Taliban. I don’t understand the pessimism that the ANA/ANP cannot win this war.

  • harjot

    It’s good that you are unolding truth.As Ranjit Singh was only person who was able to save India from Mughals and Afghan.Earlier that all the people were engaged in casteism and foolish ceremonies.Only Guru Gobind Singh ji abolished these.You now when Mahmud Ghaznavi came to India the brahmans said that we should bring devdashis in front of shivji and his third eye will open and his whole army will become blind But nothing happened the result of that Mahmud Ghaznavi’s men took thousands of girls with him when returning to afghanistan.Same thing happened when Babbar came to India Guru Nanak Dev Ji has depicted all this in gurbani .the conditions became so worse that mughal rulers use to spit in the mouth of hindus .It was the gurus who saved India from mughals a.Thousands of sikhs gave their life for this cause .but the sad part of this is people don’t realize if sikhs weren’t there thay all had been muslims.They keep on insulting Guru Gobind Singh ji has he was the worshipper of durga ,Guru Nanak Dev Ji did sharads and all that kind of stuff.I think we should educate people about all this so india can be a better country.Otherwise people will keep on revolting which will resutl in hazard.You should read Sirdar kapur singh’s books to learn more about maharaja ranjit singh and hari singh nalwa

    • Karan

      harjot ji i would like to make something very clear to you that sikhs were formed from hindus only. considering urself to a separate entity is pure negligence. there was no sikh at the time of the great saint guru nanak devji. wearing the turban comes with great responsibilty. people like u cannot live to your gurus expectation. I recommend you read the complete history about ranjeet singh and surely his about his downfall.

      • Jaspreetsingh

        Karan ji even i will make things more clear to you that yes at the time of Guru Nanak Dev ji there were only hindus. But later on there was a need of forming a religion who is fearless and will stand against evil. And thats why KHALSA born. And this is your negligence that you are thinking that we are part of hindus. No offense to anyone, but this is required otherwise no hindus will b hindus today. I have good enuf knowledge of my history and my roots. But yes i am sure you are still surrounded by misconceptions of your life.

        • Amit Bhartari

          Jaspreet , Karan and Harjot ,
          Question is do sikhs and hindus talk to each other like stranger ? certainly not. My best friends is sikh , neither he nor i thinks that we are from different religion.

          Just because Congress made a terrible mistake in 1984 , doesn’t mean we be a part of it.
          I believe Maharaja Ranjit Singh is the only leader which makes us proud , otherwise our written history is all about atrocities on us. (lets not to to Ramayan and Mahabharat)

          Fact remains in this terrible situation the country is going through , Hindus and sikhs are the only people who will fight the enemy.
          Gujjus , south indians are not of much help
          Hope it makes sense


  • Karan

    these are just stories my friend. The winner always rights the history his way. do you have any written records for the same. its just that the tribes living in afganistan are good fighters hope you should respect the other side also.

  • KhalistanZindabad

    One thing to remember is maharaja ranjit singh did not fight for india, so india did not take over afghanistan. He was ruler of the Sikh kingdom , India had nothing to do with it since it wasnt even a state at the time.

  • undefeatable

    if india was this superior than british wouldn’t rule for many years over both Pakistan and India over billions of people …lolz btw the story was nice

  • Human

    All religions started somewhere, all religions are man made, what is the common denominator here–> we are all humans first and that is what separates us from animals. Just like Sikhism was born in 1699 with hindus/muslims or whatever, doesn’t mean it is an offshoot of Hindu religion. I am sure, when Hindu religion or Muslim religion came into existence, people from other religions/sects joined to become Hindus or Muslims. Religions are man made because before all the religions came into existence, humans were just humans and not muslim/hindu/christians/sikhs. Treat everyone as humans and how you would like to be treated and world will be a better place.

  • Dr. K G Karmakar

    Maharaja Ranjit Singh, like Shivaji before him was wary of foreign domination whether by the British or the Afghans. He understood the need to modernise his Army and he brought in European mercenaries to do so. But he also added the Nihangs as Shock troops to counter the Afghans dervishes pepped up with opium. People seem to have forgotten how Hari Singh Nalwa, his general brought back what they supposed to be Somnath’s plundered Gates! Zorawar Singh was another great General. As long as Ranjit Singhji lived, the British could get no foothold in the entire region. While the Sikh troops continued to fight, the Sikh Sardars sold out to the British and even the Kohinoor was swallowed by the British. I wish we had leaders of Ranjit Singhji’s calibre today so that our neighbours including China and Pakistan would treat us with more respect. Our so-called leaders need to develop spines to deal with a rogue state like Pakistan and the Chinese Dragon, without compromising our Integrity.

  • Ira Kun

    I read somewhere which was quoted by a Greek historian, Arrian believe, “The people of Punjab and Sindh are fierce, the people deep inside are said to be of higher stature and power”. This reveals to me how falsly, Indian history has been portrayed by contemporary history. Among other subjects such as the Indus civilization as well, it is only the subjects concerning India, that are always shrouded with much mystery, controversy and debate. I find it interesting and at the same time a wild introspection, as to what do I do to tell this insane world the truth, how is it that a nation which by no means, I say superior to any other nation, which the nation itself in its entire history never proclaims, but only says it is different, is being toyed around with its history and its peoples. It is sad to my heart that I am helpless as of the moment except for only myself to know the truth while this insane world, delves in ignorance and creates falsity of such an Illustrious nation that is India or as I shall say Tenjiku. “May I gather the strength to serve my part to uncover the veil to present the truth about You to this rather confused world.” Me being a “foreigner”, I feel so strongly towards this rather unfortunate situation that this, once again, Illustrious nation is in, I wonder how do even remotely do Indians feel about this ? I’d like to know!

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