After graduating from Sandhurst in 1933, John Masters spent a year on the North-West Frontier with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. In Bugles and a Tiger, he describes the region:
As the conquering British, more than a hundred years ago, moved diagonally north-westward across India from their original trading-posts in Surat, Calcutta, and Madras, they eventually reached the mountains that separate the subcontinent from Afghanistan. These mountains extend four hundred miles from the Khyber Pass in the north to the Bolan Pass in the deserts of Baluchistan to the south. They are raw and bare, and a proudly independent people live in them. These people, Semitic in origin, Moslem in religion, Pushtu in speech, are the Pathans. (The name is pronounced ‘P’tahn,’ except by British soldiers, who use ‘Paythan.’)
The Pathans, subdivided into various tribes, live astride the Indo-Afghan border, which runs roughly down the middle of the mountain chain. Not only do different members of the same tribe live on opposite sides of the international boundary, but the same family or sub-tribe may own winter fields on the Indian side and summer grazing on the Afghan side. In all historical time the Pathans have kept themselves alive by a combination of nomad life, half-hearted tillage of the barren earth, armed raids into the settled farmlands of the plains, and levying tolls on the commercial traffic that must use the few routes through their hills. The principal routes are via the Kabul River, the Khyber Pass, the Kurram River, the Tochi River, the Gomal River, and the Bolan Pass.
Well armed, owning no king or central authority, loosely organized into soviets of tribes, sub-tribes, and families, fanatically adhering to the Moslem law, addicted to blood feuds and vendettas, the Pathans gave the oncoming British serious pause. And in addition the Indian and Afghan Governments could not for a long time agree on the international boundary and thus make it possible even to define responsibilities.
There seemed to be two possible solutions to this nightmare problem. The Government of India could push its powers right up to some putative boundary, disarm the tribesmen on its own side, and introduce full-scale administration as it was known throughout the rest of India — the law, the lawyers, the taxes, the police, and the rest, all entirely alien to Pathan tradition and spirit.
This solution would have left the tribesmen on the Indian side of the boundary at the mercy of their still armed cousins across the Afghan border; the Afghan Government has not for centuries been strong enough to disarm its tribes even if it wanted to. The Government of India would thus have had to keep a large army in this inhospitable border country, first to keep order among its Pathans and, second, to protect those same Pathans against the Afghans. The task of disarming the tribes might have cost about twenty thousands lives and taken ten years of all-out campaigning.
The second possible solution was for the Government of India to wash its hands of the whole area, retire to the settled agricultural line of the River Indus, and let the tribesmen rule themselves according to their old traditions. But the tribes could not exist without their periodic raids into the farmlands, so this solution would have led, again, to a larger standing army and annual punitive operations. It would also have left in the unreliable hands of the tribes those few and vital passes through which ‘A Foreign Power’ — which meant Russia — must advance if it was to attack India.
Since the Government of India was, until 1947, entirely controlled by the British it is hardly necessary to say that a third or compromise solution was adopted. The Government actually administered the country as far as a line known as the Administrative Border. West of this, in a belt varying from ten to a hundred miles in width, was Tribal Territory. Here the Pathans could govern themselves as they pleased, provided they did not raid into Afghanistan or into the settled Indian districts.
To enable punishments to be meted out quickly if the Pathans broke the rules, and to hold the strategic passes, the Government built forts and stationed soldiers at a few places of particular importance inside Tribal Territory. It also built roads linking the forts and decreed that Pax Britannica should apply on the roads and for a hundred yard on each side of them. A man with a blood feud on his head would build a tunnel from his house to the road so that he could take the air there in safety under the eyes of his armed enemy, and when he had had enough fresh air he would crawl back down the tunnel to his fortress-house.
Finally, the glint of steel was tactfully hidden behind the glitter of gold. The Government gave the tribal heads large annual allowances, but these could be withheld at the discretion of the resident British political officers, and were dependent on the good behaviour of the tribe.
The Government also tried to remove the conditions that made the Pathan such an awkward element in the Indian pattern. Its efforts never met with much success. Consent is part of democracy, and it was neither easy nor, perhaps, right to force the Pathans to attend school, give up vendettas, and become peaceful farmers, when the old bloodthirsty ways constituted for them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Pathans preferred to keep to the ancient traditions and take the consequences; that is, to be left in peace — to fight.
Not much has changed.