Gasht or Barampta

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

North Waziristan exemplified the British system along the Northwest Frontier in the 1930s:

The Political Agent, North Waziristan, had his headquarters near the middle of his area, at Miranshah, where there were a fort and an airfield. He lived inside the fort, where also were the headquarters of the Tochi Scouts. The Scouts also held a few small Beau Geste forts scattered around the country, each garrisoned by perhaps two hundred and fifty Pathan officers and scouts, and one British officer. The Scouts’ only armament was rifles and a few immobile machine-guns for defence of the forts.

Once or twice a week each post commander would leave a part of his force inside the fort and take the rest out on patrol. If the patrol had no particular purpose it was called a gasht; but if it was specifically punitive in purpose — in which case the Political Agent would usually accompany it — it was called by the delightfully onomatopoeic name of barampta. Gasht or barampta, the Scouts covered enormous distances at high speeds. Each man carried thirty or fifty rounds of ammunition, a water bottle, a bag of raisins, a few disks of unleavened bread, and a lump or two of coarse sugar. The whole party, numbering perhaps one hundred and eighty, shared the burden of the heavy baggage — four stretchers and a basket of carrier pigeons. The gashts swept along the ridges and past the loopholed towers, loping ceaselessly on at five miles an hour, and returned after a circuit of twenty-five or thirty-five miles to their fort. The baramptas pounced before dawn on some fortress village withing fifteen miles of their post, arrested the startled headman, and whisked him lightfoot to headquarters, there to explain just what hand the young men of his village had taken in last week’s mail robbery, and why he had not come on his own in answer to several polite summonses.

Scouts on the move were a magnificent sight. The British officers were indistinguishable from the men — all brown as berries, all wearing khaki turbans, grey shirts, flapping loose outside khaki shorts, stockings, and nailed sandals. The Pathans — in uniform or out, fighting on one side or the other — are rangy, hawk-nosed, and seem to be made of whipcord and steel. British officers of Scouts had hard work at first to keep up, but in time they all developed astounding endurance and matched it with an equally astounding ability in drinking and revelling. Several famous mountaineers, including the great Peter Oliver of Everest, had served with Scouts at one time or another. The only people who could outmarch Scouts, and then only on roads, were Mountain Artillery moving with their guns and their huge Missouri mules. (On manoeuvres in 1939 one mountain battery covered seventy-three miles in twenty-three hours at a steady pounding trot; the men hung on to the mule saddlery or to the stirrups of the few horses.)

When a situation passed beyond the power of the Scouts to control it the army emerged from its posts in tribal territory and lumbered into action under the direction of the Political Agents and their boss, the local Resident. Sometimes even this was not enough, and then the Resident whistled up still more soldiers from the nearby garrison towns in India proper — Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Kohat, and the rest — and a full-scale Frontier war was on.

In the last stage the Resident handed over his civil powers to the army commander.  This amounted to martial law.  All the politicals took one pace sideways and one pace backward and, instead of telling their military opposite numbers what to do, assumed a knowledgeable air and advised them of the probable political effects of the action they intended to take.  But this happened only when violence was so widespread and so clearly out of hand that the problem was not to calm the tribes but to restore conditions in which the politicals could begin to think what was the best way of doing so.

That’s from chapter 17 of John Masters’ Bugles and a Tiger.

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