372.The Man in Blue – The North West Frontier Province

The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan is part of the inheritance of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, taken over in 1849 by the East India Company and after the 1857 Mutiny by the British Empire.

In the period before independence of India and Pakistan the leading political party of the NWFP would probably have preferred to be part of India. This might be because they were conquered by Panjabis in the past, and did not fancy being part of a state dominated by Panjabis.

It was good for the North West of India that Ranjit Singh conquered this border area of Afghanistan, and so controlled the Khyber Pass. But the Sikh Kingdom conquered the NWFP against the will of its population. It was ruled very harshly by the likes of General Paolo Bartolomeo Avitabile, an Italian general in the service of Ranjit Singh.

Avitabile was a ruthless ruler, summary executions became usual, and he had people executed by throwing them from the top of one of the city’s mosques. What was true then is true still : Pathans, whether in the NWFP or in Afghanistan are not the easiest to people to rule (and neither are Sikhs).

Under the Lahore Kingdom, under British rule and as part of Pakistan the so-called tribal areas were given a degree of autonomy because it was simply too difficult to control them. The Swat Valley which is very much in the news these days was a semi-independent princely state until 1969.

Although the valley does not have as turbulent a history as the tribal areas, part of the reason why there is support for the Taliban in Swat is that they were integrated in Pakistan without having any say in the matter.

I am just trying to give you a feel of the modern history of the NWFP and of the role played by the Sikhs. I have no brilliant suggestions on how to solve the present problems in the province.

Pakistan could of course give the NWFP back to Afghanistan, and maybe some parts of the border areas of Baluchistan as well. This will change the nature of the problems, but will not make them go away. Having violence in areas just across your borders is different from having them just inside your borders, but is not necessarily much better.

Pakistan should try to reach out to the people of the NWFP and their traditional leaders, bypassing the Taliban, and allow local autonomy in exchange for adherence to basic human rights.

I would be very surprised if this were to be accomplished by corrupt and incompetent Pakistani politicians like Ali Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif.