The history of ‘dangerous fanatics’

Tracing the historical and conceptual foundations of the marginalisation and demonisation of the Pashtun to understand the contemporary racial security paradigms

The history of ‘dangerous fanatics’

Recent political events have brought to light some of the grievances of the Pashtun community in Pakistan against the backdrop of the war on terror; including extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, everyday humiliation at security checkposts, large-scale displacement and dispossession in the tribal belts as well as the surveillance, harassment, discrimination and violence faced by Pashtun migrants and refugees in urban centers across the country. While the situation was exacerbated by the launch of the global war on terror almost two decades ago, the marginalisation and demonisation of the Pashtun, especially those from the tribal belt, is hardly novel.

In recognition of the draconian nature of Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) 1901 - the colonial law that governed the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (Fata), the National Assembly has passed a constitutional amendment aimed at abolishing FCR and bringing Fata under the ambit of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. While this is a welcome move that came about as a result of years of discussion and negotiation on the status of Fata and the colonial nature of FCR, it is perhaps too early to claim that the legacy of this legislation, and the wider framework of colonial governance are now at an end. To do that would require the recognition of the social, cultural, legal and conceptual framing(s) that paved the way for such legislation to be passed, and the ways in which they continue to hold sway over the lives of millions of ordinary Pashtuns today.

While certain provisions of FCR e.g. collective punishment are well known and discussed, the legislation also contained a certain conceptual categorisation that has evaded more thorough investigation. Section 36(A) of FCR 1901 stated that the Political Agent or the District Coordination Officer can require any person in Fata to relocate within or outside Fata if he is deemed to be "dangerously fanatic". While the Act of 1901 does not mention "fanatic" elsewhere and does not elaborate on its meaning, the latent potency of the term can be judged by the fact that the earlier versions of these regulations i.e. The Punjab Murderous Outrages Act of 1867 and Murderous Outrages Act of 1877 make it clear that they aim to deal with the murders of state officials (as well as other persons), at the hands of the "fanatics" located in certain districts of the Punjab (which at that time included the frontier regions).

Who are these "fanatics" and what is the relationship of this conceptual category with the Pashtun community, and the way it is disproportionately targeted by counter-terrorism measures today? The answer lies in the historical understanding of the term fanatic in colonial India. There are multiple histories of both this terminology and its associated security paradigms, but one of the earliest instances where we begin to read accounts that closely mirror contemporary security narratives relates to a movement that the British knew simply as the "Hindustani Fanatics".

Hunter’s characterisation of the "fanatic masses" and Sir Syed’ portrayal of the border tribes in response allow us a glimpse into one such trajectory through which such formulations came to be solidified into an episteme of governance in British India and post-independence Pakistan, and continue to haunt us today.

While much was written on the subject, it is W.H. Hunter’s 1871 book titled The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound In Conscience To Rebel Against The Queen? which stands out. Rumoured to have been written in response to the then governor general Lord Mayo’s query regarding the propensity of the Indian Muslims to rebel against the British Empire because of the intrinsic ‘fanatical’ nature of Islam, the book provides a succinct overview of the British anxieties over its Muslim subjects in general, and of a certain group of Muslims called the "Hindustani Fanatics" in particular who the British alleged to be the followers of the strict but unorthodox sect of Wahabism. It also marks a watershed moment in British Indian history where the category of "Muslim" (and later "Tribal/Pashtun") precipitates into the distinctive formulation of treasonous, anti-modern and anti-secular that is so exceedingly reminiscent of contemporary politics.

Interestingly, while Hunter begins his account with a suspicion of all Muslims as predisposed to sedition, he goes on to specifically identify the Wahabi movement in India as the cause for concern, eventually narrowing down the problem to the Pashtun tribes who followed these Wahabi preachers. The route taken to get to this conclusion though is worth deconstructing.

Hunter traces the history of the Wahabi movement in British India and notes that the founder of the movement Syed Ahmed Brelvi (Bareilly) started out as a bandit but later studied Fiqh and became a preacher. His first disciples were the descendants of Rohillas (Pashtun migrants who had settled in Uttar Pradesh a century earlier, and spoke Urdu), who had been "wronged" by the British, and were therefore ready to exact "undying revenge". In 1822, after a pilgrimage to Mecca he became influenced by the teachings of Abdul Wahab. Upon his return, he set up a camp in Northern India among the "wild mountaineers of the Peshawar Frontier", and incited them to do Jihad against the Sikh rulers of Punjab. Here, Hunter claims that these "most superstitious" of the Muhammadan peoples were only too "delighted to get a chance of plundering their Hindu neighbours under the sanction of religion".

In her piece "The Phantom Wahhabi: Liberalism and theMuslim fanatic in mid-Victorian India" , Published online on December 5, 2012 by Cambridge University Press, Julia Stephens recounts the Great Wabahi trials of the nineteenth century to demonstrate how the panic over imperial security led the authorities on a witch-hunt against suspected Wahabis. She proposes the category of "Phantom Wahabi" as a way to understand the extent of British Indian government’s paranoia around the subject and their simultaneous inability to produce convincing evidence of a widespread conspiracy in the courts of law.

But a close reading of Hunter’s text suggests that the British were more equivocal about the Wahabis whom, Hunter states at one point - were merely "stir(ring) up thousands of their countrymen to a purer life and a truer conception of the Almighty". Rather it appears that the crux of colonial paranoia lay elsewhere: according to Hunter the "noble teachings" of the Wahabis did not satisfy their audience who appeared to lose interest. Wahabi preachers were therefore forced to "enlist the more certain and more permanent hatred… towards the English" and to shift their teachings so as to appeal to "the fanatical fury of the populace".

Hunter has woven a strange loop of a tale where the Muslaman and specifically Pashtun masses are instigated to rebellion by the Hindustani Fanatics, who in turn are only truly politicised by the fanatical demands of the masses themselves. As confounding as this sounds, in the last instance the weight of Hunter’s argument falls in favour of the ‘Fanatic Masses’ as the real culprits when he declares that it is "not the traitors themselves whom we have to fear", but "the seditious masses" and "the superstitious tribes on our Frontier", whom the Fanatics have organised to wage a continuous "Religious War" against the British.

In short then, it is the swathes of ordinary people, especially those on the remote Frontiers of the Empire, predisposed towards fanaticism that are the real cause of the sedition and unrest in the colonial state.

This imperial formation had important consequences not just for the rhetoric and policing techniques employed by the colonial state, but have continued to play a role in the way the global War on Terror has been imagined, and fought, in the 21st century.

Hunter’s diagnosis did not go without attracting criticism, even from his contemporaries. One of the most poignant, and historically relevant, of these critiques came from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan -- an Anglophile Indian Muslim who worked as a jurist for the East India Company, and who went on to become a revered figure in certain sections of the Muslim community and later in the annals of Pakistan’s official history.

In his official response to Hunter, Sir Syed appreciated Hunter’s desire to understand Muslim grievances, but took exception to Hunter’s characterisation of the entire Muslaman population of India as seditious, fanatical, anti-modern and anti-British. He reminded Hunter that many Muslims had supported the British in the 1857 Mutiny, himself included. Most Muslims, argued Sir Syed, had in fact chosen to willingly live in peace under British protection, and were not vying for holy war. Yet what remains instructive about Sir Syed’s formulation is that even as he defended Muslims, he chose to utilise Hunter’s category of the ‘fanatic masses’, albeit in an altered vein. In response to Hunter’s comment that the British authorities had to constantly be prepared for war against the border tribes whose hatred against the infidels the Hindustani Fanatics had fanned, Sir Syed chides:

"Our author forgets the very important fact that these mountain tribes have been turbulent from time immemorial; that they have never allowed any peace to any nation living on their frontiers, whether so-called infidels or Musalmans; that they fought indiscriminately with the Mohammedan emperors of Delhi and with the Sikhs in the Panjab. Like the Irishman at a fair, it mattered little to them who it was, as long as it was someone to fight with. Even the great tyrant Nadir Shah, whose name was feared throughout India, was never able to keep them in subjection.

"The Pathan tribes of the Frontier are a destabilizing influence for the Empire not so much because the Wahabi Preachers radicalise them, or because they take their Islam too seriously. They do not challenge British rule because it is illegitimate - they do it solely because they know not how else to live."

Here is a shifting of a gear - from the fanatic as the religious other to the fanatic as primarily the ethnic or racial other. The British narrative itself was laden with racial and ethnic distinctions - but Sir Syed’s formulation, when given as a defence of Muslim-ness, shifts the focus onto them more emphatically. That Sir Syed and his ideology occupy such a crucial place in the canon of the Pakistani state, hints at the way the postcolonial state has come to imagine itself, questions of sovereignty and citizenship, Islam and its ongoing tussle with fanaticism and terrorism, and racial and ethnic hierarchies.

It is not surprising then that supported by American money, Pakistani state’s geopolitical opportunism and a verdant socio-legal landscape harking back to the colonial era, "tribal and the Pashtun as fanatic/seditious/terrorist" is one principal vector in which contemporary Pakistani security regime has come to take hold.

Hunter’s characterisation of the "fanatic masses" and Sir Syed’ portrayal of the border tribes in response allow us a glimpse into one such trajectory through which such formulations came to be solidified into an episteme of governance in British India and post-independence Pakistan, and continue to haunt us today. The work of undoing these racialised security regimes will therefore involve not just challenging the laws and policies in place, but the very historical and conceptual foundations, with their accompanying vocabularies, that allow such laws and policies to take shape in the first place.

The history of ‘dangerous fanatics’