The monarch in exile

King Amanullah Khan pushed for reform, angering conservative elements

Amanullah Khan’s father, Habibullah and his grandfather Amir Abd ur Rahman had both worked with the British to their satisfaction and ruled Afghanistan for about four decades without the power to pursue an independent foreign policy.

When the young prince, only 26 years old, ascended the throne in Kabul, after his father was shot dead in 1919, he wasted no time in exploiting the post WWI situation to win complete freedom and sovereignty for Afghanistan. He then declared war on the British-India. The four-month war, unusually short for that era, began with successes for the Afghans supported by the tribes in Waziristan and Khyber but British-Indian forces supported by the Royal Air Force fought back and forced the Afghans to an armistice.

While there was no clear military victory, it ended in a political victory for the Afghans who won control of their foreign policy after 40 years.

In the post-WWI world, Afghanistan became an island – an independent one – among a number of countries that were either directly under colonial rule or were protectorates and dependent on imperial powers. This was when the allied powers had subdued the Ottomans and started liquidating the Ottoman Empire. Indians in general, and Indian Muslims in particular, were pained at the insulting terms imposed on Turkey.

Amanullah Khan and his foreign minister, Allama Mahmud Beg Tarzi, who were still engaged in peace negotiations with the British, felt for the Ottomans and demanded an easing of the terms. The young king would directly or via his foreign minister, convey messages of sympathy, consolation and hope to Indians. It was mostly as a result of such gestures from King Amanullah Khan and his government that many Indian Muslims migrated to Afghanistan. While these actions couldn’t affect a change in the policy of Allied Powers towards the Ottomans, Amanullah Khan’s actions and speeches inspired many Indians – some to freedom.

After officially securing independence and sovereignty for Afghanistan 101 years ago, the young king moved quickly to establish relations with the outside world and sent missions to numerous countries. He then took it upon himself to reform the conservative Islamic country. He appointed a team of native and foreign scholars and jurists to draft the first constitution of Afghanistan that pushed for reforms but at the same time was consistent with Sharia. The constitution abolished slavery, mandated universal primary education, granted civil rights to all, granted religious freedom to non-Muslims and declared the homes of citizens immune from forcible entry. It prohibited polygamy and child marriages and imposed property tax.

These developments in Afghanistan and the king’s bravery and apparent pan-Islamism inspired Allama Muhammad Iqbal to dedicate his book Piyam-i-Mashriq (The Message from the East, published 1923) to him.

In January 1928, the king undertook a tour of Europe to seek partnerships abroad, to study the Western society and to bring back ideas to develop Afghanistan. In his seven months stay abroad, he toured several countries including Britain, Germany, France, Turkey and Soviet Union. Upon his return home, he held meetings and sessions with the members of his government and public on his agenda of reforms. Among other things, he placed great emphasis on the attire of the public in general and of government officials in particular. He made them wear Western clothes and discouraged the traditional Afghan clothing. He convened a Loya Jirga to discuss his reform agenda where almost all elders and representatives, as had always been the case, appeared in traditional clothes. The next day, the king made them wear Western clothes. That didn’t go down well. Also, Queen Soraya, would attend public events in skirts and without a veil and encourage other women to do so.

The king was pushing for many changes and at a great pace. This angered the conservative population of the country and turned many mullahs against him who started calling his reforms un-Islamic. Soon revolts broke out in various parts of the country. Most prominent of these were the one in the Shinwari country in Nangrahar the one led by Habibullah Kalakani, also known as Bacha Saqao (the water carrier’s son). In January 1929, forces loyal to Kalakani captured Kabul and forced Amanullah Khan to exile in Europe. Kalakani immediately reversed all “un-Islamic” reforms that had caused the widespread revolts.

Amanullah Khan, the king who had won independence for Afghans by challenging a great imperial power, spent the rest of his life in exile – trying to stage a comeback and fighting off propaganda in the Western press that targeted his faith. He died in Switzerland in 1960 and was buried in Kabul.

King Amanulla: The monarch in exile