Durand Line is a reminder of how Afghans were cheated by the British and an artificial border was created whose legitimacy is questionable

by Arun Anand

The recent skirmish between Pakistan and Afghanistan on their border might have come to a halt, but this long-standing conflict between the two countries would continue to erupt. The reason lies in the fact that the making of this 1,600-mile-long border, known as Durand Line, has been rooted in treachery and deception. That is why most Afghans have not been able to accept it. In fact, Durand Line is a reminder of how Afghans were cheated by the British and an artificial border was created whose legitimacy is questionable. Pakistan stands on a very weak wicket in this context if one goes by the historical evidence.

The Durand Line passes through ten provinces of present-day Afghanistan. In Pakistan, it passes through provinces such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (also called North Western Frontier Province), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan whose annexation itself has been under scrutiny.

The agreement that created Durand Line was signed on 12 November 1893 between British diplomat Mortimer Durand and Adbur Rahman, Amir (ruler) of Afghanistan at that time. The agreement was pushed by the British so that they could create a buffer zone between Russia and India, which was the jewel in the British crown.

The British were wary of Russia’s expansionist design and feared that it might attack India to snatch it away from the British and this was most likely to happen through the land route. This tussle between the two was popularly known as ‘The Great Game’. This phrase was first used in the context of Afghanistan by Arthur Conolly, a British intelligence officer in 1840, in a letter to Major Henry Rawlinson. The latter had been appointed as a political agent in Kandahar. Conolly wrote, “You’ve a great game, a noble game before you.” But it was a British journalist and famous writer Rudyard Kipling who later used this phrase and made it a permanent fixture when he wrote, “Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game.”

The Durand agreement divided Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. Forty thousand square miles of the area under Afghanistan where almost half of the Pashtun population lived came under British rule as a result of this agreement. In lieu of this agreement, the annual British grant was increased from Rs 12 lakh to Rs 18 lakh, a very small amount when it was compared to what Afghanistan had lost.

But first about Mortimer Durand. He was born near Bhopal (presently the capital of Madhya Pradesh) in 1850. His father Major General Henry Marion Durand was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland. His pregnant mother Annie died during a long March when she was trying to escape from Indore (a city in present-day Madhya Pradesh) during the war of India’s independence in 1857. Major General Durand became notorious for the brutalities he perpetrated during the 1857 war. He led a contingent of British troops that burnt villages and killed Indians brutally as the British troops fought back against the revolutionaries.

Mortimer Durand did his schooling in Switzerland and read for the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. He joined Indian Civil Services in 1873. A few years later he got selected in Foreign Service. During his training, he learned and mastered the Persian language.

In 1893 when Durand reached Kabul, there were growing tensions between Afghanistan and its bordering country, Russia. His mission was to ease these tensions and protect the British interests so that an Anglo-Russian war could be avoided. He stayed in Kabul for seven weeks. During this period, he got the Durand agreement signed in very suspicious circumstances.

Durand was assisted by a lesser-known and even much less talked about British intelligence agent, Salter Peyne. The latter, it seems, played a key role in clinching this agreement.

Peyne was planted by the British Intelligence in Amir’s durbar (court). His story is something straight out of a spy thriller. Peyne was born in England but he left the country to come to India at the age of 16. Initially, he joined as a clerk-cum-junior engineer in a firm based out of Bombay (presently Mumbai). That was his only employment in India. He later volunteered to work for the Amir of Afghanistan after the latter had imported a dynamo and flashlight with a portable engine but the Frenchman who was supposed to handle it never returned to his Durbar as he was too scared of the fearsome Amir. The British took this opportunity to plant Peyne in Amir’s durbar. Peyne reached Kabul in 1885 to replace this Frenchman to handle the machinery fancifully imported by the Amir of Afghanistan.

Rajiv Dogra talks about Pyne in detail in Durand’s Curse (Rupa, Pp 113-114):

“Peyne had won Amir’s trust to such an extent that when he had to send a personal confidant to convey message to the Viceroy, he chose Pyne over an Afghan.”

Dogra further adds (Pp 120-121), “One can guess what happened on that fateful day of 12 November 1893. There were no Afghan nationals in the room with the Amir, just an Indian named Sultan Mohammad Khan (father of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz) and the British delegation. To be absolutely correct, even Sultan Mohammed was not in the room. He was hiding in purdah (curtain) behind the Amir so that he could keep notes of the meeting. These notes could have provided a clue to what actually transpired, but there is no trace of them.” Interestingly, initially, it was agreed that the agreement would be signed in Persian. Amir knew Persian but didn’t know English but Durand had excellent command over both languages. But the agreement was signed in English! The question is how would Amir have known what was there in the agreement if it was signed in English and Amir didn’t know the language. It is clear that Peyne successfully manipulated Amir and got this agreement signed. Durand is on record about this when he made this observation about Peyne:

“He is a very useful man. It is amusing to feel that the mission is being conducted by a little cockney trader.” (Durand’s curse, Pp121).

Another historical agreement that raises doubts over the legitimacy of the Durand Line is the fact that any such agreement had to be a tripartite agreement between the British, Afghanistan and the State of Kalat (present-day Baluchistan). The British had signed a treaty with the state of Kalat in 1876 recognising its independence. In the Durand agreement, a part of the territory that was traded off belonged to the state of Kalat. But the British neither informed the Amir about it nor the state of Kalat.

And it couldn’t be a mere coincidence that the highly placed British diplomat Durand and a clerk Salter Peyne both were awarded one of the highest British Civilian honours at that time ‘Knighthood Commander of Order of the Star of India (KCSI) within a month. Why was a clerk working in the court of Amir granted this honour at par with a top diplomat? And both Durand and Peyne made it to this list within a month of signing the Durand agreement.

Dogra sums it up aptly (Pp127),

“Durand… had spent seven weeks in Afghanistan and most of that time was spent lying in wait for the right opportunity to bait the Amir. Once the Amir was brought around, the map-making was a casual affair. Durand’s was an instant line, drawn on a small copybook-type map and covered nearly 1,600 miles. Mortimer did not have the time to consult anyone, nor did he have the professional help of the kind that is necessary in such a major undertaking. And he consulted neither the historical evidence nor consulted any representative of the affected region. People who were to live on two sides of this line were given no say in the matter.”

That is why Afghans have not been able to accept Durand Line as a legitimate border and it seems they have every reason to do so.