Pakhtuns in Imperial Service During the First World War: Cooperation and Resistance

Cavalrymen of the 9th Hodson’s Horse in France, 1917 (Wikimedia commons).

Timur Khan
Leiden University

Today activists in Pakistan, particularly ethnic Pakhtuns and Baluch, evoke the idea of colonial governance when criticizing the Pakistani state’s abuses in their war-torn and marginalized homelands. Take the words of leading Pakhtun activist Manzoor Pashteen: “When we demand our rights, equal rights, and protest against this colonial-like treatment of our people, we’re thrown [in]to jails indefinitely.” Colonialism’s legacy continues to dominate the lives of millions. ‘Pathan,’ or more properly Pakhtun or Pashtun, soldiers’ experiences in British service during the First World War are seldom given dedicated coverage. However, they can illuminate important developments in the formation of this colonial legacy in modern Pakistan: both its consolidation through indigenous allies, and resistance to it.

“God in justice will grant him the victory”

In recent years, increasing attention has been given to recovering the experiences and ‘contributions’ of soldiers from British India in the First World War, helped by important projects like ‘Punjab and World War One,’ which digitized Punjabi soldiers’ service records and made them publicly available. Some important themes include the soldiers’ cultural encounters with Europe and Europeans, and their political responses to the war, including resistance and demands for greater self-determination. Loyalty to the empire is also raised, but can be a difficult issue to face for modern South Asians, compared to stories of resistance or simply courage and resilience.

In early 1916, British army censors in France, reading Indian soldiers’ letters looking for seditious material, translated and recorded a letter written by Risaldar (cavalry officer) Muhammad Akram Khan, 9th Hodson’s Horse. The letter was originally in Urdu, and addressed to a friend or perhaps relative back home. Akram Khan was a Pakhtun, from Peshawar in today’s north-western Pakistan. The letter, since reproduced in a major book on these Indian soldiers’ letters, hardly seems like a cause for concern to the censors:

You have no doubt heard of my good services from other people. I am not given to self-praise, and you know the proverb ‘it is not the perfumer who gives the perfume to his wares’. On the 26th March I went to London to have an interview with His Majesty the King. The King spoke to me with his own auspicious tongue. I am profoundly grateful to His Majesty for his kind treatment, and am always praying that God in justice will grant him the victory.

What can we make of this rather uncomfortable letter, certainly self-aggrandizing but also so enamoured with the author’s colonial overlord? Is the letter sincere, or does it contain some hidden subversive meaning, as other such letters often did? While we may never be certain, the history of someone like Muhammad Akram Khan’s role in the empire can be instructive. It is also a window into the consolidation of colonial structures in what is now Pakistan.

“Lay up friends for war”

For some Pakhtuns in the ranks of the British military, deployment in France, East Africa, Egypt and Iraq was not altogether novel. While most of these were new and distant places, many Pakhtuns or their relatives would have had experience fighting for the British Raj on a number of fronts for decades. By 1914, the alliances between certain landed Pakhtun families and the empire was longstanding and sealed in blood. The East India Company had annexed Peshawar and the frontier some decades before in 1849. Regional elites had shown their loyalty to the new regime by marching to Delhi and helping to crush the major anticolonial Indian rebellion of 1857. The same Hodson’s Horse in which Muhammad Akram Khan served from 1914-18 was formed from Punjabi and Pakhtun troops to quash this same rebellion.

Many Pakhtuns in British service naturally took part in campaigns in their own neighbourhood, the north-west frontier. There they fought fellow-Pakhtuns and coreligionists, including in some of the largest campaigns in British colonial history. Many of the regions subject to this violence, the so-called “tribal districts,” continued to be governed under a draconian colonial penal system until 2018, were ravaged by all sides in the War on Terror, and are focal points of Pakhtun activism against the neo-colonial practices of the Pakistani state and military today. 

A medal awarded for service in the 1857-58 rebellion (Wikimedia commons).

The rewards of allying with the colonial power went beyond medals. Land grants, military and administrative positions, titles and privileges strengthened certain families’ position as the regional elite. At the same time, the British Raj benefited from their indigenous allies’ knowledge and manpower, in colonial administration and colonial wars. As the Commissioner and Superintendent of Peshawar Herbert Edwardes wrote in 1859: “To preserve peace and lay up friends for war, we must keep the natural leaders of the country on our side.” Hence we cannot be sure if Muhammad Akram Khan was being sincere or simply blowing smoke in his letter: it helps to believe in the system when you take part in, and benefit, from it.

“Look after your life”

One of the ironies of an officer like Muhammad Akram Khan’s apparent loyalty to empire is that the racialized colonial worldview placed him apart from, and below, his white commanders regardless. As Mukulika Banerjee notes in her study The Pathan Unarmed, “At the height of empire […] generalised summaries of the Pathan ‘character’ [were] reproduced and widely distributed for induction purposes among officers.” According to one such summary, this ‘character’ was “a strange medley of contradictory qualities […] courage […] intense religious fanaticism […] avarice […] an irresistible propensity for thieving.”

Even as contributors to the imperial project, a ‘native’ was liable to be erased or minimized in the historical record. Finding mention of South Asian soldiers in the archives is complicated by seemingly trivial details like inconsistent spellings of names. They may also be simply unnamed. One of Akram Khan’s relatives, Bahadur Sher Khan, served as a Risaldar in the 17th Indian Cavalry, deployed in East Africa from July 1915 to December 1916. When reading its regimental diary for this period, I was struck by the absence of Indian names. Throughout the diary, Indians are unnamed save a few officers, though they too are most often referred to simply as “Indian officers.” White officers are nearly always named, regardless of who was writing the entries. Particulars do vary: one 9th Hodson’s Horse diary names Indian officers, and occasionally lower-ranked troops, more frequently. Still, they remain far less consistently named than the thin top layer of British officers.

Both within and outside the British military, there are records of Pakhtuns who saw the colonial project, or the War itself, as dangerous and unworthy. One unnamed man, writing to a fellow Pakhtun soldier stationed in France on 4 February 1915, writes a few lines extolling bravery in Urdu, “written only for this purpose: that if any great folk open the letter, they may be pleased.” The rest is written in Pakhtu (which did not get past the censors as intended): he writes that he does not consider the war worth undue risk, and reminds the addressee to “look after your life and your brother’s life.”

Mir Mast (extreme left), a Pakhtun defector who joined the German-Ottoman war effort (BBC).

In a powerful letter to another officer in the 9th Hodson’s Horse, the officer’s wife rails against him for leaving a family unattended at home and boasting about military rank: “You write that you have been made Lance Dafadar [corporal]. I don’t care a rap […] If you were a man you would understand, but you are no man.” Others actively rebelled or tried to join the German side. One Mir Mast defected in France, joined the Ottoman-German mission to Kabul, and then worked to raise a rebellion in the north-west frontier. Fighting for two other colonial powers, the German and Ottoman Empires, was hardly the noblest choice. What Mir Mast’s experience reminds us is that while some took ready part in the imperial project, others found its rule intolerable. Mir Mast and his fellow deserters were not Peshawar landlords but belonged to the same “tribal districts” that remain the sites of intense state repression – though today, grassroots resistance is non-violent.

Imperial spectres

Indigenous experiences of empire are not always comfortable to confront. Any empire is built on local alliances, and British India’s north-west frontier was no different. When we do confront this history, though, we can begin to come to terms with the persisting colonial legacies of today. The distribution of power and wealth and the violence of the state and military in Pakistan are not inevitable. They are the result of historical processes and policies, onto which the First World War is a window. While some benefited from such policies, even imperial allies were not fully spared the continuing injustice of a system that denigrated them as human beings. At the same time, there is a history of indigenous resistance to and rejection of the colonial order to remind us of its immense costs, and the urgent need to find a better way forward.

Timur Khan is an external PhD student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, focusing on transregional connectivity and territoriality in the Peshawar valley during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He has written on South Asian history through several lenses, including family history, numismatics, cartography, (neo)colonialism, trade, gender, and indigenous voices in the colonial record.