Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Return of A King: An Analysis of Western Regime Change in Afghanistan


Consider this scenario:

A Western army, controlled by a megacorporation belonging to the world’s most powerful imperialistic nation, invades a poor, mountainous, isolated Central Asian Muslim state on false pretences, citing a nonexistent, entirely manufactured “threat” from foreign agents in the country. Nobody is quite sure what to do with the country after the invasion, though – and nobody thinks it really matters. The invasion is the thing.

In the build-up to the invasion, common sense is ignored. History is deliberately twisted to claim the opposite of the facts. Politicians from the imperialist Western country call themselves a force for civilisation and state that “those who are not for us are against us.” Reports from the people on the ground in that nation are ignored, while optimistic assessments from chair-bound “intelligence analysts” who are far away from the scene and have never even visited the country are taken as a basis for policy.

The targeted country’s government attempts to negotiate and calls for talks. The Western army, on the other hand, completely rejects negotiations and instead is bent on conquest. It decides to invade from the south with a substantial ground force comprising soldiers brought from far away, and for its allies it has some northern tribes of the targeted nation who are restive under the rule of the government – which mostly consists of people from one particular ethnic group.

Does this sound vaguely familiar?

With its superior military technology, this Western army quickly routs the country’s armed forces – which essentially comprise the private levies of a disparate set of tribal warlords – ejects its ruler, and brings in a puppet to replace him. This puppet is a man who has not even visited the country in decades, who is completely out of touch with the ground realities and has no power base at all. He has also been in the pay of the Western army’s parent nation for many years, and is therefore completely beholden to the foreigners.

Having installed him in the seat of government, the Western army does not leave, but instead builds a large base on the outskirts of the capital, and talks of establishing a permanent presence – even de facto annexation of the nation. The puppet leader is soon proved to possess no power at all, with the Western army’s authorities deciding who his advisors and ministers will be, and with his writ barely extending beyond the walls of his official residence.

The “foreign threat” – which never existed in the first place – has been defeated. The puppet ruler has been placed in the capital. The occupation army could now legitimately withdraw, because the alleged aims of the war have been fulfilled. Instead, it decides to stay in place and occupy the country indefinitely.

Now, while part of the original government (which had desperately tried to avert the war via negotiations) has been bought over, captured or otherwise neutralised, the former ruler and a close clique have dispersed into the countryside, there to lead a small but growing resistance movement. The Western occupation forces are aware of this resistance movement, which gets at least some, though fairly fickle, support from a neighbouring country. However, they disregard its importance, and withdraw a proportion of their forces to fight another – and completely illegal – war of choice against a third country.

Getting more familiar, is it?

Meanwhile, the Western army’s troops freely disregard the local culture, rape some girls, seduce others, insult and assault civilians, and, as it were, go out of their way to offend the natives’ sensibilities – all in the knowledge of their own impunity, because the alleged government of the nation is powerless and entirely dependent on the army itself for support. The occupying army also buys the loyalty of the warlords, without whom it’s impossible to govern a country that has never accepted central authority without rebellion. Almost all supplies, too, have to be brought in from the south, through hostile foreign territory and then over mountain passes whose inhabitant tribes have to be paid protection money not to attack the convoys. The occupation is an expensive business.

This purchase of support soon gets even more expensive, because the people of the country are so poor that they can’t be successfully taxed to finance their own occupation. So, money has to be poured in from outside, in large amounts, and the Western government’s coffers begin to run out. They order economy measures.

The primary economy measure, with no other option in sight, is to stop payments to the warlords. Their support will no longer be purchased. Instead, a new professional National Army will be recruited, armed and trained, whose loyalty will be not to the local warlord but to the national government – which, of course, as everyone is very well aware, is a powerless Western rubber stamp. Both these measures, of course, infuriate and alienate the warlords, who begin to foment their own insurgency, independent of the one run by the former government.

Sounds even more familiar?

As time goes on, the various insurgent groups (many of whom are led by people armed and paid by the occupation in the first place) get increasingly powerful, with the occupation forces finding it more and more difficult to leave their camps. The puppet ruler, in order to safeguard his own position, begins criticising his Western overlords, but is careful not to actually take any steps to order them to leave. Major religious figures issue calls to jihad against the infidel invaders. Alarming reports begin filtering back to the homeland of increasing hatred and imminent explosion into open revolt. However, the Western commanders deny it all, and send ludicrously optimistic reports saying things are under control, and everything is fine. And they continue the blunders which foment even more hatred among the occupied population.

Slowly but steadily, the various rebellions grow stronger and more overt. Step by step, the occupation is forced out of small bases in the countryside, compelled to fall back on fortified positions in the major cities. Even these are soon under attack, with guerrillas in the hills sniping at exposed troops and attacking small parties of soldiers. Within a remarkably short time, the victorious Western army, despite its still overwhelming technological superiority, is cowering in its bases, besieged and looking at the inevitability of defeat. Desperate attempts at “negotiating” (the very tactics the occupation had rejected earlier) are made in an effort to save face and “withdraw with honour”. They – quite predictably – fail.

The occupation is beaten. It is only a matter of time, all claims to the contrary, before it withdraws in ruin, leaving its puppet ruler to his fate. And then, the former ruler will obviously supplant the puppet usurper and reclaim power, which means the entire invasion will have achieved exactly nothing at all, except the devastation of the nation.

And, after the defeat, the occupation army blames a third country for supporting and promoting the rebellion, an accusation without basis in fact.

Well? I’m talking about Afghanistan from 2001 till today, right?

Half right. I’m talking about Afghanistan, from 1839 to 1842.

I’ve just finished reading a remarkable (and very large and well-annotated) book, William Dalrymple’s Return Of A King: The Battle For Afghanistan 1839-42. In the course of this article, I will review the book and give my own independent opinion on the parallels between 1839 and 2013 – because those parallels are incredibly close, even more so than the author himself concludes.



Let’s first go over the events, as recounted in Dalrymple’s (eminently readable) book:

In the early 1800s, Britain was the pre-eminent imperial power on the surface of the planet. It (in the shape of a private megacorporation with its own administrators and military forces, the East India Company) was expanding rapidly throughout the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal Emperor Akbar II in Delhi was, though nominally its suzerain, in reality its prisoner. The only relatively strong Indian kingdom remaining was the Sikh empire, which owed its continued existence to its wily king, Ranjeet Singh, and his French-trained and –officered army. But once he was gone, its days would clearly be numbered.

To the west of Ranjeet Singh’s dominions was the Persian Empire, much weaker than it had been before. To the north, stretching from Peshawar to what is now Tajikistan, and from Herat to Kashmir, was an entity called by various names, including the Afghan Empire and Khurasan, whose twin capitals were Kabul and Peshawar. And beyond that, also expanding rapidly like the British, was the Russian Empire.

There’s a lot of internet talk these days about Afghanistan having always been a “hell-hole”. It is, of course, completely false. Afghanistan was no mountainous backwater. It had been, for thousands of years, a major trade crossroads between the flourishing markets of Samarkand, Hindustan (modern India and Pakistan), Persia, China, and Europe to the west. Like all such trading markets, it had absorbed the cultures of those places and cities like Kabul and Herat had become centres of learning and art. But by the late eighteenth century things were in decline.  

By the early 1800s, the glory days of the old Afghan Empire were long past. After the death of the last major Persian emperor, Nadir Shah, who had captured and plundered Delhi, one of his generals, a Pashtun by the name of Ahmed Shah Abdali, had taken over his war chest and carved out a kingdom of his own, the Afghan Durrani Empire. Abdali was of the Sadozai clan, and had made an agreement with his rivals of the Barakzai clan; the Sadozais would be kings, while the Barakzais would be their wazirs and ministers.

After Abdali’s death, the Empire rapidly fell apart, with Sadozai princes fighting among themselves for power.  The traditional Afghan way of buying loyalty, money payments to tribal leaders, was no longer an option. The one sure Afghan route to riches, raiding North India for loot, was blocked by the powerful Sikh army, trained and armed by the French to European standards; and by the expanding power of the British, which had reached the Punjab. The Imperial crown was an impossible burden for anyone not of exceptional ability – and there was nobody among the Sadozais capable of anything approaching statecraft.

By 1809, the peripheral parts of the kingdom were gone, the treasury was empty, and the land broken by civil war.

On the throne in the Afghan winter capital of Peshawar sat a Sadozai king, the young Shah Shuja al-Mulk. He was desperate for an alliance with the expanding British Empire to the south-east, and was the first Afghan monarch to accept a British embassy. But in 1809 he was defeated in battle by his half-brother (whom he had himself defeated to gain the throne) and forced to flee for his life along with his harīm and camp-followers. After several adventures, he ended up in the Sikh capital of Lahore, a prisoner of Ranjeet Singh, who extorted his wealth from him, including the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. Finally managing to escape from Lahore, he crossed the frontier into British territory at Ludhiana, where the East India Company begrudgingly gave him a house and a pension. 



But Shuja was not content with living the life of a refugee. He maintained a court in exile, and over the next few years he made several attempts to regain his throne. Every single one of these attempts – while tactically sound – ended in disaster. One try was in conjunction with his old captor, Ranjeet Singh, who was to capture Peshawar while Shuja tried for Kandahar and Kabul. While the Sikhs took Peshawar without much trouble, Shuja’s own assault ended in disaster and he was once again forced to flee for his life back to his “court” in Ludhiana.

Meanwhile, in 1818, the simmering rivalry between the Sadozai and Barakzai clans in Afghanistan had erupted into open war, and the Sadozai ruler, Shah Mahmoud (Shuja’s half-brother, whom he had defeated and then been defeated by) was expelled from most of what remained of the kingdom, retaining only Herat on the Persian frontier. The rest of the Afghan kingdom was then ruled by a group of Barakzai chieftains. One of these khans was called Dost Mohammad, and he soon established himself as the pre-eminent of all the Barakzais. 

Dost Mohammad


By any estimation, Dost Mohammad must rank as one of the most remarkable characters in recent history. He was half-Persian, his mother being a Qizilbash (Persian immigrant clan) of low status, and worked his way up to prominence among the other Barakzais entirely due to his own abilities. By 1826 he was de facto king of the Afghan Empire, and had himself formally declared Amir–ul–Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) by the mullahs in 1835, whereupon he declared a jihad against the Sikhs, who still occupied Peshawar. It’s extremely unlikely that the very intelligent Dost Mohammad actually believed his tribal levies could ever defeat the professional Sikh army and retake Peshawar; the declaration of jihad was basically a move to cement his position with the legitimacy of religion.

At this point it would be appropriate to point out something: Afghan Islam of the time was not Taliban-style ultra-fundamentalism. Afghan Islam was then strongly influenced by Indian Sufi mysticism, and stayed that way until Western meddling in the late 1970s and 1980s brought in Saudi-style Wah’habism and selectively favoured intolerance and religious bigotry. Jihad, therefore, did not mean regressive social mores and the oppression of women; it merely meant a nationalistic war against an infidel foreign invader (in this case the Sikhs).

Now, Dost Mohammad, like Shah Shuja before him, was desperate for an alliance with the British. Meanwhile, the advancing Russian Empire was also making overtures to him for an alliance, and in 1838 a Russian agent called Ivan Vitkevitch appeared in Kabul attempting to negotiate a treaty. But the British had their own agent in Kabul too, a Scottish adventurer called Alexander Burnes, and Dost Mohammad markedly preferred him to Vitkevitch, and openly asked for a British treaty.

When the news of Vitkevitch’s presence in Afghanistan became known to the British, it set off an immediate reaction in war-mongering circles of power. Fantastic tales were told of how a Russian army might use Afghanistan as a base for invading British-controlled India, and how in order to forestall this (utterly imaginary) Russian plan, Afghanistan must be immediately brought under British control. British diplomats and politicians who had never been to the country wrote books and pamphlets urging immediate replacement of Dost Mohammad by a ruler more “favourable” to British interests.

War propaganda went into top gear. The British ambassador in Tehran declared that anyone who was not for Britain was against Britain. It was said that Dost Mohammad was trying to capture what was not his – Peshawar – as though it had always been a Sikh possession and not till very recently the Afghan winter capital. And again and again it was said that unless Afghanistan was captured, the Russian army would sweep down into the Indian plains.

Meanwhile, Burnes (who made no attempt to hide his personal regard for Dost Mohammad) sent dispatches back to the British capital in Calcutta stating that the Amir was popular among the Afghan people, an efficient administrator, and favourably inclined towards Britain. But he was ignored, as were other British agents in the country. Instead, the British authorities preferred to believe a spymaster called Claude Wade, who never visited Afghanistan but insisted that according to his intelligence sources Dost Mohammad was hated by the Afghans, who pined for the return of a Sadozai monarch. The only such monarch available was, of course, Shah Shuja, in his court in exile in Ludhiana; a man who was a pensioner of the British and had not visited Afghanistan in thirty years.

In other words, invading and occupying Afghanistan wouldn’t just forestall the Russians (in fact, the Russians had given up on their treaty, and Vitkevitch had gone home, so that “threat” was past) but would be a humanitarian intervention, giving the Afghan people the benevolent king they (allegedly) so desperately wanted. Can you see where this is heading?

At this point I would like to stress something. When I keep talking about the “British”, I mean not, primarily, the British government, but a corporate entity – the megacorporation I mentioned, called the East India Company. This East India Company, of course, operated – like all companies – with only one aim, profit. To make this profit, it had three private armies of its own, comprising both British units and British-officered Indian mercenary forces. Of these three armies one – the so-called Bengal Army – was earmarked for the invasion and subjugation of Afghanistan. But the East India Company was not on its own in this; it had the complete support of the British military and government, and in effect was acting a proxy for the British government in a part of the world where Britain was not, at the time, a formal colonial power. The agreements and aggressions that gained territory for the nascent British Raj were committed by the East India Company, not by the British government – though, of course, the two were connected at the hip.

The British wars of conquest in Hindustan were the first corporate wars in history.

So, to get back to the story: in 1839, the British (in the shape of Sir William Hay Macnaghten, a former Irish judge who would play a central and disastrous role in events to come) informed Shah Shuja – without making any attempt to consult him in advance – that they were about to put him back on the throne of Afghanistan. Shuja had no troops, of course, so a token force of mercenaries – Indians and Afghans settled in India – was to be placed at his disposal, so that he didn’t look like even more of a British puppet than he already was.  

Macnaghten, or Lat Hay Jangi as the Afghans called him.


The British then put together an invasion force, called the Army of the Indus, comprising white soldiers, Indian mercenaries, and “camp followers” (including the families of the Indian mercenaries). After a long and arduous march, this army, with some difficulty, managed to reach Afghanistan over the passes of the Khyber, fighting off constant ambushes by Balochi tribesmen as well as lack of food and water. 

Balochi ambush


Once in Afghanistan, though, their technological superiority and training told; they easily defeated the Afghan tribal levies and took the great fortress of Ghazni with only a few hours’ fighting. When the news of this disaster reached Kabul, Dost Mohammad and his family fled north, looking for support among the northern tribes. But they saw which way the winds were blowing and rapidly changed sides, and Dost Mohammad was forced to flee further, finally reaching Bukhara, where he and the most effective of his sons, Akbar Khan, were imprisoned by the local shah.

With Dost Mohammad’s departure, resistance collapsed, the various tribal chiefs vying with each other to declare their loyalty to Shah Shuja. In August 1839, the British took Kabul without a shot and put Shuja back in his old fortified palace at the Bala Hisar. However, he was never anything more than a British puppet, and the people of Kabul were aware of it from the start. The British even replaced his wazir, Mullah Shakur Ishakzai, who had been with him through the decades of exile, because he wasn’t pro-British enough; they replaced him with a corrupt nonentity hated by all Afghans, but especially the nobility.

Among the occupiers of Kabul at this time was Alexander Burnes, who – once the decision had been made to overthrow Dost Mohammad – had changed sides and gone over to the pro-Shuja camp of British opinion, and had accordingly been rewarded with a knighthood. (Burnes’ Kashmiri secretary, Mohan Lal, was also in Kabul. Mohan Lal was an extremely intelligent and fluently multilingual man who knew Afghanistan well and gave excellent advice, which was followed less and less as time went on.) He and other British civilians rented houses in Kabul, while the army of occupation set up a cantonment on flat ground near the city. This cantonment was atrociously situated, being overlooked by hills on all sides, but was persisted with – because too much money had been spent on it to be wasted.

Alexander Burnes, not in disguise and (below) in disguise



Even before the British had managed to install Shuja on his throne, the first rape of an Afghan girl had already occurred, and matters went steadily downhill from there. The soldiers of the army soon had their brothels going, to the deep disgust of the Afghans, not to speak of drunken behaviour in the streets. But the brothels weren’t enough; and soon they were openly seducing or purchasing the services of Afghan women. Soon lurid tales of the supposed doings of the British were making the rounds of the Kabul bazaars, especially the antics of Burnes, who had by now given himself over to the pursuit of pleasure.

All this enraged, among others, a young pro-Shuja tribal khan called Abdullah Achakzai. The embittered Achakzai, who had always opposed Dost Mohammad and the Barakzais, would become one of the early leaders of the anti-British rebellion.

Far more damage to the occupation was done by the fact that it was always a horrendously uneconomical proposition. Afghans were too poor to pay for their own enslavement, so the entire expenses of the occupation – and of the puppet government of Shuja – had to be borne by the East India Company in Calcutta. The funds of the Company were running so low that it had to borrow from the moneylenders of Calcutta to finance the occupation of Afghanistan; and it ordered the occupation forces to cut down on expenses.

William Hay Macnaghten, who was officially the Envoy (meaning ambassador) of the East India Company to Shuja’s court, was in reality now in all but name the dictator of Afghanistan. He decided to do this cutting down on expenses by reducing and then eliminating the payments made to the various tribal chiefs and warlords. This was a monumentally disastrous decision, because it was only these payments that had held the warlords back from resisting the occupation. The Ghilzai tribal chiefs who lived along the southern frontier were especially livid, because they had ensured that the caravans which brought every bit of equipment and provisions the British depended on for their troops and civilians got through the passes unscathed. Even Shah Shuja’s allowance was curtailed.

Instead of the tribal militias run by warlords, Macnaghten and his advisors decided on an Afghan National Army, to be raised, trained, armed and officered by the British, to be nominally under Shuja, but – since Shuja, as everyone knew, was a puppet who did not dare emerge from his fortified palace at Bala Hisar – in reality to be subservient to British interests. The warlords accurately took this as a second threat, to be countered by all means possible.

Another measure taken was to increase revenue to the maximum level possible. Hence, the tribal chiefs (whose payments had been cut) were asked to increase their tax collections – which would, naturally, go to the infidel occupation forces. Another pro-Sadozai noble, Aminullah Khan Logari, would become the other great early leader of the rebellion, after being stripped of his district because he refused to increase the taxes he levied on the people.

Soon enough, rebellions were breaking out in the countryside, and Dost Mohammad (who had escaped from his confinement in Bukhara) was leading his own, increasingly effective, insurgency. However, in November 1840, after eighteen months on the run, Dost Mohammad surrendered personally to Macnaghten and was sent off to exile in India. Dost Mohammad’s decision to surrender was meant to disarm any British bounty which might cause his followers to betray him and hand him over to the tender mercies of Shuja. In fact, Shuja – who was rather fond of mutilating his own household staff for minor infractions – was infuriated at the British refusal to hand over Dost Mohammad for blinding, torture and execution.

Dost Mohammad’s surrender, of course, didn’t mean the end of the insurgency, since he only led a small part of it. By now the clerics had also joined in the fight – among them two influential brothers, Mir Haji and Mir Masjidi. These two were Shuja loyalists who had been among the early defectors from Dost Mohammad’s government – and now, with the infidels in power, they turned against them with a deadly hatred. Even so, the British might have defused the situation; Mir Masjidi had actually negotiated surrender after a token rebellion. But the British, after accepting his submission, destroyed his fort, murdered his family, and distributed his lands among his rivals. Mir Masjidi promptly became the third great pro-Shuja enemy of the British occupation.

As the resistance to the occupation grew by the day, East India Company headquarters in Calcutta had not been idle. It had been busy, actually, in starting a new war of choice – it invaded China in the First Opium War, designed to compel the Chinese Empire to buy the opium the British were forcing Indian peasants to grow instead of food. In order to fight this war, the Company withdrew part of the occupation forces in Afghanistan back to India. So it was distracted by one war, while allowing another to run towards disaster through incompetence, underfunding and imperialistic arrogance.

The arrogance was clear. “The Afghans are children,” the British declared. And, apparently, like children they were to be chastised in order to behave.

By October 1841, this chastisement was plainly beyond the capacity of the British. The country was in open revolt, yet Macnaghten kept sending deliriously optimistic reports back to Calcutta, saying everything was fine and rejecting all reports to the contrary as rumour mongering. The probable reason was that he was about to be rewarded for his service in Afghanistan by being made the governor of Bombay, and he wanted to leave any possible mess for his successor to clean up. He could not afford to be seen to have failed at this stage of proceedings.

Macnaghten was a civilian, but he did have an army, and that army had a military commander. This was an aged and infirm general called Elphinstone, who had come out of retirement due to financial constraints, and who was ill, incompetent and incapable. Elphinstone’s subordinates were not much better; contemptuous of the Afghans and of their own Indian troops, and in many cases of their white troops as well, they also resented the presence of “Queen’s officers” – regular British Army officers, who were paid more and placed in higher positions than the “Company’s officers” of the mercenary Bengal Army. So the British were incompetently led, filled with dissension, racism, classism, and resentment – not the best of condition in which to face up to an insurrection.

It should be understood that at this stage the insurrection was not against Shah Shuja, who was considered a puppet in British hands, but against the foreign infidel occupation. The nobles pressed Shuja to eject the British, but he had neither the ability to do so, nor the desire, after being their pensioner for so many years, to set himself at odds with them. Nor was the insurrection united under a single command; each rebellious tribal group had its own leaders, who had their own aims and objectives. Some wanted to force out the British and give Shah Shuja the power he had been denied by the foreign occupiers. Some wanted their payments to be resumed. Some others wanted Dost Mohammad back. Yet others wanted revenge for the insults suffered at British hands. Some were jihadists. There was almost no cooperation among them, and no grand strategy; but to the British they all seemed one single, unified mass.

The spark that set off the final explosion involved, coincidentally, Burnes himself. On 1st November 1841, a woman from Abdullah Achakzai’s household (either a slave girl or Achakzai’s mistress) ran away to Burnes’ house. Achakzai sent a messenger to fetch her back, but Burnes had the messenger beaten up and thrown out. Achakzai called a tribal council and declared that this was an intolerable insult. By the next morning, the capital was in flames as marauding militias attacked the British, their Indian mercenaries, and any pro-British Afghans they could find. Burnes was surrounded in his house by a mob and lynched along with some other British officers. Despite message after message he sent pleading for help, the British in the cantonment made no attempt to rescue him. His secretary, Mohan Lal, survived only because he was hidden by sympathetic Afghans.

Shah Shuja sent messages asking his British allies to withdraw to the fortified palace at Bala Hisar, but – because the cantonment had been built at such great cost – the British refused to evacuate it. Shuja himself, though treated with contempt and disdain by Macnaghten and the rest of the occupation, was the only one to respond militarily, using a thousand troops of his personal guard (known as Shah Shuja’s Contingent) under the leadership of his son Prince Fatteh Jang in an effort to rescue Burnes (who had openly been contemptuous of Shuja in the past and who was at that time still alive and sending desperate pleas for help) and suppress the revolt. This attempt failed – the soldiers got enmeshed in vicious street fighting, were pinned down by snipers on rooftops, and withdrew after losing a tenth of their number and both their artillery pieces – but it was still the only attempt to suppress the revolt, and it came not from the British but from Shuja.

Over the next weeks, the British lost their positions one by one, ultimately being forced to fall back on the cantonment. Their supplies were largely kept in surrounding forts, and over the next days the rebel militias overran these one by one, until the British were cut off and starving. They did have one success – as it appeared at the time – when on 23rd November both Mir Masjidi and Abdullah Achakzai were killed in the course of a battle. (There is reason to believe that Achakzai was killed not by the British but by one of his own people who had been bought over by Mohan Lal. If so, it was a disastrous move in the long term.)

It was a disastrous move because while Achakzai and Mir Masjidi were opponents of the occupation, they were basically just hotheads; their grievances were immediate and could have been easily resolved. They were also both Sadozai loyalists, committed to Shuja, who was himself committed to his British ex-benefactors; and not exactly military geniuses either. Removing them from the scene did not improve the prospects of peace.

It merely left the way open for an infinitely more formidable opponent, who now arrived and took control of proceedings.

When Dost Mohammad had escaped from his imprisonment in Bukhara to begin his anti-British insurgency, his son Akbar Khan had remained in custody. At the intercessions of various Afghan nobles, he had been released at the start of the rebellion, and now he arrived to take charge, at the head of a small force provided by northern Kohistani tribes. Vastly more intelligent, energetic and militarily talented than the two killed pro-Sadozai leaders, he was also no Shuja supporter. With him at the helm, the anti-British rebellion inevitably morphed into an anti-Shuja rebellion as well.

Akbar Khan


Step by step, during the month of December 1841, Akbar Khan (who was, at the time, just 25 years old) consolidated the siege around the Kabul cantonment, completely cutting it off from any source of sustenance. His snipers, with their long jezail rifles (which easily outranged the British Brown Bess muskets) picked off soldiers from the hills surrounding the cantonment. He even manhandled captured artillery pieces to the top of the hills to begin bombarding the British camp. With winter approaching, the British had no hope of help from India, and the other two remaining bases in Afghanistan – Kandahar and Jalalabad – were also isolated and besieged.

Macnaghten’s army officers, by now finally realising that the rebellion was actually a serious matter, decided to start negotiations on a withdrawal of British forces – leaving Shuja, whom the British were officially there to protect, stranded high and dry. This was despite the fact that Macnaghten himself strongly opposed abandoning Shuja and even though Shuja had stayed remarkably loyal to the British, at the cost of earning the hatred of the people he ruled over. And, just as Shuja wasn’t consulted before being put back on his throne by the British, he wasn’t consulted before the British pulled the plug on him.

At the same time, Macnaghten tried a typical piece of British trickery. In negotiations with Akbar Khan, he agreed that the British would pay an indemnity to the tribal chiefs, surrender their artillery, and withdraw from Afghanistan on 14th December, with Dost Mohammad released from imprisonment and allowed to return to the throne. Shah Shuja could stay on as a private citizen or go back with the British, as he wished. (All this, of course, was without any reference to Shuja himself, or any thought about what he wanted.) Yet – at the same time – he, through Mohan Lal, attempted to pay off tribal leaders to defect to the British side and to murder rebel leaders. These intrigues swiftly became known to Akbar Khan, who tricked Macnaghten into a written offer to kill Aminullah Khan Logari in return for a cash payment and a British alliance. With the letter as proof of Macnaghten’s duplicity, Akbar Khan felt no compunction about killing the Envoy during the course of a meeting and taking his aides prisoner. Macnaghten’s corpse was beheaded and hung from a hook in the Kabul market – so great was the extent of hatred the Afghan “children” bore for their British occupiers.

With Macnaghten dead, all hope for hanging on to Kabul was obviously gone, and the final retreat began on the morning of 6th January, the starving British soldiers, Indian mercenaries, and their varied camp followers (including British and Indian women and children) struggling through deep snow, repeatedly ambushed by bodies of Afghan tribesmen. Akbar Khan was to have arranged safe passage for them, but he did no such thing. Not that he would have got far if he had, because the retreat was through Ghilzai country, and the fiercely independent Ghilzai had no great love for either the Sadozai or the Barakzai. Besides, ever since their payments had been stopped, they had intense private grudges against the British to work off.

The objective of the retreat was the British garrison at Jalalabad, But Jalalabad wasn’t just far off – it was itself besieged and unable to send any help. And the retreating British column disintegrated in the snow, the Indian mercenaries freezing to death in large numbers or surrendering to the Afghans, while their British officers not infrequently abandoned them to their fate in an effort to save themselves. Soon, the British commanders were either dead or in captivity, and the last military remnant (of the 44th Foot regiment) of the Army of the Indus was annihilated in a hopeless stand at the top of a hill in Gandamak. 

Only one of these men survived to be taken prisoner

In the end, only one British member of the Kabul garrison, Dr Brydon, managed to get through to Jalalabad. A few Indian mercenaries managed to trickle in, too, but in popular British imagination to this day the only survivor of the retreat was Dr Brydon – even though large numbers of British and Indians had been taken captive or were dispersed, freezing and starving, in the hills along the route.

The alleged sole survivor


With the sudden end of the British presence in Kabul, a rather strange and unexpected thing happened. Shuja’s government did not immediately collapse; instead, his popularity saw a sudden surge, and many of the nobles, including Barakzai rivals of Dost Mohammad, swore fealty to him. They were aided in this by the fact that Akbar Khan, instead of returning to Kabul to dabble in politics, followed the retreating British to Jalalabad and was busy organising the siege of that city. Shuja still didn’t dare leave his fortified palace, but did start preparing to fight Akbar Khan, who was now his enemy. The war against the British was fast turning into a civil war.

Among Shuja’s advisors at this time were Aminullah Logari, one of the original leaders of the rebellion, and Zaman Khan Barakzai, Akbar Khan’s cousin, who had assumed the formal leadership of the rebellion until being supplanted by Akbar. He therefore had reasons to hate his cousin, and by February 1842 he was acting as Shuja’s wazir. He was also a rival of his former vassal Aminullah Logari, and this rivalry would have profound effects in the not very distant future.

Akbar Khan himself had other things to worry about. Unlike Kabul, Jalalabad lies in the plains, and is a far harder problem for a force lacking artillery and proper organisation. As the Western-backed Mujahideen were to discover a century and a half later, a frontal assault against Jalalabad is tantamount to suicide. And in open warfare, the British – whose commanders in Jalalabad were far more competent than in Kabul – were still capable of defeating anything the Afghans could put up against them.

Meanwhile, the news of the catastrophe in Kabul had reached the British in India. They had already written off the Afghan occupation as unviable, but decided that the Afghans must be punished for daring to rise up in arms against the occupation. They therefore set about creating another invasion army, called the Army of Retribution, to avenge the Army of the Indus. By the summer of 1842, it was fighting its way up the passes towards Jalalabad, routing the Ghilzai irregulars who attempted to combat it.

Faced with these facts, Akbar Khan took a leaf out of his father’s book and declared a jihad, imploring all true Muslims to come to his aid. This put immense pressure on Shuja, with the late Mir Masjidi’s brother Mir Haji leading the mullahs in their demands that the king join in the jihad to oust the British from Jalalabad and Kandahar. Shuja waited as long as he could, in the desperate hope that the Army of Retribution would arrive and save him from his dilemma, but eventually he had reached the end of his tether. On 4th April he finally decided to leave at the head of his army on the following morning, and in a function designed to ensure the support of Aminullah Logari and other nobles, he gave them many rich honours. But he completely neglected to give anything to the family of Zaman Khan Barakzai.

This infuriated Zaman Khan’s son, Shuja (named after the king himself), who took it as an insult to the Barakzai clan. As Shah Shuja left to meet his army on the morning of 5th April, Shuja Barakzai and his men ambushed him and shot him dead as he tried to flee, injured and bleeding, across the fields on foot. With Shah Shuja dead as a result of a fit of pique, all hope of the Sadozais clinging on to power came to an end, though Fatteh Jang (Shuja’s son, who had made an attempt to rescue Burnes) was crowned king.

Meanwhile, the Army of Retribution broke the siege of Jalalabad, and Akbar Khan (who had been injured in another insider attempt on his life, this one arranged by Shuja) had to flee back to Kabul. Once there, he turned his forces on the Bala Hisar fort where Fatteh Jang was holed up, and after capturing the place had the new king make him the wazir. Fatteh Jang, in effect, became Akbar Khan’s prisoner, compelled to do his bidding in everything.

Among Akbar Khan’s captives in Kabul was Mohan Lal, who had repeatedly spent his own money in an effort to serve British interests; at first, to have Afghan leaders killed, and then to buy the freedom of British hostages. The Afghans, who had been long aware of his activities, now began coercing him for money, having him tortured. Mohan Lal wrote many letters to the British in Jalalabad begging for money to save his life, but there was no response. The only aid he got was from a colleague of his, Shahamat Ali, who from Indore in Central India raised enough cash to have him released. (Later on, Mohan Lal travelled to England in a desperate attempt to have the East India Company reimburse the 79,496 rupees he had spent in the Company’s interests – a large sum even to this day, let alone in 1842. Not only did he not get the money, he was never employed by the Company again, and ended his life deep in debt, poverty and obscurity.)

Early in September 1842, the Army of Retribution finally broke out of Jalalabad and set out on the road to Kabul, destroying everything they could find on the journey. Entire villages of civilians were murdered on the merest whim; one particular town was destroyed simply because it was rumoured that Akbar Khan had enjoyed visiting it. So wanton was the destruction that even some of the British were sickened by it, but the “honour” of the British Empire demanded that the insolent Afghans be punished, so they were. About the same time, the British garrison in Kandahar also began marching on Kabul, committing its own share of war crimes on the way.

On 15th September, the British finally took Kabul, finding it to have been abandoned by Akbar Khan and the majority of the population. Only the Hindu trading community of Kabul and the ethnic Persians (Qizilbashis) remained in any number, reasoning that they had nothing to fear in a quarrel between the Pashtuns and the British. They were to pay dearly for this blunder.

On arrival in Kabul, the British and their Indian mercenaries began a programme of plunder, murder and destruction that dwarfed anything they had done so far.  Virtually the entire city was burned down, corpses littering the streets, and the five hundred Hindu trading families (who had fed and sheltered many Indian mercenaries and British fugitives during the rebellion) being made destitute in a matter of 48 hours. The Qizilbashis would have met the same fate had they not taken to arms and guarded their quarter against the new invaders. The great market of Kabul was blown up simply because Macnaghten’s corpse had been displayed there. Only the Bala Hisar fort was spared, because Fatteh Jang needed a place to call home; but the British flag flew over it.

Akbar Khan had treated the British captives well, and around this time the prominent prisoners – those of them as were still alive (General Elphinstone had died in captivity) – bribed their way out of confinement and rejoined the army in Kabul. But many others, mostly Indian mercenaries but also some English soldiers and camp followers, remained imprisoned in the hill villages and slave markets of Central Asia. These would all be left to their fate.

From Kabul, expeditionary forces moved out north, destroying more places to make the ruin as complete as possible. All this, of course, was primarily aimed at civilians, who had had nothing to do with the anti-British rebellion and had neither the resources to resist nor the ability to escape.

All the while, the popular assumption in Afghanistan was that the British would resume their occupation – they had kept their plans to withdraw a carefully guarded secret.  So some of the Afghan warlords had switched their allegiance back to the British, and they – along with Fatteh Jang – were shocked when, without warning, the British announced their decision to pull out, leaving them stranded and helpless in the face of Akbar Khan’s retribution.

On 12th October the British withdrew from Kabul, as the first snows fell. With them went Fatteh Jang, who had no stomach to face Akbar Khan. On 27th October the British quit Jalalabad, where they had held out for so long, dynamiting the fort to destroy everything as completely as possible. Behind them they left a devastated country, full of people who hated them more than ever, and with even greater cause than ever before.

The Afghan war of choice was over. The British had gained exactly nothing from it. British media were now busy blaming the defeat on the Russians – one of the factors which would lead to Britain and Russia going to war a decade later.

And now, in a final piece of irony, the exact same government which the war had been started to overthrow was back in power.

After the death of Shah Shuja, Dost Mohammad had been released from his Indian exile and informed that he could return to his throne if he felt like it. He went back to Kabul, where Akbar Khan – as wazir – personally welcomed him, and where he proceeded to rule for many years. He proved an extremely effective ruler, expanding the borders of his kingdom to what are essentially the frontiers of the modern state of Afghanistan. He even managed to control the Ghilzais, and died in 1863 after finally conquering Herat, which had remained under Sadozai control since 1818. Today, he and Akbar Khan are deeply venerated figures in Afghan history, while poor Shuja, a tragic figure if there ever was one, is reviled as a traitor and a puppet. And the Barakzai dynasty hung on till the 1970s, when the last king, Zahir Shah, was overthrown in a coup.

That, essentially, is the story of the First British-Afghan War (the one now going on is the third; the British invaded Afghanistan again in the 1870s, again crushed Afghan armies on the battlefield, and again withdrew in the face of resistance). It is also the story told (in much, much greater detail than I have recounted it here) in Dalrymple’s book (which I will just say should be required reading for any student of current affairs; I’ll give it five stars but at the same time warn that its size and weight mean you need strong wrists and a longer attention span than a mayfly.)


Readers who have a sense of history and follow the news will, of course, immediately make the comparison between the events of 1839-42 and today. Some I have spoken of at the start of this article. Others can readily be inferred, for instance:

-       The idea that the only anti-occupation resistance is the Taliban, which is a monolithic force. In reality it comprises a whole lot of distinct outfits, including the Haqqanis, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group, the various fractured movements which call themselves the Taliban, and many, many people who are not part of any of these but have rebelled for other reasons. Some have suffered directly at the hands of the occupation, and seen their friends and relatives killed. Some others are in rebellion against the incredibly corrupt government foisted on them by the British and Americans. Different people with different reasons for revolt will not stop fighting if given the same things.  

-       Imperial hubris. The British could have signed a treaty with Dost Mohammad and averted the invasion completely. The Americans could have negotiated with the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. In both cases, the Afghan government targeted for regime change was eager to negotiate; it was the foreign imperialist nation which refused and began a war of choice.

-       Invading Afghanistan is easy but getting out hard. Both the 1839 and 2001 regime change operations in Kabul proceeded easily to begin with, but rapidly bogged down, and the puppet rulers had no legitimacy with the people because of their perceived closeness to the occupation. Meanwhile, in reality, the puppets and the occupation had an uneasy, almost adversarial relationship, and the puppets increasingly had to take an anti-occupation line even to survive.

-       The reluctance to believe that the people of the country can possibly resent being occupied, and fight back against the occupation unless they are “bad guys” who deserve mass punishment.


-        That ability to destroy any Afghan resistance in a pitched battle does not translate into victory in the long run.

-       That a prematurely declared victory and starting another war of choice while still embroiled in Afghanistan is not a good idea, and never was.


-       That Afghan occupations tend to be economically disastrous for the occupier.

-       It isn’t true, as often claimed, that the Afghans can’t be defeated. In fact, they can be defeated rather easily by any organised force. What they can’t be is conquered, a fact of infinitely greater importance. No occupation can be translated into exploitation if the people do not cooperate in their own slavery. Indians have always been eager to bow down before foreign occupiers, and so have been easily enslaved by relatively small groups of foreigners. Afghans have always resisted, constantly, thus finally exhausting and expelling all invaders.

The parallels are actually even more interesting than I’ve spoken of here, to the point where one might think we’re talking of an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. For example:

-       The current main American base in Kabul is situated on the exact same site as the 1839 British cantonment.

-       One of the British bases overrun before the fighting started in Kabul was at Charikar. What about it? Well, Charikar is just about where the American air base at Bagram lies today.

-       The American-installed Afghan puppet ruler, Hamid Karzai, was an employee of the UNOCAL company for many years, and had never visited Afghanistan during this period. He is also a Popalzai. And so what? This: Shuja and his Sadozai dynasty were Popalzais.

-       The greatest resistance to the British invasion came from the Ghilzais, and especially the Hotak clan. The core of the Taliban has always been Ghilzai, and Mullah Omar is a Hotak Ghilzai.


Of course there are differences; the Taliban possess nowhere near the uniting ability of the Barakzais or even the Sadozais. Their brand of Islam is alien to Afghanistan, and is an import of Saudi fundamentalism. The support they get isn’t because they are popular, but because they are less bad than the puppet regime in Kabul, its pet warlords and the brutal occupation forces. But, as any reading of the news shows, they are well on the way to being a powerful component of any future Kabul government.

The more things change, in Afghanistan, the more they end up remaining the same.

Another thing – and this is my personal observation:

The British, in the wake of their defeat and the retreat from Kabul, blamed the “treachery” of the Afghans. So do the current occupiers, as the occupation founders, blame the Afghans for being “ungrateful” for being “liberated” from the Taliban.

All right, let’s say Akbar Khan was treacherous in reneging on his promise to give the British safe passage out of Kabul. Well, let’s just see the number of people the British themselves double-crossed during the same period, for comparison purposes, you understand:

First, Dost Mohammad, who lost his empire through no fault of his own. All through the 1830s, he kept trying hard for a British alliance, rejecting the Russians – and all he got for his pains was to be invaded on completely fictional grounds.

Second, Shah Shuja, who was placed in power, turned into a pathetic rubber stamp, and then left to sink or swim on his own when the British withdrew.

Third, the Afghan warlords who had worked for the invaders in return for cash payments, and who found their stipends abruptly cut.

Fourth, Mir Masjidi, whose fort was destroyed, family murdered, and lands seized after he’d negotiated surrender.

Fifth, Alexander Burnes, who was left to be lynched by the mob when he could easily have been saved.

Sixth, Mohan Lal, who ruined himself in the Company’s service and got nothing at all in return.

Seventh, the Hindu trading families of Kabul, who stayed to welcome the British and were destroyed by them in consequence.

Eighth, Fatteh Jang and the other pro-British Kabul nobles, who were abandoned by the British as they withdrew for the second time.

Ninth, the Indian mercenaries who were taken prisoner by the Afghans and were abandoned to their fate by the British after they took Kabul.

Tenth, the attempt by Macnaghten to double cross the Afghans while allegedly negotiating with them in good faith.

I have probably left out some more instances of British perfidy, but all in all, it doesn’t speak too highly of the alleged “good” side in the conflict.  

So why does this ancient history matter? It matters because the Afghans are Asians, and like most Asians they have long, long memories. The occupation and defeat in Afghanistan was only a blip on the British imperial radar, but to this day the Afghans know the history of the war in great detail. It was, as Dalrymple said, their "Waterloo, Trafalgar  and Battle of Britain" rolled into one. They can see the parallels for themselves, and know that history is on their side, just as long as they outlast the occupation. And, this knowledge gives them the strength to outlast the occupation.

I’ll end with a question from an Afghan chieftain, Mehrab Khan, made during the 1839 invasion to Alexander Burnes, as quoted on Page 161 of Dalrymple’s book.

“You have brought an army into the country,” he said. “But how do you propose to take it out again?” 



Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Jogodish and the Jombie: A Tale from Bunglistan



Jogodish Babu was returning from Mitro Moshai’s adda the evening the Zombie Apocalypse struck Bunglistan.

Jogodish Babu’s full and complete name was Jogodish Chondro Bondopadhyay, and if his friends from his schooldays had once called him Jogai, nobody cared to remember it now. Jogodish Babu was sensitive about that. If they didn’t call him Jogodish Shaheb, the least they could do was call him Jogodish Babu. As he said, many times, “I am an ofisaar now. Ebhryone should treat me weeth respect.” And – at least to his face – everyone did, except his wife. But then Jogodish Babu’s wife had never respected him anyway. And she addressed him, of course, by no name at all.

She wasn’t a wife fit to live with anyone, Jogodish Babu had often thought. For one thing, she outweighed him by a good twenty kilos and had a voice like a broken cement mixer on steroids. For another, she had opinions on everything and wasn’t shy to express them, at the top of her considerable lung-power, at all hours of the day and night. For a third, she resented everything about him, starting with his salary and going on to the fact that he never went with her to her mother’s for a holiday during the Durga Puja. Jogodish Babu could never explain that he needed a holiday from her, and the two weeks she was gone to Callcutter represented the only free time of his life. He was terrified that the old woman would die and then his wife wouldn’t go away at all.

It wouldn’t matter so much, Jogodish Babu had often thought, if she’d at least let him alone to live his life the way he saw fit. No, she had to run not just her life but his, and if they’d had a child she’d have run the kid’s life as well. She even ran the neighbours’ lives, and though they laughed at her behind her back, when she gave “advice” that sounded like orders, they nodded weakly and did as they were told.

Still and all, Jogodish Babu had had a good evening till that moment when the Zombocalypse struck. The work at the office had gone as usual, which is to say that he had blown the dust off a couple of folders and poked around their contents before putting them back on the shelf and calling for tea. He’d come home by five in the afternoon, changed, and gone to the market down the street. There he’d bought a nice three-quarter kilogram hilsa, redolent of the fishmonger’s slab, come back home and handed it over to his wife. She had yelled at him because he hadn’t had the fishmonger scale and chop up the fish, but not too much, because she adored hilsa and would eat almost all of it herself anyway.

So Jogodish Babu had some more tea, and, picking up his long umbrella in case it rained, gone along to Mitro Moshai’s house for the adda. His wife screeched at him for going out again, but this was the one point on which he never budged. If it wasn’t for the adda, he’d go barking crazy.

Mitro Moshai lived in the next lane from Jogodish Babu, and was the only one around who still held adda sessions, during which he kept mourning the passing of the entire adda tradition. “Eet eej thees telebheeshon,” he would say waggling his shiny bald head. “Eet eej ruining awar kalchaar. That eej why we habh nobody like Kobigooroo Robi Thakur nowadayj.”

Actually, Jogodish Babu rather liked television, when he could get to watch any in between his wife’s staple diet of Bunglee soaps and reality shows where pudgy contestants in brightly coloured saris threw rings at bottles while vacuous faced studio audiences dutifully clapped. But he would never, ever, dare to say any such thing to Mitro Moshai.

One day, Haru the Boor had had the colossal effrontery to mention television in favourable terms at the adda, and compounded the crime by saying he’d watched a Bunglee pop group which had set one of Tagore’s songs – “Robindro Shongeet” – to a catchy modern tune. Mitro Moshai had gone ballistic. But Haru was a boor, so he didn’t back down, and there was a moment when it seemed the two of them would come to blows.

It hadn’t stopped far short of physical violence though. “Old fool,” Haru the Boor had muttered, deliberately pitching his voice just loud enough to be heard.

“What was that?” Motro Moshai had yelled. “Rascal!” he’d shouted, pointing with a trembling finger. “Look, he eej showing me red red eyes.”

“You are,” Haru the Boor had groped for an adequate term of abuse and finally found one, “...an eccentric. You should be in a lunatic asylum.”

“You...” Mitro Moshai had paused dramatically and then delivered the Ultimate Insult. “You nonsense!”

Ar shala parchchi na,” Haru the Boor had declared. “I’m fed up with this.” He’d stormed out, and had never come to Mitro Moshai’s adda again, even though his leaving meant there were only five of them left and without Haru the Boor’s colourful tales there was little enough to talk about anyway.

No, Jogodish Babu couldn’t mention TV. Hell, as far as Mitro Moshai was concerned, it was bad enough that he wore trousers instead of a dhoti. But this evening, the old man had been in an excellent mood for some reason, and had even fetched out his ancient harmonium for Jogodish Babu to play. The harmonium was old and dusty and the accordion flap was cracked and leaking air, but it was still a harmonium, and Jogodish Babu’s wife had long since forbidden the house to one. So Jogodish Babu had happily flapped the accordion with one hand while pressing the keys with another and yelling out Robindro Shongeets as the top of his voice, until he could no more and the time had come to go on home.

“I’ll see you on Saturday,” he’d said, polishing his spectacles on his kurta hem.

“Bee careful,” Mitro Moshai had told him. “Saambody waas saying saamthing about riots aarlier. Today eej market day, and these bhillage people like to cause trouble.”

Jogodish Babu nodded. “I also haard this talk,” he lied, in case anyone might think he wasn’t in the know. Picking up his umbrella, he nodded at Mitro Moshai and began walking home. The evening was fairly advanced and the lane totally dark because there were no street lights, and Jogodish Babu, conscious of the open ditch along the opposite side, kept to the centre of the street, and stepped carefully over the potholes. He was very happy at the thought of the oily, mustard-laden hilsa curry his wife would have ready by now. Nobody cooked hilsa oilier or with more eye-watering amounts of mustard than she did. He licked his lips in anticipation.

As he was negotiating a particularly broken patch of street, he saw a figure up ahead, lurching from one side to another and waving its hands distractedly around. “Drunkaard,” Jogodish Babu diagnosed, and having no desire to get too close to the alcohol-addled one, he stepped behind the tall palm tree which grew outside Old Uncle Horshobordhon’s house. The silhouette, still lurching from side to side, passed, muttering to itself in a language Jogodish Babu didn’t know – and he was an intellectual, amazingly multi-lingual. After all, he could speak not just Bunglee but also English, and even a smattering of Hindi. Why, just last month a Bihari cobbler had been amazed at his Hindi. The man had even said he was amazed. Jogodish Babu had proudly told everyone the story for days.

Strange, Jogodish Babu thought. But it was probably a foreigner from South India or Punjab or somewhere like that, where people were shameless enough to drink – not like nice Bunglee boys who would never touch a drop. Jogodish Babu shuddered at the thought of what his wife would do to him if wine – all alcohol was “wine” to him – ever touched his lips.

Be that as it may, the foreign drunkard had moved on, so Jogodish Babu came out from behind the tree and turned into the stretch of main road which lay between Mitro Moshai’s lane and his, wondering if there might be other drunkards around. But everything seemed as usual. The shop where he usually bought groceries was about to close, but the owner’s son was in charge for the week, and the boy was lazy. Well, Jogodish Babu thought, he was only a baby. He would learn in time.

He was somewhat surprised when he entered his own lane. At this hour, it was normally dark and lonely, but a knot of people were gathered not far from the entrance to his house, craning to look at something. Jogodish Babu was far from immune to the lure of curiosity, so he joined the group and went up on his toes to try and see over the nearest shoulder.

A man was sprawled in the centre of the circle of onlookers, arms and legs flung randomly around. Dead, or fainted, or just another drunkard?

“Maardar,” people in the crowd were saying. “Call the pulish.”

“We called the pulish,” someone else said. “They said they weel caam.”

“Who is he?” The light was so poor that it wasn’t easy to make anything out, but Jogodish Babu could see that he was wearing a plaid lungi and a yellow kurta, with a skull cap on his head. A Muslim, then, and from his clothing, one of the working class. He was probably from the slum down near the big mosque on the other side of the railway station.

“Saambody said heej name eej Ghofoor Miyan,” Haldar from two doors down replied. “Baat another paarson said eet cannot be Ghofoor Miyan because Ghofoor Miyan eej bhery seeck.”

“Ghofoor Miyan the barber?” Jogodish Babu said, surprised. “I didn’t know he was ill.” But now that he thought of it, the plaid lungi and yellow kurta were exactly what Ghofoor Miyan wore, day in and day out. “I know him,” he said, pushing his way forward. “Let me see.”

“Don’t go,” Haldar grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back. “He may habh died obh a deejeej and geebh it to you.”

“The pulish,” people exclaimed, and moved aside. “The pulish are here.”

There were actually two separate teams of police, coming from different directions. One was from the Nondipur police station, and comprised a fat constable with a thin moustache, whom Jogodish Babu knew by sight. The other was from the Goshaigonj police station, and was represented by a thin constable with a fat moustache. They saw each other and stopped.

 “You are here?” the fat constable asked. “Good, eet eej your case, your pulish station’s jurisdiction.” Wiping his forehead with relief, he turned to go.

“Not so fast,” the Goshaigonj constable yelled. “Tha bordaar of jurisdiction between Nondipur and Goshaigonj eej halfway down this street. Eef dead body eej more than halfway eet eej Nondipur jurisdiction.”

“How do we know whether eet eej halfway or not?” the fat Nondipur constable demanded.

“We measure eet, of course. Then we know whose jurisdiction eet eej.” The Goshaigonj policeman began hunting in his pockets. “I weel go and fetch a measuring tape,” he said finally.

“Good idea,” the Nondipur representative announced. “I weel get one too. Jaast in case yours eej not accurate.” Turning, he waddled away.

Jogodish Babu turned back to the corpse. The more he looked, the more familiar it seemed to be. He felt consumed with an overwhelming need to discover whether it was actually Ghofoor Miyan or not. Shaking off Haldar’s arm, he pushed forward.

“What are you doing?” The familiar voice sent a chill down his spine. Jogodish Babu turned to see his wife bearing down on him like a bulldozer. “You are not to get mixed up een these theengs. Caam eenside at once. You heeyar me?”

“I...” Jogodish Babu was about to say something more but at that moment he felt a tugging at the calf of his right trouser leg. Glancing down, he saw the presumed corpse struggling up on its knees. It was glaring up at his face and pulling at him with one free hand.

“Ghofoor Miyan!” Jogodish Babu exclaimed, recognising the face. “I’m glad to see you aren’t dead. But isn’t eet shameful for you to be drunk on the street like this? Whaat would your mullah shaheb theenk eef he saw you?”

Ghofoor Miyan didn’t seem to care what would happen if the mullah saw him. With a groan like someone with a terrible hangover, he lurched forward and snapped at Jogodish Babu’s leg. If he had had teeth he might have done some damage. His toothless gums, though, slipped off, leaving only a smear of saliva.

“Chchi chchi,” Jogodish Babu exclaimed. “Ees thees what happens when you dreenk too maach?” He tried to pull away, but Ghofoor Miyan began to pull himself upright, using Jogodish Babu as a post. He stank horribly, like a dead fish.
“Get off me!” Jogodish Babu had had enough. Raising his umbrella, he poked Ghofoor Miyan hard in the chest with the ferrule. Ghofoor Miyan stumbled back and fell over with a crash, and did not move.

“You keeled heem!” Haldar exclaimed.

“Hindu man keeled Muslim,” people began to say. “Bhery bhery bad. There weel be communal riot obhar thees.”

“I didn’t mean to –“ Jogodish Babu began to protest, when his wife’s hand closed on his collar. “I told you to caam inside,” she said. “Baat you nebhar listen, and see what happens.”

Just then the Nondipur constable arrived on the scene, holding a large tape measure in a can. “What eej going on here?”

“Arrest heem,” a dozen voices answered. “Thees man, he jaast keeled the dead body.”

“I nebhar deed.” Jogodish Babu was half-strangled by the grip his wife had on his collar, so his voice was the merest squeak. “I just poked heem with the umbrella...”

“Look,” someone said. “The dead body eej alive.” Indeed. Ghofoor Miyan was showing signs of getting up again. He moaned, grimaced and yowled as he clumsily got on his hands and knees.

“Be careful,” Jogodish Babu told the constable. “He eej trying to bite.” But the constable, ignoring him, pushed forward.

“Get up and caam weeth me,” he said, grabbing Ghofoor Miyan by the shoulder. “You are causing trouble for ebhryone.”

Ghofoor Miyan rather seemed to welcome being grabbed by the shoulder. He turned his head and kissed the constable’s wrist. It took a moment for everyone to realise he was trying to gnaw the constable’s wrist, and only his lack of teeth preventing him.

“Oh, you bokachoda,” the constable cursed, and cracked Ghofoor Miyan over the skullcap with his baton, hard. Ghofoor Miyan lay down and did not move. The policeman hefted his baton and hit him again. A little blood began to leak on to the street.

People began to drift away, quickly and unobtrusively. Nobody wanted to be around when the cop decided to arrest someone for the murder he’d apparently just committed.

 “Now you come home,” Jogodish Babu’s wife ordered, pulling, and he went.

On the way he passed the Goshaigonj constable coming with another tape measure.

“Let’s start measuring,” he said. “I want to go back to the station and sleep.”

**********************

The next morning the news was all over. The dead were rising.

“Jombies,” Haldar said, meeting Jogodish Babu in the street as they both left for work. “That eej what they are called, jombies.”

“Eet eej happening all obhar the waarld,” Foni from the television repair shop said. But nobody paid any attention to him because he was a “baby boy”, only eighteen years old.

“We are laacky,” Jogodish Babu pronounced. “Een thees caantry only Muslims and Christians bury their dead. We Hindus baarn them. So naan obh awar dead bodies caam back to life.” He didn’t speak very happily. Last night his wife had kept nagging till midnight, condemning him for going to see the dead body.

“You are supposed to be a bhodrolok, a gentleman,” she had said. “Baat you go and act like a small man, a chhotolok. You nebhar care for what people say.”

“What do people say?” Jogodish Babu had countered, most unwisely. “I saw many of them on the street too. That means they are all chhotoloks as well, right?”

That had set off his wife like a firecracker. “You don’t care a thing about me,” she had stormed. “I slave my fingers to the bone –“ she had waggled her plump fingers in his face to demonstrate. “And ebhryone says I could habh married maach better men, baat I settled for you. And thees eej the way you treat me. Also-“

And so it had gone, on and on. Jogodish Babu had not even managed to enjoy the hilsa curry. It had tasted of his wife’s rancour. He wished he could kill her, but then with his luck she’d probably kill him instead. And then he’d become a zombie.

Talking about zombies...

“Yes, thees proves awar Hindu kalchaar eej best,” Haldar said now, happily. “Awar ancient scientists eenbhented ebhrything, so they also knew about jombies and that we should baarn bodies. We are not like America and Raashia and athar caantries wheech habh jombies walking ebhrywhere.”

“The telebheeshon said,” Foni put in, desperate to be noticed, “that eef a jombie bites you, you weel becaam one too.”

“The gorment,” Haldar said, “has poot the army and pulish on gaard outside these cemeteries, to shoot these jombies eef they rise. Eef you break the head, they die paarmanently.”  He snorted. “The gorment should ban these Muslims and Christians from burying their dead. Eet eej a Hindu caantry, so Hindu laws should be followed, no?”

Jogodish Babu didn’t reply. He was watching a small party of young men walking down the lane. He recognised a couple of them – local toughs who acted as the strong arm of the ruling Trinobhoji Congress political party. The one in the lead looked at him and grinned broadly with stained, worn teeth.

“Arey,” he said. “Jogodish Babu, no? We were jaast caaming to see you.”

“What for?” Jogodish Babu found himself suddenly alone. Foni and Haldar had both evaporated like the morning mist. “What did you want?”

“You know about thees jombie problem?” The goon smiled again, looking at Jogodish Babu like a long-lost friend. “What am I saying, you are big ofisaar, of course you know. Well, awar claab –“ He indicated the rest of his companions with a sweep of his arm. “We are going to haant down and keel all the jombies. For thees, you understand, we need saam chanda, donation. You know, for transport, and food. So we need a leetle maany from you. Not too maach. Say, fifty thousand.”

Fifty thou-“ Jogodish Babu’s voice cut off with a squeak, as though his wife was back yanking at his collar. “I don’t have –“

“Look, Uncle,” the goon said impatiently, “we habh no time. These jombies habh to be keeled. So eef you don’t pay, you are being enemy of tha people because you are stopping aas from keeling them.”

“So we weel habh to take action against you,” another young hoodlum said, rippling his biceps. “Eef fifty thousand ees too maach, how about forty?”

“Or even thaarty,” the first criminal said. “Baat thaarty, that ees the lowest we can go.”

 “Get lost,” Haru the Boor snapped, appearing at Jogodish Babu’s shoulder. He hefted a crowbar at the end of one heavily muscled arm. “Or you’ll have trouble with me, and you know who I am.”

The Trinobhoji Congress goons glared in baffled fury. “We weel see you,” the leader said, pointing at Jogodish Babu. “Don’t theenk we habh forgotten thees.”

“Don’t you have jombies to keel?” Haru the Boor inquired. “Or shall I make you all jombies so you can keel yourselves?”

Muttering furiously, the goons stalked off. Haru the Boor looked at them and at Jogodish Babu. He shrugged. “If they geev you a haard time,” he said, “jaast call me. Are you all right?”

“I’m all right,” Jogodish Babu said. But he wasn’t all right. He was terrified. When those crooks came back –

“Well,” Haru the Boor said, cheerfully, “watch out you don’t have a haart attack and die, or I weel habh to keel you aaftar you become a jombee.”

Waving with his crowbar, he stalked off down the lane.

**************************

By evening, the zombie apocalypse had been almost completely licked.

It had never been any kind of threat to worry about, of course. Cremated ashes didn’t come back to life, and cordons of police around cemeteries effectively destroyed most of the few corpses intact enough to dig their way out of graves without falling to pieces in the process. One or two zombies did manage to walk on to the streets, but they were speedily dispatched by trucks whose drivers enjoyed the opportunity to crush people under their wheels without fear of the consequences.

The only ones not happy were some Muslim and Christian organisations, who said that the rights of their dead were being contravened. In one case, a terrorist cell decided to put the protest in more concrete terms by constructing a bomb. It, however, went off prematurely, blowing the cell members into pieces too small to be effective zombies, so that was all right too. Otherwise, things went along swimmingly, and by nightfall the threat was generally past.

There was one piece of political fallout. The Trinobhoji Congress government in Bunglistan had refused to allow the police to surround graveyards and eliminate zombies, on the grounds that people’s religious rights were more important. The government in Delhi had taken a dim view of the situation and sacked the Trinobhoji chief minister, imposing direct rule on the state. The goons who had threatened Jogodish Babu in the morning had suddenly lost their political protectors.  There would be, at least for now, no danger from them.

Jogodish Babu walked along the street from the bus station, with no great desire to go home. The prospect of another evening with his wife filled him with depression. He wished he could go to Mitro Moshai’s, but he had no desire to risk another contact with a zombie in the old man’s unlit lane. Besides, Mitro Moshai held no adda on Thursday, holding it to be unlucky.

Passing the market, he stopped at a fish stall. By now, his wife would have finished the hilsa he’d bought yesterday. If, he thought, he bought another hilsa as a peace offering, and stayed in all evening, she might actually be happy for a change. Without wasting time on more thought, he fished for his wallet, and bought a two-kilo fish. The cost was exorbitant – the fish had been hunted to near-extinction in Bunglistan – but worth it, if he could have some peace and quiet, not to speak of hilsa curry.

His wife was in a foul mood when he entered the house. “I saw you talking to that boor, Haru,” she proclaimed. “I told you many times not to associate weeth that chhotolok. But weel you leesten?” She looked at the fish he was holding before him like a shield. “Again you didn’t have it scaled and cut up? What do you theenk I am, a feeshmonger woman?”

Jogodish Babu sighed. It seemed there was nothing he could do that wasn’t the wrong thing. As his wife snatched the hilsa from his hand and went into the kitchen, still yelling, he eased himself into his chair and bent down to unlace his shoes.

The scream was so sudden and loud that he banged his head on the table, straightening up. Through the open door of the kitchen he could see his wife dancing around. The hilsa dangled from her hand, its teeth buried in her fingers.

“What –“ Jogodish Babu said, blinking and still rubbing his head. “What on earth –“

“Do saamtheeng,” his wife screamed. “Eet eej biting me!”

“How can it bite you?” Jogodish Babu asked. “It’s dead.”

“You useless fool,” his wife shouted. “You can’t do anything at all.” Still dancing, she swung her arm. The hilsa lost its grip and came flying through the air, plonking down on the table in front of Jogodish Babu.

Jogodish Babu looked at the fish. The fish looked at Jogodish Babu. “How does it feel like to be eaten?” it seemed to be asking. Its dead mouth opened, displaying its little dead teeth. “Don’t you wish you’d turned vegetarian when you could?”

And then, crawling on its fins, it lunged across the table at him. There was some more screaming.

The Zombie Apocalypse was over. The Jombie Apocalypse had only just begun.

And this time there was no way Bunglistan would win.




Copyright B Purkayastha 2013