The arbitrary line that Mortimer Durand drew in 1893 on a small piece of paper continues to bleed Afghanistan, says former diplomat Rajiv Dogra who has come out with a book on that country's history and misfortunes. "Afghans are a proud people. Their greatest desire is to be left alone. Unfortunately, their geographical location has been their misfortune. Invading armies trampled upon Afghanistan on their way to conquer the riches of India," he says.
Dogra was India's Ambassador to Italy and Romania, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations Agencies in Rome and the last Consul General in Karachi. He says every great ruler, and each great power, ranging from Alexander to Genghis Khan, the Mughals, the British, the Russians, the Americans and even a regional power like Pakistan has tried to conquer Afghanistan. "But Afghans refuse to bend. That's why Alexander had famously said: 'May God keep you away from the venom of a cobra, the teeth of tiger and the revenge of the Afghans'."
"Durand's Curse: A-Line Across the Pathan Heart", published by Rupa, has several fascinating details from long-buried archives of history. Dogra says the "Durand's Curse" has been a journey of discovery for him. "I was shocked by the venom of the British as colonial masters. Their cruelty was limitless. The English media was supportive, and the world was powerless against the most powerful empire of that time. "It is equally shocking to discover that the British had systematically kept under wraps the deception of the Durand Agreement.
No one knew how Mortimer Durand made the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman sign a document in English - a language that he could neither speak nor write," he told PTI. He says his book is the "first in the world to reveal these secrets. It is a belated lament about the misfortunes of a simple but brave people. It is their 'cri de coeur' (passionate outcry) and an appeal to the conscience of the world". On how the idea of the book came to him, Dogra says that it was natural that after writing on India and Pakistan should weave the theme about Afghanistan.
"Around that time there was also a change in the American administration, and Trump's ideas about Afghanistan were different from those of Obama's. So flux was inevitable. That made up my mind. The result was a story that has never been told before," he says. The research part was tough, he says. "I do not have the training of a historian. Whereas, this was a mysterious chapter of history which the British wanted people to forget," he says.
"There was nothing to help me in the process of research because no one had so far written a book on this subject. So it was back-breaking work of 15 to 16 hours a day for months together. But in the end, my persistence paid off. I am happy that I have been able to present the truth to Afghans and to the world," Dogra says. According to him, he had to combine the skills of a diplomat with the curiosity of an investigator to look for clues about what actually happened on that winter day of November 1893 in Kabul.
The Durand Line, he says, was an artificial imposition. "It was never meant to be a boundary as I have proved in my book. The Afghans have never accepted it. And every Afghan government has rejected this line." Ideally speaking, the Afghan territory should begin at the Indus, he says. "That is the natural and geographical boundary between India and Afghanistan because the culture, the language, the social mores and indeed the DNA of the people west of Indus are different from ours on this side of the Indus.
"But the British had a phobia of Russia. Consequently, they forced the artificial construct of a Durand Line on an unwilling and resentful population. Some call the Durand Line the biggest British crime of the 19th century." Asked what is the way out for Afghanistan now, Dogra says it should be left alone to manage its affairs. "But that seems unlikely. If Afghanistan continues to be treated like a vast chess game, then someday its people’s frustrations could boil over. All Pathans could rally in its support then," he warns.
There are no easy answers to a very complex situation, he says. "It was bad enough when Pakistan was pushing for strategic depth. Now the US, Iran, Russia, and China are also competing for control even as a toxic mixture of Taliban, al Qaeda, IS and sundry other terrorist organizations seek to shape Afghanistan to their radical image. The result is a dead end tunnel," he rues. On India's role, he says New Delhi has been a steadying influence; not just in recent years but almost ever since independence.
"We have built schools, hospitals, hydroelectric dams, highways and most importantly a sense of confidence among the people that India is a friend for all seasons and all reasons." Dogra has a wish list for the future. "I would like to give greater emphasis to people-to-people contact. To do that meaningfully, a radio and a TV channel beaming programmes in Pashto is a must," he suggests.