A History of Pashtun Migration 1775 – 2006 (Robert Nichols)

Robert Nichols is a Professor of Historical Studies at Stockton University (New Jersey). His research covers the history of South Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the early modern, colonial, and post-colonial periods. These interests include political, economic, social, and cultural interactions across communities as well as interregional connections between areas of the Indian Ocean world. This book was a result of his tireless archival research in places that included India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

One of the main arguments of Nichols is outlined in Chapter 1:

Typically, Pashtun history has been framed and studied by issues of territory, language, culture, and political interaction in specific regions and eras. This volume argues that the history of Pashtun migration has been one of the neglected themes required to fully understand the history of Pashtun communities as well as greater narratives of the Mughal empire, British India, Pakistan, and the postcolonial world. (p.2)

Recall the idea of diaspora that we discussed in the earlier posts, we understand what Nichols is saying is that studying Pashtuns who have migrated out of traditional Pashtun lands (Afghanistan and Peshawar) is equally important as studying traditional Pashtun societies – in understanding Pashtun history.

What you won’t find in this book however is a detailed discussion on the origins of the Pashtun people, names of tribesmen who migrated across the world or insight into Pashtun culture – if you are looking for such information, it may be worthwhile to look elsewhere. Years ago when I picked up this book for the first time, I too have hoped that there would be insight into Pashtun migration to Southeast Asia. However the focus is largely on the movement of Pashtuns (primarily from the Peshawar valley) to:

  1. North India (Rohilkhand region – namely the cities of Bareilly and Rampur) in the 18th century.
  2. The princely state of Hyderabad in South India in the 19th century.
  3. British colonies (primarily Australia) in the 20th century.
  4. Urban centres of Pakistan (namely Karacahi) after 1947.
  5. The Gulf States from the 1970s till 2006.

It provides for an interesting read, but often the weight of the details tend to weigh down the overall pace of reading. Often there are case studies of detailed records and the ensuing discussion may seem repetitive.

How does information from this book tie into my research?

As mentioned, I had hoped that there would be insight into the migration of Pashtuns to Southeast Asia during the colonial period – the time frame which my research is focused on. During the colonial period, Pakistani migrants (migrants from present-day Pakistan) arrived primarily from the the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The NWFP itself was once part of the Afghan Durrani Empire until the 1820s when the Sikh Empire annexed the region in a series of Afghan-Sikh wars. (The Afghan capital was in Kabul while the Sikh capital was Lahore.) Thereafter, in a series of conflicts between the Sikh Empire and the British in the 1840s (dubbed the Anglo-Sikh Wars) in which the British were victorious – this region came under the British as the province of Punjab.It was not until 1901 that the NWFP was carved out of the Punjab and formed its own province. The NWFP consisted of the administrative districts of Peshawar (the capital of the province), Kohat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Hazara. It is understandable then that Pashtuns will naturally be found in the NWFP.

Although not all migrants from the NWFP are Pashtuns (or Pathans as they were referred to by the British), the term Pathan sometimes was used to refer collectively to migrants from the NWFP in the way that the term Punjabi is and was used to refer collectively to migrants from the Punjab. Nichols alludes that migrants from the NWFP who were not ethnically Pathans gained from this loose usage of the term ‘Pathan’.

….Others were recruited for colonial police forces in Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Southeast Asia locations… Police for overseas posts were enlisted from South Asian ‘martial races’, especially the Sikhs, but also Pashtuns, now called ‘Pathans’. But again hard identities broke down over distances. As in the eighteenth century when recruits of various backgrounds often assumed the Rohilla identity associated with military service, so many aspiring police in the Malay states claimed a Pashtun heritage. One observer, discussing the Pashtun company of the police force of the Selangor Malay state, noted that the company was ‘composed chiefly of so-called Pathans, who were really no more Pathan than I am, coming from the southern Peshawar district.’ (p.130)

So this rebranding of identity (not merely just Pathan) is something I will definitely discuss in my thesis.

Throughout the Chapters in the book, what is repeatedly discussed is the adaptability of Pashtun migrants in their new societies. And I think this is really interesting for a few reasons. Pashtuns pride themselves in their adherence to tradition, culture and language (Pashto) yet these studies have shown that throughout history Pashtun communities are highly adaptive and often assimilate into their host societies – that what remains is often a hint of Pashtun genealogy (eg. through stories passed down over the generations). The problem with this is that these migrant Pashtun communities may consider themselves Pashtun, but traditional Pashtun societies will not. As a case in point, I recall an interviewee of Pashtun descent who was chided by her uncle (when she visited her ancestral village years after her parents had passed on) for not being able to speak Pashto.

Anyway, here are some excerpts that I noted down while reading the book. It explains the context of Pashtun (or even NFWP) migration to the British colonies and the subsequent process of assimilation that took place:

After 1775 and throughout the nineteenth century, Pashtuns circulating in northern India, from both urban and rural settings, began moving increasingly in British imperial spheres. (p.2-3)

Taking [marrying local] women hinted at a vision for permanent occupation of territory and settlement. (p.27)

After 1858, developing colonial policies from prisoner transportation to contract labour exportation, increasingly integrated the society of South Asia into imperial political economies operating on a global scale. Pashtun found roles in locations across the Indian Ocean and beyond as plantation workers, transporters, policemen, and soldiers. Much of this migration was permanent as distance and expense limited return options… (p.107)

Finally, two works that seem to be informative for those interested specifically in Pashtun migration during the British imperial period include Gabor Korvin’s ‘Afghan and South-Asian pioneers of Australia (1830-1930) in the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society and Thomas Metcalf’s Imperial Connections, India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920.