Book Review: Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart by Rajeev Dogra

Book Name: Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart

Author: Rajeev Dogra

Publisher: Rupa

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: Blood and fire have often blighted Afghanistan, the three Anglo-Afghan wars being among the bloodiest and the cruelest in its history. But Britain’s partitioning of Afghanistan will rank as the greatest crime of the nineteenth century. That arbitrary line which Mortimer Durand drew in 1893 on a small piece of paper continues to bleed Afghanistan and hound the world. Alas, this story remained untold until now.

Written in an inimitable style, Durand’s Curse is the result of deep research. Fascinating details from long-buried archives of history reveal for the first time a tale of intrigue and deceit against Afghanistan.

First the British and then Pakistan had taken away territory that originally belonged to Afghanistan. But the divided Pathan families refuse to accept this division even now and for the last century and over, there has been a struggle to rub out the cursed line drawn across the sand.
Rajiv Dogra brings alive the wars, the tragedies and the Afghan anger against injustice in this heart-wrenching account of Afghanistan’s misfortunes. This is an absolutely riveting story of the Indian sub-continent’s history told by an important writer of our generation.

Review: Durand’s Curse is a fascinating account of the much discussed Durand line, (an artificial and in retrospect) a failed attempt to demarcate a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The English invaders seem to revel in repeating their mistakes. They divided Africa without a clue about their culture or ethnic issues and repeated it in the Middle East and later in the Indian subcontinent.

Rajiv Dogra has tried to put some sanity and clarity on the subject of the Durand line and how it came into the picture. He starts with the history of Afghanistan and how the present state came into being after the assassination of Nadir Shah. He also delves into the Great Game and how it brought untold misery while in retrospect was nothing but a result of paranoia on part of the British. Thankfully, he has written about the Pathan and the Afghan state with much-needed empathy for the Afghans have been wronged for an endless period of time. The Pashtuns are a proud people and lead their lives by a strict honour code that the west could do well to learn from.

This is something the western historians have never managed with their microscopic view of the eastern world. It is remarkable that the most definitive book on the Durand line and the Afghans should come from a little-known writer. I knew very little about Mr. Dogra but this alone should bring him some credit in the literary world. Having read countless works on Afghanistan and interacted with many Afghans, I couldn’t find anything amiss in this book.

“In this game, the Afghan people were the pawns; their apprehension was of no concern to the big two, nor was their fate of any consequence.”

It was this Great Game where the British tried to limit Russian influence and prevent them from entering India from Afghanistan. The two sides never saw direct battle but the intrigues had far-reaching consequence. It led to the Anglo-Afghan wars which saw much bloodshed and political upheaval.

Sadly though, neither political mistakes such as the installation of a puppet Amir in the form of Shah Shuja would see the British losing their fortunes; it began when they wounded Afghan pride frequently indulging in womanizing.  This resulted in their downfall and the retreat of the British from Afghanistan during which they were literally slaughtered.

Or as Rajeev puts it, “Its aim was to replace dost Mohammad, a Khan who had never done the British any harm, with Shah Shuja, a Khan who had never done the British any good.”

Rajeev has done a considerable amount of research and thankfully has restrained from presenting this book as some scholarly work which would have delegated it to libraries where nobody except some research scholar would have occasionally uncovered its pages. His ability to frequently quote from books and other narratives on Afghanistan lends this book a delightful charm, a habit that does not let the narration become morbid and retains the interest of the reader right through to the end.

Writing about the history of Afghanistan, Rajeev explain, “It was a story full of greed, intrigue, and violence.”

Rajeev’s habit of frequently using poetry, couplets, and snippets from other works as confetti rends this book an underlying charm. I usually prefer references being used in this manner- it’s a pain to frequently go through footnotes and glossaries. It also displays that the author himself is no novice and has read and researched upon his chosen subject in great detail. Rajeev deserves credit for understanding the subject so well that he has managed to collect the history of the Durand line within some 250 pages- the hallmark of a great writer! Any old fool can say what he has to say if you give him a thousand pages, a writer or poet must take fewer words and display equal depth.

Afghanistan in spite of many books and thesis on the Great Game continues to suffer from the same problems which perhaps the western world needs to understand they are completely unfit to solve. The Americans have already converted Afghanistan into another Vietnam. The west needs to read this book. They should learn from the mistakes of Alexander and his namesake, Alexander Burns and remember the often used quote, “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the revenge of the Afghans.”

This book requires some patience as much of the British and Russian conniving take up the bulk of previous fourteen chapters with Durand coming into play from the fifteenth onwards. Rajeev after telling us how the Durand line came into lay also goes into the contemporary problems that have continued to plague Afghanistan.

It is remarkable how a problem that started simply from the whims and fancies of uninformed men has continued to pile on centuries later, magnifying its impact. The problem is that similar follies continued to be committed for example in Iraq where the west installed another minority puppet leader and which was the underlying cause for the rise of the ISIS. When will the west learn that it must read the local authors before deciding matters in an alien culture?

The only misgiving I have about this book is the title- why call it Durand’s Curse? The Durand line may well be an opportunity to learn from history and serve as a constant reminder to avoid such pitfalls in future.

Perhaps this monumental folly (which is the primary reason for a lot of current unrest between Afghanistan and Pakistan) can be summed up best in the words of Amir Dost Mohammad:

“I have been struck with the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”


1 comment for “Book Review: Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart by Rajeev Dogra

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *