Even so, the author has mined multiple sources to bring out a detailed historiography of a complex and little-studied region. He has followed an interesting methodology — adopting a chronological approach up to the World Wars, and then taking up the narrative through the inter-war years through chapter-length studies of the key personalities in the great NWFP drama. The protagonists include British officials and administrators Caroe and Sir George Cunningham; British Viceroys General Archibald Wavell and Mountbatten; the trio of Badshah Khan, Dr Khan Sahib, and Abdul Qayoom Khan; and, of course, the central decision-makers, Nehru and Jinnah. In dealing with these personalities, the author weaves back and forth in time, sometimes confusingly, throwing up themes and leaving it to the reader to interpret the narrative.
Some of these portraits make for fascinating reading. About the stoic, spartan Wavell he quotes: “On he went up the great, bare staircase of his duty, uncheered and undepressed.” He never got along with Churchill, whose “main concern whenever Wavell was home on consultations was how to send him back to New Delhi.” About the charismatic Mountbatten, whom the author clearly dislikes: “He was considered a remote and irresponsible master who sat in his luxurious office at Kandy (Sri Lanka) as a Zeus on Olympus, coming down once in a while to make sport with the lives of men fighting in a jungle, cool, charming and godlike in his taste for other people’s confusions.” The author writes that when Mountbatten commanded the fifth destroyer flotilla, the professional opinion about him was: “There is nobody better to be with in a tight spot than Dickie Mountbatten and nobody likely to get you into one sooner.”
The book finishes with a chapter, best described as “potted strategy”, that recounts the geo-strategic importance of the Hindu Kush mountains, which straddle the tribal areas of the NWFP. The author points out that all migration along the “Hindu Kush Highway” from Afghanistan has taken place in an easterly direction towards India. The only example of the westerly move was the spread of Buddhism towards China. He warns that this holds a cautionary tale for India, especially with the Chinese expanding into the region and building “belt and road initiative” projects in Pakistan.
The strong points of this book are its historiographical research into a region of relevance, even if the reader does not necessarily agree with the conclusions the author draws. It is well produced, footnoted and indexed and should be widely read by students of the endless Af-Pak confrontation.
India’s Lost Frontier
The Story of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan
Rupa Publications; Rs 995; 491 pages