Self-policing: The colonial system of Frontier Management through “traditions” and “jirgas”

Wakeel Khan

Wakeel Khan

Self-policing: The colonial system of Frontier Management through “traditions” and “jirgas”

In 1799 the Afghan emperor Zaman Shah executed his powerful vazir Painda Khan Barakzai, who Zaman thought was a party to the recent coup of his half-brother Mahmud against him. A bloody civil war ensued in the wake of Painda Khan’s execution in the Afghan heartlands. This civil war lasted for nearly a century, and could only be concluded under Amir Abdurrehman, the Iron Amir and the first powerful monarch of Afghanistan following the fall of Zaman Shah, during his twenty years reign of terror (1880-1901). The twenty-one sons of the executed Painda Khan dethroned Zaman Shah Saddozai in 1800 and appointed his violent half-brother Mahmud on the throne of Afghanistan. Mahmud blinded the imprisoned emperor in 1801.

With the fall of Seringapatam in 1799, the last remnants of resistance to the colonial state were snuffed out in the South Indian territories. The Company’s troops entered Delhi under Lord Lake in 1803. The way to the north-west was now open for the Company. For the next few decades, nevertheless, the Company’s hands were full in suppressing the last traces of the Maratha resistance and crushing the Nepalese, in the Himalaya Mountains to the north of Lucknow (Oudh). Because of these engagements, the Company had although even not hitherto taken the possession of Sirhind, it nevertheless believed its ‘frontierment’ was on the Sutlej River. The colonial state introduced a system of ‘treaties’ into India, whereby the Company tied the interests of the petty chiefdoms with that of the colonial state, and used this ‘system of treaties’ for the vigorous expansionism of the Company’s dominions and for ‘order’ in the occupied territories. Being a legal commercial regime, dependent on the constant tribute of the annexed territories, which in turn was dependent on constant territorial expansionism, the colonial state only functioned through “law and order”. All those polities the colonial state signed treaties with in the opening three decades of the 19th century were gradually annexed by the colonial state in the fourth decade of the same century.

The process of blinding and maiming of the princes and vazirs (Prime Ministers) continued unabated in Afghanistan. The Saddozai dynasty was replaced with Barakzai in 1818, and by 1828 the civil war had reduced Afghanistan from an Asian empire to a polity disintegrated into petty independent khanates. What is more, the Russian empire forced the Treaty of Turkemenchay in 1828 on the Qajar Persia, which opened the way of the Russian Empire to Turkistan (Central Asia). Although the Company was still pacifying the northern India and was for the time being still frontiering on the Sutlej River, it started an imperial struggle with the Russians over Central Asia, a struggle which the colonial state referred to as the Great Game for Central Asia. The Company now wanted to immediately reach Oxus, even before reaching the Indus.

The Company first sought the Sikh state of Punjab and the deposed Shah Shuja take the Company to the Oxus, but when they could not, the Company decided to go itself, and immediately before the Russians could get there. This resulted in a disastrous First Anglo-Afghan war (1839-1842), when the occupying troops were literally annihilated in a general uprising of the tribes on the line of Kabul-Ghazni-Kandahar. The Company had to immediately abandon the occupation of the highland before taking its frontierment to the Indus, the river separating the monsoonal Indian lowlands from the arid Central Asian highlands. Sindh was occupied by the Company in 1839, immediately before the Company’s invasion of Afghanistan, although only seven years ago, precisely in 1832, the Company had made Treaty with the Mirs of Sindh, and annexed it immediately after the Anglo-Afghan war. The Company took the possession of Punjab in 1846, and formally annexed it in 1849. Henry Lawrence was appointed by the Company in 1846 as ‘Agent to the Governor-General for the North-West Frontier’. Nobody knew as to where precisely did that North-West Frontier of the commercial empire lay, as all this frontiering of the Company was historically only ephemeral, given the need of commercial empire to ensure the constant tribute, which required constant territorial expansionism of the Company’s dominions.

There were three major cities on the western bank of the Indus: Peshawar and the two Derajat (Dera Ismail Khan and Dera Ghazi Khan), where the Company garrisoned its standing armies. In the mountains around these three major cities, there were two major pastoral systems, genealogically organized into two self-contained tribal systems: the Pashtun and the Baloch. The Company formally annexed these cities in 1849. Being self-contained, the tribes around these cities had historically remained the ‘stateless’ tribes, a term of political anthropology, which means that the tribes around these major cities entirely lacked any historical experience of the state-system. All the three cities were annexed to the administrative system of Punjab, yet Dera Ghazi Khan, being the southern-most city under the administration of Punjab, was also bordering Sindh; hence the Deputy Commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan not only reported on the frontier management to the Commissioner of Punjab but also to Sindh. The commissioners of both Sindh and Punjab were subordinated to Bombay.

The annexation of these purely pastoral and semi-pastoral tribes to the colonial state-system was immediately difficult for the colonial state, since the tribes were self-contained and every tribe capable of turning out a vast fighting strength at hand, with excellence in the mountain warfare. Only five years before the occupation of Peshawar, the successful occupation on the line of Kabul-Ghazni-Kandahar had proved disastrous. Immediately after taking the possessions of the cities between the Indus and the mountains, the Company encountered another difficult problem. Many tribes of the mountains were not only an extension to the plains within the Indus, but were also the shareholders in them. The bakhra (share) of these tribes, which was falling or had already fallen to the colonial state, was militantly resisted by the tribes. The colonial state carried the first ever military operations against Baizai and Khudu Khel tribes of Swat, having also bakhra (share) in the plain, in 1847, two years before the formal annexation of Peshawar.

John Lawrence and William Merewether, the former the commissioner of Punjab and the latter the commissioner of Sindh, under these conditions, submitted their thesis to Bombay, which forwarded it to the central government at Culcutta. These commissioners had proposed the “closed-border system of the Frontier management”. There were two central elements in the closed-border system of frontier management, as it was proposed by Lawrence and Merewether, and applied by the colonial state until 1876: (i) the tribes should be left on their own; (ii) military operations against the tribes responsible for raids and assaults on the British posts. Marsden and Hopkins, the scholars on the colonial management of the frontier, in a word summarize the closed-border system as the policy of ‘non-intervention-cum-expeditions’. Military operations were an uncompromising and essential element of the closed-border system, as the shareholder tribes could not immediately cease raids and attacks.

Throughout in the period between 1824 (when the militant struggle was launched in the Utmanzai sub-segment of the Yousafzai on the either side of the Upper Indus, under Syed Akbar Shah of Sitana, against the Sikh incursions from Punjab) and 1860, the armed struggle against the state was strictly confined only to those tribes that were shareholders in the plains. The only military operations in the period between 1847 and 1860, launched by the colonial state, were carried out exclusively against the tribes with bakhra in the sama (plains). The chief tribes among them included: Utman Khel, Ranizai, Baizai, Amazai, Mohmand, Ismailzai (Orakzai), Ziamushts, Kabul Khel (Utmanzai Wazir) and Umarzai (Ahmadzai Wazir). With firmly securing itself at Peshawar, the colonial state wanted to build a road through the Kohat Pass (in the possession of Adam Khel tribe), for the fast communication between Peshawar and Kohat. This colonial project of road building through the Kohat Pass was attacked by the Adam Khel tribe (Afridi) in 1850, and the military operation had to be carried out in response. Since military operations were one of the two essential elements of the closed-border system, the colonial state had to take its technologically superior war machinery up the mountains. This means that the tribes such as had no bakhra in the plains could not remain unaffected for long, nor there seemed any end in sight to the unceasing forays of the shareholder tribes.

The Russians annexed the Khanate of Bukhara in 1869. This simply means that the Russian Empire now bordered Afghanistan on the Amu River (Oxus). The treacherous highland between the Oxus and Indus (the Hindu Kush Mountains and their southern spurs of Sulaiman ranges) now appeared as the only independent enclave between the European empires (Russia and British). The two decades of unsuccessful closed-border system of frontier management came under criticism from the colonial officials. From the stronghold of the mountains the armed resistance against the incursions of the colonial state did not cease. With poor results and heavy expanses of the military operations, at a time when the imperial struggle peaked between the Russian and British colonial empires, the central government at Calcutta started to seriously listen the advocates of another thesis of the frontier management—the forward school of colonial thought.


The young Captain Robert G. Sandeman, from the Forward school, was appointed in late 1860s as the Deputy Commissioner of the southernmost frontier city of Dera Ghazi Khan. The pastoral system around the cities of Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan consisted of the Afghan tribes, yet Dera Ghazi Khan was a marked difference, not only in ecology but also in ethnography. The terrain to the north of Dera Ghazi Khan was the continuity of the arid system of the spurs of Sulaiman ranges, while to the south and the westward of the Dera Ghazi Khan’s frontier the ecology turned dominatingly into the semi-desert and fully-desert zones. These climatically harsh conditions, both to the north and the south and westward of Dera Ghazi Khan had encouraged nomadic economy. More, the arid mountain system to the north of Dera Ghazi Khan was in the possession of the Afghan pastoral tribes, while the south and westward zones were in the possession of Brahui and Baloch tribal systems.

Nadir Shah, during his brief military empire (1738-1747), had appointed Mahhabat Khan as the governor of Baluchistan. Mahhabat Khan was, nevertheless, soon replaced by the Afghan emperor Ahmad Shah (1747-1772) with Nasir Khan, the Khan of Kalat. In late 1860s, nonetheless, the Deputy Commissioner Sandeman and the Political Superintendent of the Upper Sindh Frontier Robert Phayre agreed that the Khan of Kalat—the Brahui potentate and in Treaty with the colonial state since 1854—had no control over the Marri and Bugti Baloch tribes, and absolutely unable to rein in the raids of Marri and Bugti tribes, hence there was no need of dealing with Marri, Bugti and Mazari tribes through the Khan of Kalat. This meant, Sandeman and Phayre agreed, that the colonial state should absolutely bypass the Khan of Kalat and instead deal directly with the Baloch tribes, who were also, like the Afghan pastoral tribes, “independent tribes”, the idiom throughout flagged by the colonial state for its constant territorial expansionism.

The Conservative Party of Benjamin Disraeli, at the time of peaked imperial struggle between the Russian and British empires, took power in England after winning the elections in 1874. In imperial struggle with the Russians, the government of Benjamin Disraeli decided, immediately after taking the power in England, to finally weigh the theories of the Frontier management as they were advocated by the colonial bureaucrats on the frontier and finally take a side. The major proponent of the closed-border system in the early 1870s was Colonel William Merewether, the Commissioner of Sindh, a veteran with twenty-five years of experience on the Frontier. The forward school of frontier management was spearheaded by Captain Sandeman, the Deputy Commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan, and a subordinate of the Colonel Sir William Merewether, the Commissioner of Sindh. But by early 1870s the system of closed-border management had become an old school, while the star of Captain Sandeman was rising.

There were three essential elements of the ‘Sandeman System’, as the system of frontier management became known to be, based on the experience of Sandeman himself, in his capacity as Deputy Commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan, and Captain Sandeman himself became popular as ‘the peaceful conqueror of Balochistan’. Element One of the Sandeman system of Frontier management was that every tribe had a natural leader, which the colonial state should recognize, through detailed ethnography of the tribes, and the leader once recognized should be subsequently made political alliance with, and supported and strengthened and finally institutionalized. This means, according to Element One, the colonial state should not close border with the “independent tribes”, but instead gradually annex them to the colonial state. Element Two of the Sandeman system was the ‘self-policing’, through raising tribal levies from within the tribes for “law and order” and for the protection of the mountain passes and invading routes (or the pre-colonial caravan routes). Element Three was the complete and final annexation of the tribes to the colonial state-system through the codification of the tribal “traditions” and institutionalization of the jirga (tribal councils). As concerning the tribal “traditions”, it was the colonial state itself to define as to which were the acceptable and appropriate “traditions”, which the colonial state would subsequently codify as law.


In the icy January of 1876 the British government successfully laid the foundational stone of the colonial state-system on the Pashtun and Baloch pastoral economy and the stateless tribal system. The government of Benjamin Disraeli finally made the decision to replace the Closed-Border system with the Sandeman System of Frontier Management. The Sandeman System, which is still in place, irrevocably changed the indigenous people through a massive “social engineering”, for the reason that the ultimate arbiter of the tribal “traditions” (or ‘riwaj’) was the colonial state itself, which defined these “traditions” in accord with the colonial understanding of these traditions and with the administrative requirements. The Sandeman System of Frontier governmentality, in words of Marsden and Hopkins, “was at one and the same time a system of conservation and a system of revolution which partially ‘invented’, partially ‘codified’ and partially ‘altered’ tribal ‘custom’ and ‘tradition’.”

What is more, there was also marked difference between the Baloch and the Pashtun tribal systems. The Baloch tribal system was hierarchical, with chieftains enjoying power and authority in their tribes. The Pashtun tribal system, in contrast, was diametrically opposite to this, with opinion-based chieftainship, which although was influential, yet entirely lacked authority. By introducing hierarchical chieftainship to the Pashtun tribal system, the colonial state engrafted upon the Pashtun social structure an element which was foreign to it. On the other hand, the jirga-system was a Pashtun political institution, which was absolutely non-existent in the Baloch tribal system, hence the colonial state introduced one into it. Nonetheless, only those individual could become members of the jirga as were endorsed by the colonial state. “But”, as Marsden and Hopkins say, “the Pashtuns did not conceive of jirgas as a regular governing institution of the tribe. The transformation awaited the later innovations of the British imperial state… Jirgas were conceived as discursive spaces where members had an equal voice; issues were supposedly settled by consensus.”

The first ever Political Agency, in 1877, was successfully created in Balochistan, whose first ever Political Agent was Sandeman himself, in which capacity he served until his death in 1892. With the success of the Sandeman System, the colonial state started in 1880 a period of constructing the metallic and not-metallic road system as well as the telegraph to the all the mountain passes, which proved for the colonial state a turning point in physically constricting the armed resistance which the tribes had so far offered, and which was not entirely unsuccessful, but now with the construction of road-system the colonial state decisively gained the upper hand.

The Element Two of the Sandeman System, namely raising the tribal cavalries, was also an instant success. The first ever irregular militia was recruited from Afridi tribe in 1878, which were soon regularized as “Khyber Rifles” under the command of Major Sardar Mahomed Aslam, a Saddozai prince, because Afridi was in the Saddozai faction during the civil war. More, Colonel Robert Warburton, who was an Irish from his father side and Barakzai from his mother’s side and who “never doubted that the British Raj was God’s greatest gift to mankind”, was made the first ever Political Agent of Khyber Agency. After annexing Zhob in 1889, Sandeman also immediately raised an irregular levy, which was named “Zhob Levy Corps”, which was soon regularized and renamed Zhob Militia. In 1892-3 Captain Roos-Keppel also successfully raised a militia in the Turi tribe, which was named as Kurram Militia.

By 1901 the colonial state had raised all along the colonial Frontier, which ran for thousands of miles from Gilgit to Balochistan, a massive force from within the tribes under various names, such as ‘Rifles’, ‘Militia’, ‘Corps’, ‘Scouts’, ‘Levy’, etc. By the turn of the 20th century the ‘poachers’ had turned the ‘gamekeepers’. Finally, the process of annexing the tribes to the colonial state, started since 1876, through a system of ‘self-policing’, by which the tribesmen became the executors of their own oppression, and by ruling the tribes through the British arbitrated “traditions” which the colonial state codified as Frontier Crimes Regulation, was successfully concluded under Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India between 1899 and 1905.


  • Luis Dupree, 1980, ‘The Age of European Imperialism’, in ‘Afghanistan’.
  • Irfan Habib, ‘Colonialism and Central Asia’, in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, vol. 5.
  • Robert Nichols, ‘colonizing institutions’ and ‘Anglo-Pakhtun society’, in ‘Settling the Frontier’.
  • Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins, ‘Managing Hearts and Minds: Sandeman in Balochistan’ in ‘Fragments of the Afghan Frontier’.
  • Charles Chenevix Trench, 1985, ‘The Frontier Scouts’
  • Rajit Mazumder, 2003, ‘the Indian army and the making of the Punjab’.

Writer: Wakeel Khan

The writer is an M. Phil student at National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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