Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Great Game

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and Rome the Colosseum. What does Delhi have? The India Gate, of course.

It is a war memorial in honour of all the Indian soldiers who died fighting wars for the British. The most fascinating among these wars were the three Anglo-Afghan Wars.

You see, in the first half of 1800's, Russia became a sort of British bogeyman. What if the Russians, extending the Tzar’s empire, invaded India through Afghanistan? That would never do!

And so, to protect British interests in India, Afghanistan became a war zone - the centre-piece of a 'Great Game' between Britain and Russia.

The First Anglo-Afghan War - A British Disaster
The first move in the game was played out in 1838. The British invaded Afghanistan and captured parts of it.
But as locals increasingly became hostile to British occupation, the British were forced to retreat from Kabul. And guess what? Of the 16500 Indians and Englishmen who retreated, only one man reached India alive. The rest were massacred in skirmishes along the way. The Kabul retreat became the stuff of legend.

William Broydon, doctor, the sole survivor of the retreat from Kabul. Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword. In fact, he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood's Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor's life.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War - The British are Successful
The Russians continued their advance into Afghanistan. So forty years after the first Afghan war, the British invaded Afghanistan again. But you know what they say about the Afghans - they are not a quiet peaceable people, easily cowed. Defeating them once in battle isn't the same as controlling them. As little revolts and rebellions started to happen, the British withdrew, fearing another massacre. This time, though, they installed Abdur Rehman Khan as Emir. It was a good choice. Abdur Rehman Khan was a tough guy who forcibly united Afghanistan into one polity - earning himself the nickname Iron Emir.

Abdur Rehman Khan - the Iron Emir. A Sunni Muslim, he enslaved the Shia Hazaras
and forcibly converted the Kafirs of Hindukush to Islam.

The Third Anglo-Afghan War - Hitting a mosquito with a sledgehammer
Under Abdur Rehman and his son Habibullah Khan, things were pretty hunky-dory. The British continued to virtually control Afghanistan's foreign affairs. But Habibullah's son Amanullah was a different cup of tea. A man with a liberal outlook, he declared that Afghanistan would be fully independent, and sent a small troop into British India to recover provinces that he had lost earlier. In retaliation, the might of the Empire came crashing down on him. Indian forces launched a massive punitive campaign, bombing his palace and several religious places. In less than a month, Amanullah sued for peace.

Although he lost the war, Amanullah Khan got what he wanted. Britain recognised Afghan independence and ensured that the British Indian empire would never extend beyond the Khyber Pass. Afghanistan also signed a treaty of friendship with the new Bolshevik government in Russia in 1921.

British interest in Afghanistan largely ended with Indian independence in 1947. But did the Great Game stop? Nah. The United States replaced Britain - and the Great Game was played all over again, this time with bigger guns.

1 comment:

Aishwarya Pramod said...

haha @ Blackwood's magazine.