Exploring questions relevant then and now   | Pakistan Today

Exploring questions relevant then and now  

Book Review: Settling The Frontier: Land, Law and Society in the Peshawar Valley, 1500-1900

Robert Nicholas is a Professor of History at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. The work of Nicholas, a professor of South Asian History, has centered around Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In recent times his work seems to have found prominence, especially in the wake of the recent shake in Pakistan’s tribal regions with the long awaited merger between the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) with the mainstream KP province.  

In 2013, Oxford University Press had published Nichol’s work titled “The Frontier Crimes Regulation: A History in Documents.” As history would have it, only a few years later the last of the FCR would constitutionally be seen in FATA and Nichol’s book would prove to be the final recap of the infamous laws. But Nichols has had a profile writing on the region even before this seminal work, in 2005 Colonial Reports on Pakistan’s Frontier Tribal Areas was also published by Oxford. Before that he has also published a book titled “A history of Pashtun Migration” and an article titled “Pashtuns” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History, making him one of the foremost scholars on the region and its people.

“Settling The Frontier: Land, Law and Society in the Peshawar Valley” is the latest addition to Nichols’ list of works. But the work is not a new one, but rather the second edition to the original volume published way back in 2001 by Oxford University Press. A second edition, and a second edition with some serious additions and changes at that, is a strange choice for a book whose title seems to end its history more than a hundred years ago. Second editions, at most, include minor inclusions and changes, perhaps even corrections, but rarely do they have substantial changes. But Nichos has managed the strange feat of a second edition which serves to bring the book up to date, with a fuller discussion of the literature that explains the region, both before and after the 1900s.

Peshawar, as a City, is ancient. It is indeed one of the oldest Cities of the Indian subcontinent, and the entire region. A cradle of civilisation with a rich history, Peshawar has remained greatly unexplored in terms of both culture and history – a hidden gem away from the mainstream cultural cornerstones such as Lahore in Pakistan or Delhi or Agra in India.

This book is about a Peshawar unknown and unseen before to those that have not lived the City. It is a history, but it is also an anthropological study, with the obvious existence of the contentious and often controversial participant observer. It takes strange turns, explaining the dynamics of the ancient India and the Mughals to the colonial British masters, but throughout it maintains the constant of the valley. The book looks into the nuances of the Valley’s traditions of religion, looking at Islamic scholars, its traditions and its surprisingly diverse ethnic composition. But at the same time it looks at the City’s ancient history, taking on greater questions regarding the region which are prevalent even today.

In this way, the second edition is pertinent because it updates important questions and realities, and makes interesting observations that are a fascinating contrast with the previous edition.

Over several centuries (c. 1500-1900) residents of the agrarian valleys west of the Indus river in the Peshawar region (in today’s Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan) experienced imperial expansion, technological innovation, and the growth of state institutions as they simultaneously nurtured and transformed indigenous power relations, socio-cultural practices, and a political economy never completely distanced from an earlier pastoral-nomadic heritage. Tracing local agency and adaptation, this study recovers a regional history long subsumed in imperial and post-colonial national narratives. It argues against reductive notions of a unified “tribal” society in simple, perpetual opposition to monolithic imperial-state structures.

A creative methodology has supplemented conventional sources with the use and analysis of social science scholarship, ethnographic material, religious and lineage texts, oral histories, and collections of popular verse. Through the period under study a focus has been maintained on Peshawar “settled” district relations to the land and upon often contending visions of social order, justice, and moral authority. Personal, family, and clan identities and fortunes were closely tied to control of village fields and crop production. Islamic, imperial, and lineage claims to legitimacy were directly tied to assertions of particular norms of behavior and the right to interpret and administer justice. Though imperial hierarchies and ruling institutions attempted to further structure and subordinate local society, a process accelerating in the late 19th century, colonial documents reveal the extent to which such efforts revealed a “Limited Raj” in which political and economic domination did not fully translate into socio-cultural influence or legitimacy. Related processes of transformation and exploitation have been examined in historical context.

Local collaboration and resistance as well as imperial reticence and initiative marked different moments in continuing processes of interaction. Periods of religiously charged political activism are analyzed as occurring within a larger socio-economic context dominated by the influence of local elite intermediaries and imperial resources and strategies. A contingent, fragmented history reflected neither the dichotomies of problematic “subaltern” scholarship nor the effects of socio-cultural and religious expression delinked from the dynamics of the regional political economy.

This work explores the question of social transformation within the Peshawar valley from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, an extended period when regional villagers and pastoralists experienced and interacted with the demands of evolving imperial and cultural ideas and institutions.