4 Nov 201412:00pm - 2:00pmRoom SG1, Alison Richard Building


Medical intervention and political autonomy on British India’s hostile Afghan border

Zujaja Tauqeer (University of Oxford)
Respondent:  Tahir Kamran (South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge)


The northwestern frontier of British India bedevilled imperial policymakers for 100 years. The barren mountainous territory bordering Afghanistan was home to the Pathans, considered a fierce, warlike people. The British refused to formalise their rule over this population; nevertheless the Government of India (GOI) repeatedly acknowledged its failure to invest in the socioeconomic welfare of these “British protected persons”. GOI officials cited local opposition as responsible for
this failure. The tribesman, they claimed, “would rather remain free and undeveloped than developed and administered.”!
I intend to challenge this particular narrative of economic and political development in the region. In contrast to the accusations of intransigence, I find evidence of proactive engagement between locals and British medical men. Tribesmen sought western medicines—for malaria, smallpox, TB— in mission clinics, distant provincial hospitals, even in British military forts. Medical officers meanwhile explicitly noted the great potential of British medicine in building influence in tribal
territory. “There is one door which only the doctor can unlock,” wrote one British frontier surgeon, “and that is the door to the Frontiersman’s heart.”!
Failure to heed this advice obstructed meaningful colonial intercession in this region. Furthermore, Pathan anti-colonial activists in the adjacent settled province cited lack of health services as evidence of the colonial government’s neglect and demanded greater self-government. Led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Khudai Khitmatgars emphasised self-improvement as a nationalist endeavour. Building schools and sweeping villages became a concrete way by which to act on the principles of  self-improvement. Health and social reform also permitted Khan to overcome the vicious cycle of British tight-fisted policy on the frontier, which neglected public health and education but at the same time used the absence of progress on these fronts to obstruct political development on the North-West Frontier.


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