The Reform of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and administration of the tribal areas of Pakistan Part 1

(A series of article in three parts)



These three articles examine the FCR from various perspectives. They examine the linkage between Pashtunwali[i] and FCR[ii]. They observe the interaction between pashtun society and the rulers. The interaction with Britain will be examined closely. FCR became the bedrock of the colonial control system, and was said to be inter-linked to the heart of Pashtunwali, both culturally and legally. It has been alleged that in creating the FCR, the British stole the pashtun idiom and made it appear as if the Pathans were actually governed by their customary law (Nichols: 184).

Was the FCR an imperial construct for influencing mediation between the state and the tribes through their own idiom? Or was FCR used as cover to conceal imperial expansionist desires? The answer to this question will emerge from our analysis. We shall also study some of the clauses of the FCR, as it exists today and examine the status of the tribal areas under the 1973 constitution. In the final article certain conclusions are made.


Administrative history

Mughal emperors and governors, Afghans, Sikhs and the British pursued similar strategies to co-opt local allies and institutions, expand revenue and gain surpluses and impose imperial standards of political hierarchy and social order From Abu-l Fazl to Churchill the settlement of a troubled frontier served as a convenient metaphor justifying imperial dominion. (Nichols: 252-3)

This quotation encapsulates in a nutshell the main objective of any system of administration in the tribal areas. The major difference is that while the resources in an imperial setting are circulated out of the exploited periphery towards the metropolitan center. In the post colonial period, the drive of capital is to open the area and its resources for exploitation by the national elite.

In tribal administration the aim has been to break up the clan confederacy, to enable geographical penetration and obtain control. If this was not possible, other options were used. The tribal areas did not easily permit the entry of outsiders.

Whenever an invader entered India from the north, the tribes joined as mercenaries or pillaged the attackers. Therefore, controlling the borderlands to the north and west of Mughal India or British India became a central concern of the respective rulers in London, Delhi, Kabul or now in Islamabad. The political map has changed over the centuries, but the problem of controlling the borderlands to the north – west has remained unchanged.

In 1838, Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk was supported by the Sikhs and the British to reclaim the throne form Dost Mohammad. To obtain their support Shuja-ul-Mulk signed the Tripartite Treaty in Simla in 1838 with the Sikhs, with the British Government added as a sort of kindly aunt. (Caroe: 319 20)

Under Article I, Shah Shuja, renounced his and his future successor’s claims to Kashmir, Attock, Chachh, Hazara, Amb and basically all areas presently included in the NWFP and the related tribes in the region. This is an important landmark. After Britain defeated the Sikh power in 1848 in the 2nd Sikh War, she became the beneficiary of the lands previously ceded by the Afghan to the Sikhs in 1838. Having arranged the cessation of territories from Shah Shuja to the Sikhs earlier, Britain was not that kindly an aunt after all!

After the defeat of the Sikhs in the First Sikh War in 1846, Britain deputed some of its best Punjab service officers to the Sikh durbar, ostensibly to humanize the level of Sikh contact with the local population in the region. These officers were Abbot, Henry Lawrence, Edwardes, Nicholson and Lumsden, whose names became legend in the frontier. It was their previous Sikh durbar experience of the tribes that allowed them to structure the law and the nature of contact of British India with the tribes for all times to come. Their stamp of influence exists even today. It was their collective contributions to the administration of tribal areas, which became the corner stone of British policy for all times to come (Caroe: 323 , 25).

When the British took over the north west frontier from the Sikhs. They physically took possession up to the foothills. No attempt was made to move into the mountains, where the tribes lived. The five trans  Indus districts from Peshawar to DG Khan together with Hazara to the north, became the frontier line of the new Punjab province.

The administration of the Punjab was basically the same as in other parts of India, except two major differences. Only the best officers were selected by Lord Dalhousie to administer this new land.  Both civilian and a few military service officers were included in what became known as the Punjab Commission. Later, when Lord Curzon separated the Frontier districts form the Punjab to form NWFP in 1901, the service was called the Political Department, which later became the Political service.

The aim of administration was initially the same as was tried so successfully by the British in the rest of India. It was to mould a heterogeneously diverse population into the single British Indian nation.  Secondly, The Pathans of the frontier were expected to bring a society which sought redress through the blood-feud within the smug formalisms of British India, (Caroe: 331)

While the pathans of the plains were dealt with standards of a European type administration. Those of the hills were left to manage themselves through tribalism (Caroe: 346). They were administered loosely by the adjoining Deputy Commissioner through a system of middleman. It was a method of indirect control through influential intermediaries.

However, the hill tribes had other ideas. They continued to raid and plunder the plains. Military units of light infantry were developed to assist the Deputy Commissioners in obtaining redressal from the tribes through reprisal raids, blockades and barampta of the hostile tribes. The birth of the Frontier Force Rifles and Guides Cavalry, owe their origin to this phase of development. Border police called the Frontier Constabulary, screened the border between the districts and hill tribes.

These administrative changes seem to have had little impact on the tribes. The greater the improvements in administrative measures, the worse the situation became! A very strange co relationship indeed. We shall revert to it later.

To control the tribes, the British began a system of obtaining agreements from them, which were negotiated as a trade-off for ending a reprisal operation. The rationale behind the agreement seems to be to create an aura of order and responsibility in the minds of the hill tribes and thereby slowly introduce the seeds of a British Indian way of life. The tribe in return promised good behavior and secured employment and allowances. In modern language, a subsidy to collectively maintain the king’s peace by the whole tribe, who were made a party to the agreement.

Writers on tribal affairs have attributed long term objectives behind this system. It has been said that the officers were integrating the Pathans tribal code of social conduct, Pashtunwali, into a system of administration (Caroe: 350).

Another penetrating analysis has come from the ecological historians. It is posited that those people thrive, who are able to create new niches for their progeny (Colinvaux 231  254). We find that the tribesman although living in a hostile and a resource deficit area began reaping economic benefits from their environment, by bargaining at various levels. Exchanging his war like attitudes, when it was reasonable, for peaceful co-existence with the British. In return he protected his social structure and obtained money for his good behaviour.

As we will later see the tribesman’s life based on Pashtunwali was supposedly codified. Whether the FCR was a clever maneuver by the British to enter the tribal way of life and to control it from within, is not at issue. What is important to note is that the tribesman successfully prevented all future legal attempts at control in the presence of FCR! 103 years later the same law is still in place. He has been so successful, that he has even obtained constitutional prohibition against interference with his way of life.

After various attempts to neuter the tribesman, Britain reached the conclusion that the Pathans would not give up their allegiance to Pashtunwali. Therefore in 1872, they settled by issuing the first version of the FCR, which according to them codified the tribal collective responsibility conundrum into law.