Daily Archives: August 29, 2011


Was Burnes Right?

History is full of interesting “what ifs”. The letters in my last posting from Ranjit Singh to Alexander Burnes relate to one of them.

In 1837-9 Burnes saw more clearly than other British officials in India that Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire was very much a personal one and would not survive his imminent death. Burnes also deplored the religous violence and hatred flowing from the Sikh conquest of Muslim lands.

Burnes submitted a policy recommendation that, on the death of Ranjit Singh, his most recently conquered Muslim lands including Peshawar and Kashmir should be returned to the sovereignty of the Emir of Kabul, Dost Mohammed Khan. Burnes favoured what we might call a “Greater Afghanistan” which would have in essence included modern Pakistan plus Kashmir. He argued this would bring stability to the region and provide an effective buffer against Russian expansion from the North. This would have been in fact a return to the status quo twenty years earlier.

Burnes as Envoy to Kabul negotiated with both Ranjit Singh and Dost Mohammed an agreement in principle that Kashmir and Peshawar would be held by Dost Mohammed immediately, but with payment of tribute to Ranjit Singh. This would, he calculated, leave them to fall into Dost Mohammed’s lap at Ranjit Singh’s death.

Burnes’ ideas were rejected in favour of a policy which presumed that the Sikh Empire would continue to be the most important non-British military power in India. Britain therefore, to Burnes’ disgust, invaded Afghanistan in alliance with the Sikhs to depose Dost Mohammed. Humiliating military defeat followed, and Burnes was killed.

The Sikh Empire did indeed disintegrate and both it and Sind were annexed by Britain within a decade. That was not a cunning master plan at the time of the Afghan invasion. It was a reaction to a power vacuum as things fell apart.

What if? is a rather pointless game, but I am struck by the wisdom of Burnes’ proposals. If the Muslim populated areas had been returned to Muslim rule within a generation of their non-Muslim conquest, how much future bloodhsed would have been avoided, continuing to this day especially in Kashmir?

I have never believed that because something did happen, it was inevitable that it would. Burnes’ plan was not a pipe-dream. His negotiations in Kabul were repudiated by the Governor-General, but in fact were warmly approved by the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London, so much so that Burnes was knighted for them and promoted to Lt-Col. (Historians seem to have not noticed why he was knighted, wrongly portraying it as some kind of preparation for command lines in the Afghan invasion).

Unfortunately it took a year for Burnes’ reports to reach London and for London’s approval (and his knighthood) to come back, and in the meantime the Governor-General (who was subservient to the Court of Directors) had repudiated Burnes and launched an invasion.

This was not inevitable either. It was against the great bulk of official opinion in India. The Governor-General needed the authority of his Supreme Council at Calcutta. But the constitutional arrangements had not caught up with the new practice of the Governor-General living in Simla in the summer. An emergency provision existed for the Governor-General to act autocratically when physically separated from his Council, and this is what Auckland abused to launch the war – which senior Council members were known to oppose.

So the Burnes plan was not pie in the sky. How different history might have been. And what an interesting book I am writing. You really must buy it!!

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