Farooqui on Hanifi, 'Mountstuart Elphinstone in South Asia: Pioneer of British Colonial Rule'

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, ed.
Amar Farooqui

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, ed. Mountstuart Elphinstone in South Asia: Pioneer of British Colonial Rule. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 424 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-091440-0

Reviewed by Amar Farooqui (University of Delhi) Published on H-Asia (August, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54713

Elphinstone in South Asia

Mountstuart Elphinstone belonged to the “first generation” of colonial administrators who played an important role in British imperial expansion and consolidation in India in the early nineteenth century. During the latter phase of his career, he was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the Maratha ruler Baji Rao II and ensuring colonial ascendancy in western India. This is the role for which he is better known. There is a brief episode that belongs to the earlier phase of his career—an errand that took him to Peshawar to seek an audience with Shah Shuja. One outcome of the trip was his first major published work, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul (1815), which was to establish his reputation as a serious observer of oriental societies. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi notes that this work “has received far less scholarly attention and interrogation” than many of the “other textual products of his [East India] Company service in India” (p. 5).

Hanifi has brought together fourteen essays on the broad theme of Elphinstone and his era. Almost ten of these focus on the Kingdom of Caubul and its afterlife. Two contributions deal with the Bombay presidency and the history of the Marathas. Lynn Zastoupil’s essay is a reappraisal of some of the educational initiatives of Elphinstone in western India. He argues that the impact of Romantic trends in German thought and Scottish cultural nationalism on his ideas might perhaps explain the benign nature of his endeavors in this field. It would have been worthwhile to have considered the long-term implications that his stress on cultural nationalism had on the articulation of nationalist ideologies in Maharashtra. Spencer Leonard brings out the contradictions inherent in James Grant Duff’s “historiographical enterprise,” History of the Mahrattas (1826), which failed “not because the work was frankly liberal ... but because it was insufficiently so” since it could not have possibly criticized the policies of the East India Company (EIC) (p. 201).

The revival, since the 1970s, of interest in Elphinstone’s account of the Kabul kingdom, its anthropological aspects in particular, reflected Western political concerns about the leftward shift in Afghanistan. Louis Dupree, “the leading American authority on Afghanistan during the Cold War,” commented around that time that “writers on Afghanistan have either copied Elphinstone or copied those who have copied Elphinstone” (p. 8). We may well lament this state of affairs in Western scholarship on a country that has known few moments of peace in the past two centuries and that is allegedly unable to escape ethnic strife. Timothy Nunan’s incisive “The Soviet Elphinstone” makes out a strong case for using the valuable insights of Soviet scholarship which showed an awareness that “state power in Afghanistan can only be understood imperfectly through the lens of ethnicity” (p. 297).

As the EIC settled down to govern territories it had conquered in eastern and southern India it harnessed the energies of young civil and military officials to put in place a mechanism to gather and process information that would allow it to comprehend the society it was claiming to govern. The emergence of the company as a major, if not yet the preeminent, power in the subcontinent after the final defeat of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in 1799, propelled its aggressive expansionist drive in the subsequent decades. A necessary precondition for furthering its agenda was the acquisition of adequate knowledge of regions in the vicinity of the EIC’s domain, especially to gauge their vulnerability. Following the establishment of British authority over Delhi and its environs in 1803, the city could be used as an intelligence outpost. This is when the systematic flow of information about Panjab and the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent commenced. Exaggerated fears of a possible French (or even Russian) foray into this quarter provided the pretext for launching full-fledged missions, which, though ostensibly of a diplomatic character, were meant to gather information about the lands to which the respective missions were dispatched. Elphinstone was sent to the “Kingdom of Kabul (Caubul),” Charles Metcalfe to Panjab, and John Malcolm to Iran (on his third mission to the Qajar court). In the words of Victor Kiernan, “Men who had been in India longer than Lord Minto (governor-general, 1807-10) may have guessed that sending out diplomats would lead to sending out armies.”[1]

It is well known that colonial ethnographic classifications played havoc with the societies on which these were imposed. Thus, “Afghan” became an umbrella term for the diverse ethnic groups inhabiting the truncated Durrani kingdom, which was labeled “Afghaunistaun”/Afghanistan. This appellation has survived. Mahmoud Hanifi, Jamil Hanifi, Jonathan Lee, and Elisabeth Leake have in their essays underlined the problem of extending the term to denote inhabitants of the entire kingdom. After all, Elphistone’s own familiarity was confined to southeastern Afghanistan. Additionally, the Afghan­-Pathan elision, which Lease draws attention to, remains an unresolved question for various reasons.

We need to make a distinction between western and eastern Afghans. The latter were/are frequently referred to as Pathans. In late colonial classification, Pathans were subdivided into highland Pathans of the inaccessible (and presumably ungovernable) Sulaiman Mountains and Pathans of Peshawar and its countryside. The problem of nomenclature was further compounded by the demand, after 1947, for a separate “Pakhtunistan,” which would be the homeland of the Pashto-speaking eastern Afghans, living east of the Durand Line. It should be borne in mind that Peshawar, the winter capital of the Kabul kingdom, was lost to the Sikh kingdom ruled by Ranjit Singh, and would never again be part of Afghanistan.

Elphinstone’s references to Ahmad Shah Durrani’s diwan (collected poems) comprising his Pashto verses were intended to highlight the importance of the language as a marker of Afghan identity as symbolized by the Durrani rulers. On the other hand, the archival material that formed the basis of Kingdom of Caubul, and that has been consulted by Mahmoud Hanifi, would suggest that Elphinstone was not entirely convinced of the authenticity of the diwan. Colonial officials of the twentieth century, such as Olaf Caroe, observed that “many Durranis do not even speak or understand Pashto” (p. 316). In all fairness to Elphinstone, given his extremely superficial interaction with Shah Shuja’s courtiers, most of whom were pursuing the interests of their own factions in representing or misrepresenting the kingdom to the British, the ambiguities of the two labels, Afghan and Pathan, should not surprise us.

Lee’s essay explores the largely ignored Turkic elements of the Durrani state. He traces these to the historical connections that the Durrani (the name adopted by Ahmad Shah for his tribe, Abdali) had with the Safavid dynasty of Iran. The rise of the Saddozai clan, to which Ahmad Shah belonged, to preeminence may be attributed to this connection. Even more relevant is the place occupied by the Shi‘a Qizilbash in the Durrani state: the Qizilbash were of Turkic origin. They were the mainstay of its military power and also constituted the core of its bureaucratic apparatus. The sidelining of Durrani chiefs and the appointment of Abu’l Hasan Khan Qizilbash (referred to as Meer Abool Hussun Khaun) as mehmandar (official deputed to attend on a guest) to the Elphinstone mission resulted in much resentment. This was a very high honor, and the nuances of the factional tussles it caused were not grasped by members of the delegation.

Elphinstone mistook the Qizilbash to be “Persians.” The confusion is likely to have resulted from the Persian influences that he discerned in his conversations with Shah Shuja’s entourage. Jamil Hanifi, whose essay looks at how these influences shaped the ethnographic material available in Kingdom of Caubul, remarks that “virtually all the ethnographic information received by Elphinstone was through Persian linguistic filters” (p. 56). Incidentally, Shah Shuja himself did not speak Pashto. It would have been easy to overlook the older Turco-Mongolian roots of the courtly etiquette of the Kabul kingdom. This is the dimension emphasized by Lee: “Ahmad Shah’s administration and court protocols were all derived from previous Turco-Mongolian models and as late as 1808/9 most of Shah Shuja’s officials still bore the same Turkic titles used in the Mughal, Safavid and Bukharan courts” (p. 79).

Other officers, contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Elphinstone, who provided the earliest concrete inputs to the EIC about Afghan lands and the northwestern areas of the Indian subcontinent also have essays devoted to aspects of their careers: George Forster and Charles Masson (by Senzil Nawid), Charles Metcalfe (by Robert Nichols), and Henry Pottinger (by Brian Spooner). The volume presents an opportunity for a sober reflection on the historical legacies of Elphinstone and his fellow travelers.


[1]. Victor Kiernan, Metcalfe’s Mission to Lahore, 1808-1809 (1943; repr., Patiala: Languages Department—Punjab, 1971), 6. 

Citation: Amar Farooqui. Review of Hanifi, Shah Mahmoud, ed., Mountstuart Elphinstone in South Asia: Pioneer of British Colonial Rule. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54713

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