The Forgotten Jihad – What Sparked a Tribal Revolt Against the British in India’s North-West Frontier?

Men of the Gordon Highlanders in action against Pathan warriors in 1897. (Image source: Mark Simner)

“Few today remember that conflict, which would become known as the Pathan Rising.”

By Mark Simner

FOR OVER A decade the word jihad has appeared frequently in print throughout Europe and North America. The reason, it seems obvious, the recent rise in Islamic terrorism.

But of course, the now 16-year-old War on Terror was by no means the first time that this fraught word has held currency in the West. Rewind 120 years and it was the world’s preeminent military power of the day, the British Empire, that was at war with militant jihadists. Yet few today remember that conflict, which would become known as the Pathan Rising of 1897 to 1898.

Pathans were native to the rugged landscape of the North West Frontier of British India. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Who Were the Pathans?

Today referred to as Pashtuns, the Pathans were clans that resided along what was once known as the North-West Frontier of India — a region of mountains and plains sandwiched between British India and Afghanistan. In the 21st Century, the area is called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and forms the north-western corner of Pakistan.

When the British defeated the Sikhs for the second time in 1849, the whole of the Punjab was added to the already sizeable British India. But along with this new acquisition came the problem of the North-West Frontier, which one Victorian commentator rather aptly referred to as a “prickly and untrimmed hedge.” Control of these new territories ushered in a 100-year-long headache for Britain. But in the late 1890s, that dull pain would briefly erupt into a raging migraine.

During the time of Sikh rule in the Punjab, Pathan tribesmen regularly descended from their mountain homes to raid merchants and travellers and plunder them of their valuables. The Sikhs often responded to these provocations with military force, conducting punitive operations against the Pathans. British authorities hoped for better relations, but would eventually be compelled to adopt the same policy when dealing with the troublesome tribesmen.

What followed were dozens of minor expeditions against the Pathans. These generally played out in similar fashion: Pathan raiders would irritate the British who would in turn respond with force against the homes of the tribesmen. Homes would be burned or demolished, livestock and crops would be seized and the clans would be forced to pay fines as punishment. The offending tribesmen would eventually submit to British demands and peace would be restored. Casualties were usually light; the razed homes were quickly rebuilt, sometimes the British would offer some form of compensation to restore relations. But things changed in 1897.

British authorities feared Russian intrigue in the mountain passes linking India and Afghanistan (Upper left of map). Stepped up military presence in the region enraged the Pathans. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The Great Game”

Trouble began with Imperial Russia’s growing involvement in Central Asia. As the Tsar sought to exert influence in the region, Britain was left scrambling to assert its control over the whole of northern India. While this Victorian cold war, known at the time as “the Great Game,” never turned hot, there was growing alarm in the Indian Government when news reached the capital of Calcutta that Russian forces had entered Chitral territory and seemed to be mapping the mountain passes as they went. The British recognized Chitral as a potential backdoor into India; not surprisingly they wanted it kept shut.

Following the Siege of Chitral in 1895, where an Anglo-Indian garrison had fought off a joint Chitrali-Pathan army, British authorities maintained a military presence in the region. Holding the territory in the face of the Russian menace meant building a new supply route from British India to the Chitrali capital – one that would have to pass through Pathan lands. A new road was laid down and small manned outposts were constructed along it to protect the flow of supplies. The Pathans seethed at the encroachment.

Another source of irritation for the Pathan cheifs was the Durand Line Agreement between the British and the amir of Afghanistan. This artificial border stretched across the North West Frontier, dividing areas of influence between British India and Afghanistan. Neither the British nor the Afghans consulted the Pathan tribes, through whose land the line cut. The tribesmen resented the markers on their lands that denoted the border.

Pathan warriors attack a British fort at Shabkadr. (Image source: WikiCommons)


Enough was enough, and on June 10, 1897 a Pathan raiding party ambushed the British political agent for the Tochi Valley who was on a visit to some villages collectively known as Maizar. Britain responded with military force.

What followed were a series of campaigns against the Pathan tribes, many of which were spurred on by several fanatical Islamic holy men. Local chiefs called for open jihad against the British. The resulting conflict would be a bitter one, with tens of thousands of British and Indian troops being sent against similar numbers of Pathan fighters.

By the time it ended, a total of 11 Victoria Crosses would be awarded to British troops as well as many high-ranking awards to Indian soldiers, hinting at the ferocity of the fighting.

Although the rising was ultimately put down by the British, it presented the most significant threat to British authority in Asia since the Indian Mutiny of four decades earlier.

Amazingly, few in the west may remember it today, but it has not been forgotten by the Pashtun tribes of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Mark Simner is the author of Pathan Rising: Jihad on the North West Frontier of India, 1897-1898, published by Fonthill Media in 2016.

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