Sarwekai Fort

Poachers and Gamekeepers of Frontier

First comes one Englishman, as a traveler or for shikar; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.

A Pukhtun Proverb 1

The year, dear reader, was 2001 and as a newly promoted Captain, I was stationed at Thal Garrison right in the neighborhood of the Thal Scouts’ Headquarters. The location was the gateway to Waziristan, North Waziristan to be more specific. The ripples in the routine were created when from Kohat, right off the bookshelf of my General Officer Commanding, there was dispatched, a historical book on Frontier Scouts , primarily for a solo project, but indirectly serving my reading appetite. The game was ‘on’ as I had to dig deep the history of Scouts and deliver a presentation to the officers of my division, a project contributing to my annual assessment. The book proved to be a fascinating read, and other than preparing a presentation for my project, it gave me an insight on the neighboring tribal territory and its irregular militiamen; ‘The Scouts’. Scouts, who by far the most established themselves as a corps d’élite, were raised initially as an irregular force, out of the frontier tribesmen. These gifted people who were naturally skilled in the art of field-craft and marksmanship were commanded by the British Officers who amongst other qualifications were learned Pustho Speakers, and the Pathan Officers who above all regarded the service as an honour, well above and beyond their lives. The book, I talked about earlier was ‘The Frontier Scouts’ by Charles Chenevix Trench. It was the quality of the narrative and the characteristic anecdotal style of the author that made me fall in love with the book, and to make my point I hereby present, for my readers’ appetite, the opening story, straight from the book. 2

Sixty Indian Soldiers occupied a permanent picquet, a miniature fort built of drystone walls, on a hill overlooking a road which passed along the Tochi Valley in North Waziristan. Day after day they cooked, cleaned their rifles, dozed, chatted … Nothing ever happened, nothing ever moved … Every morning at first light ten men were sent for the day to a feature overlooking the picquet; a routine move, carelessly carried out… For convenience they took the same route every day. Unseen watchers observed all this, a young gang of Pathans of the Mahsud tribe, camping in a cave nine miles away, determined to ambush those ten men in the few yards of dead ground invisible from main position. On the first night they reached ambush site on time but a shooting star fell in an unlucky direction, so their leader took them home. The second night, a river they had to cross was in spate. On the third night a dog barked as they passed close to a village, so the leader, thinking that the bark might have alarmed a sentry, took them home. On the fourth night all went well, until just before dawn the youngest squatted to pee. Surely any sentry worthy of the name, less than a hundred yards away, must have heard! Back they went to the cave again. The fifth night every man was provided with a dwarf-palm frond down which to direct, silently, his flow. At first light the ten soldiers left their comrades and strolled into the dead ground. A volley at point-blank range, another blast of fire to keep heads down in the picquet, a rush to knife the wounded and grab the rifles – and the gang was safely away.
Truly, as Pathans say, patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.

Unlike the administered parts of the ‘Empire’, The Frontier was never aspired to be fully governed by the British. Some might argue that it was due to the remoteness of the area in terms of accessibility as much as it was for the rough and difficult terrain, but much of it had to do with its inhabitants. The Pathan tribes have always enjoyed and craved for the semi-autonomous and (in some cases) autonomous rule with regard to their customs and social affairs and never in their history, have they liked to submit to a ruler from outside. The stretch of tribal belt, about 300 by 100 miles, right up to Afghanistan and the Durand Line was different from Punjab and the adjoining thin strip of the Frontier Province. The area from Malakand to Dera Ismail Khan was administered through a Governor in Peshawar and six deputy commissioners, one in each district . The Indian Penal Code was very much in place with courts to enforce the law and punish the criminals and the taxes were levied as in other parts of British India. Beyond this administrative territory, the rugged vastness of hostile terrain extending from South Waziristan to Bajaur and further up ahead towards Chitral and Gilgit, dear reader, was a different game altogether.

To manage the affairs beyond the administered districts, the British adopted an approach of recruiting, training and maintaining a force from within the tribes, commanded by the British Officers with an opportunity for the tribesmen attaining the status of local commanders as well as second in commands. The political movers and shakers here were the Political Agents (PAs) with an outreach to the tribal elders. The experiment was inspired by the successes, that of Khyber Rifles in the north, having effectively secured the Khyber Pass, and that of Zhob Militia in the south, as a reliable border force of Balochistan. This was an arena, where the ‘poachers were effectively turned gamekeepers’. The scouts were established marksmen, skilled in fieldcraft, guarding a territory they knew like no other. As opposed to regular army, they were enrolled for a fixed period that was extendable on promotion. It was a Pathan force that fought against Pathans yet after retirement returned back to live amongst them with honour and pride. But, dear readers not all the Pathan tribes were alike, the notable exceptions being the Mahsuds and Wazirs from Waziristan, who had their rough ways and quite unpredictable circumstances. North and South Waziristan Militias were primarily composed of these two tribes, and just when the experiment was being misinterpreted by the British as ‘satisfactory’ the Mahsud tribesmen decided to try their luck on some ‘poaching’. It was then, dear reader, that at the post of Sarwekai, manned by South Waziristan Scouts,  a shot rang out in the middle of the night .

I was over with my presentation and back to the days of ‘routine lull’, but the tales of the Scouts with their innumerable accounts of valour and defeat were still fresh in my heart. It was then an opportunity presented itself out of nowhere. A regimental party was being grouped to patrol the stretch of Waziristan starting from North all the way up to South and I, very gladly became a part of that. It was my opportunity to liaise with the beloved Scouts, stationed at various forts and outposts, and visit the area encompassing the Waziristan stretch that was rich in history. And away from all this, there was yet another attraction.



Our tour map had on it ‘Sarwekai Post’ (green marker on the map above), the same post, where a shot was heard on that fateful night of September 1904, and our beloved author, Mr Trench has the details. The post was manned by a company of Mahsud tribe along with others. On that night, the Political Agent, Captain J.B. Bowring, who for the sake of cool air slept on the roof, was shot and laid dead in his blood soaked sheets. It was discovered that the culprit was Sepoy Kabul Khan, of the Abdur Rahman Khel sub-section of the Bahlolzai section of Mahsuds, who as per his narrative had shot and killed the ‘Sahib’ as he was sleeping with his feet pointed towards the direction of Holy Ka’ba. The offender in the darkness of night and confusion, had withdrawn to the watch-tower of the keep, and occasionally returned fire. The British and Pathan officers on the post after an emergent session, arrived at the consensus that Kabul Khan had to die. The real question here was how, and most importantly who should be put to executing him! In the backdrop of local culture and customs there could potentially be a feud between the tribes of Kabul Khan and the (yet to be detailed) executioner. The Pukhtunwali code of Badal 3 was very much at play here. The Post Subadar, an Afridi, came up with an acceptable solution as per the tribal wisdom. Kabul had an elder brother who was in the same garrison at the senior rank of a Naik. If Kabul was executed by his brother, there would be no feud amongst the tribes. The Naik when presented with the option, after some deliberation, consented for the honour of his family. Not only did the elder brother agree, but also, while staying at the control tower, once counselled by the Post Subadar, Kabul Khan accepted the offer of death at the hands of his brother as an honourable way to die.

The time was fixed for five in the afternoon. The garrison was on parade, each man’s eyes fixed on the keep. Half-hidden behind a mud-plastered buttress stood a British officer, two Pathan officers and the executioner, all with rifles. A khaki-clad figure climbed on to the keep parapet, rifle in hand. He stretched himself erect and flung down his rifle among the soldiers gazing up at him. ‘Allah ho Akbar!’ he cried, ‘God is Great’. The executioner raised his rifle, aimed at the erect figure, and fired. Kabul Khan remained for a moment poised still erect, spun around, and fell with a crash in the courtyard below. A prolonged ‘Aah-ah-h!’ of relief went up.

The body of Kabul was handed over to his relatives, who then built a shrine over his grave, where the Mahsud youth prayed and resolved to follow Kabul’s example. This was a mistake as per Lieutenant Colonel R. Harman, the commandant of South Waziristan Scouts, who was considered to be an expert on Mahsuds. Cololnel Harman was soon to meet his own end by the hands of another Mahsud sepoy at Wana Cantonement, but we shall keep the deliberation on that story for some other time.

The Watch-Tower at Sarwekai
At Sarwekai Fort, Watch-tower in background

During our gasht 4 comprising of Regimental Officers, it was the third day when leaving the green cantonment of Razmak we headed to the fort of Jandola, a prominent Scout post on the main route linking Dera Ismail Khan with Wana. From Jandola we took the road leading to Wana and the next stop was the post of Sarwekai. It was a semi fortified post, preserved from the old times with little or no improvement made to the structure. The rooms were old style high roofed with the firewood chimneys, and that reminded me of rough and rugged winters of Waziristan, and the mere thought ran shivers down my spine even on that pleasant day of spring.

This had been an outpost of South Waziristan Scouts since the beginning of 20th century when these were commanded by the British Officers, a role now taken over by officers of Pakistan Army deputed on secondment. This was the place where Kabul Khan had shot Captain Bowring and eventually met his own end at the watch-tower. The watch-tower with its battlements stood in the background as I requested one of the Post Naiks to show me around at the rooftop. While on the roof I told my companion Naik, the story of Kabul Khan. The gentleman posing himself to be aware of the incident told me that there was the grave of this Farangi Sahib just beside the back wall of the post.

 

Sarwekai Fort - Rooftop
The rooftop, where Capt Bowring was killed by Sep Kabul Khan

Post Naik escorted me outside the Sarwekai post and we arrived at the graves beside the back wall. There were two of those, both devoid of any headstones or any inscriptions. Post Naik told me that some gora people had visited the grave a few years earlier and took with them the headstone and other markings. None of these graves belonged to Captain Bowring, who I knew was buried in the cemetery of Dera Ismail Khan. My search in the days to come revealed that one of the graves actually belonged to Francis Charteris Davidson, an Indian Civil Service Officer who was attached with South Waziristan  Scouts and was killed in action in 1917 and buried at Sarwekai Fort. The memorial plaques respecting him are installed in the family cemetery at Scotland and the pictures can be found here and here.

Sarwekai Fort - Donaldson's grave
Graves beside the back wall of Sarwekai Fort

Dear reader, the story we have been through at Sarwekai is one small piece in the bigger jigsaw of the brave yet treacherous landscape of the North West Frontier. South Waziristan in general and Sarwekai in particular was to see more action in the days to come. There were casualties on the sides of the tribes as well as Scouts, and these would include British Officers every now and then, in traditionally Pathan style of levelling vengeance. The Scouts were raised as an indigenous force to manage the tribal affairs and at no point of time were deemed to be loyal to the British Crown. These were, very fine warriors, who by virtue of their chivalry and pride made good under-commands to carefully selected Young British Officers and extremely experienced Pathan Officers. The experiment, though on occasions backfired, but the experience as a whole could be summarized in the words, exactly as told to every British officer who was newly joining the Scouts:

The great thing about Scouts is that once they get to know you, you make such friends!


 

  1. Excerpted from ‘Soldier Sahibs’, by Charles Allen, Carroll & Graf Publications, Inc. New York, 2000
  2. ‘The Frontier Scouts’, by Charles Chenevvix Trench, Jonathan Cape Ltd. London, 1985
  3. Badal is an element of Pukhtunwali, a code of custom and honour for Pathans. Badal would translate to vengeance, in that a Pathan must exact vengeance, for an insult brought upon on his family or tribe, at any risk, at all cost.
  4. Gasht, was a traditional term used amongst the Frontier Scouts. It meant a patrol, on foot or mounted, as short as a couple of miles or as long as a thrity mile gasht spanned over days.
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