The Road to Bannu

Sep 2014

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HASHIM_2 | Issue 7

The house of the first deputy commissioner for Bannu, British colonial official John Nicholson. It is currently under restoration by the provincial government.

Mohsin Shah, Haider’s boss and the district commissioner for Bannu, however, dismisses concerns about law and order. “As far as the administration is concerned,” Shah told me in March, “we are not concerned with the law and order now, because things have settled down to a great extent.”

Shah is a tall, heavy-set man. A 24-year veteran of the civil service, he is still quite young and seems to have boundless energy. He prides himself on his collection of Bannu-related historical works, and speaks particularly enthusiastically about the imperial gazetteers, a compilation of data and descriptions of local cultures and peoples compiled by the British during their rule. Shah also expresses admiration for John Nicholson, Shah’s counterpart during the British era. Nicholson was British deputy commissioner of Bannu from 1852 to 1855, and his residence from that era is being restored behind Shah’s own office. “Bannu, if you look at history, this is a very old district, dating back to the 1848, when the first deputy commissioner came here. He lived in this house,” he says, pointing to the building behind him, proudly.

He goes on to discuss how Bannu residents are loyal to their rulers. “It’s an old house. John Nicholson was the first deputy commissioner here. In those days, [Bannu natives] used to pay rent. They used to pay land revenue [and] taxes. They paid water rate, the abyana, and the land revenue in that era. So this shows that people are very loyal to the government.”

In his assumptions that Bannu residents are characteristically loyal, Shah draws an essentialist portrait of the locals, one that is based on descriptions in the imperial gazetteer itself. It states, “On the whole [people of Bannu] are an inoffensive people; of little political importance; and however much we may be inclined to despise them as men, we should remember that they are excellent revenue-payers, and that to their prolificness and to the climate in which they live are to be ascribed most of their bad qualities, whether mental or physical.”


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Shah implies that Bannu’s ‘loyalty’ in paying taxes and land revenue to the British translates into loyalty to the Pakistani state. The possibility that Bannu residents, far from feeling loyalty to the state have only become accustomed to being ruled from afar seems to be lost on him. Shah’s attitude towards Bannu, a town where he had been the DCO for eight months when we spoke, is not limited to him. It extends to the state’s transaction-based financial relations with the district. How the state sees Bannu, how it conceives of the people who live here, is inextricably intertwined with colonial forms of knowledge and rule.

Sajid Khan, the DIG, for example, spoke at length about the tribal characteristics of his officers and those they serve. “If you run away here, then it is considered to be a very big dishonor,” he says, speaking glowingly of his officers.

They say that they would be taunted about it, if they run away. So by tradition, and otherwise, […] our people have weapon handling skills – they are born fighters. […] This is a traditional and conservative society as compared to the other developed districts of KPK. So you will find most of the traditions in a more pristine form here, and bravery you will also find more here.

The NWFP Imperial Gazetteer of 1908, speaks in an eerily similar fashion about the local Marwat tribe. “In person, they are tall and muscular; in bearing, frank and open. Almost every officer who has administered the district has left on record a favorable mention of them.”

Khan, perhaps, would not have been out of place as a colonial administrator. Asked what the major crime issue for Bannu was, he as well as others said personal disputes often flared up in the markets. Sometimes, they turned violent. Like the British officers before him, Khan also attributed it to a cultural, “tribal” trait.

Either there is a blood feud from before, or on the spur of the moment if there is an altercation. [The] Wazirs are more cool, calculated people. They think before they act. And they think 100 times. Very shrewd people, Wazirs. Very shrewd. Don’t look at whether or not they have gone to school – they will be able to keep a Ph.D. fooled for a year! They are that shrewd.
But Bannuchis, they are very jazbati [passionate]. This is my personal opinion. At the spur of the moment, they will [act]. And most crimes here are like this: that at the spur of the moment there is an altercation, and then they think about it later.

Again, it is striking to compare Khan’s words to the impressions of Reynell Taylor, the British administrator of Bannu in the late 1800s. Speaking of the Bannuchi tribe, Taylor wrote in the 1883-84 Bannu District Gazetteer:

Taken as a class, they are very inferior to their neighbors, the Waziris. Small in stature, and sallow and wizened in appearance […] Here and there a fine character may possibly be found, and they have no doubt some domestic virtues, which in some measure redeem their public and social immorality, but, taken as a class they certainly are the worst dispositioned men I ever had to deal with. They are vicious, false, back-biting, treacherous, cruel, and revengeful. I have never known or heard of men so utterly regardless of truth.

The empire may have moved on, but in Bannu, the roots of power and of how it is exercised seem to run deep.

*                                      *                                      *

In Bannu, no one is perhaps quite as powerful as Akram Khan Durrani, the district’s elected representative in Parliament, and a former chief minister of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government from 2002 to 2007.

Speaking in the courtyard of his opulent home in an upscale suburb of Islamabad, the federal capital, Durrani cuts a more jovial than imposing figure, for someone of his political importance. He grew up in Bannu and recalls it nostalgically. “Bannu, because it is on the border, people have lived very prosperous lives there, always. You would see that there used to an atmosphere like Eid. And there would be people in the streets with dhols,” he says, smiling as he remembers his youth. “In all of Pakistan, it was the most prosperous kind of life that people lived in Bannu.” Read on >>

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11 Responses to The Road to Bannu

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