Sunday, 1 July 2012

The King, the picture & the water carrier


In a recent documentary called Afghanistan The Great Game by Rory Stewart, he wrote about how the British Raj wanted to keep Afghanistan a backward state so as to serve as a buffer against possible incursions. He also touched upon the short but momentous reign of the reformist King Amanullah. This documentray led to a discussion about events surrounding his ouster which in turn led to Noreen Naseer and Peymana Walizai sharing some personal accounts of their family members regarding the role of British in toppling King Amanullah Khan's government.

Did the British Raj topple Afghanistan's first reformer King?

Accounts of the fall of King Amanullah of Afghanistan's government, taken from historical and personal accounts

 In 1924 amidst the rapid changes in reforms, the Mangal Pashtun tribesmen of Khost were stirred to revolt by a fanatical cleric called Mullah Lawang. The rebellion was crushed a year later but it was an ominous sign for those in government, especially for Mahmud Tarzi the foreign minister. He resigned in 1925 due to his advice on the need to proceed slowly and cautiously in the reform programme having been repeatedly ignored by Amanullah.
Amanullah (R) with Mustafa Kamal Attaturk

In 1927 Amanullah Khan with his wife Queen Soraya embarked on a grand tour of European capitals where he was dazzled by the achievements of the west. He visited all the European capitals and also visited Turkey and Persia on his return journey, and was the first foreign ruler to visit the Soviet Union. It was during Amanullah Khans grand tour of Europe that word had reached the royal family in Kabul, my grandfathers family being one, that photographs of Queen Soraya, unveiled, wearing evening dress at European state receptions, having her hand kissed by foreign prime ministers and some even naked. Messages were sent to the Royal family that “The King has turned against Allah and Islam”. He was also reported to be bringing back from Europe ‘machines to make soap out of corpses’.No one really knew what to believe as these messages had been conveyed to them by British ministers staying in Kabul and so all thought best to wait until the King returned.

Return, revolt and Exile After his return to Kabul in July 1928 Amanullah announced a series of reforms before a Loya Jirga composed of the country’s leading tribal and religious leaders. He called for
 1) The establishment of a western style constitutional monarchy, a cabinet of ministers, an elected lower house, and a nominated upper house
2) The separation of religious and state power
3) The emancipation of women, enforced monogamy, compulsory education for all and coeducation schools.

The Loya Jirga (an ancient version of direct democracy similar to the traditional landesgemeinde of the older Swiss-German cantons) rejected most of Amanullahs proposals. So the King simply put together a Loya Jirga that was filled with loyalists to approve the proposals that had been rejected, especially the abolition of the chadari (veil) and the wearing of western clothes by the men. The wife of a British Minister in Kabul who was present on the occasion wrote in her diary, “The most dramatic moment of all was when Amanullah wound up an impassioned appeal to his people to free their women with a wave of his hand towards his Queen, saying “Anyway, you may, see my wife”, and she pulled down her veil before the assembled multitude”. Afghanistan’s conservative society was not ready for such changes, especially the Pashtun tribes in the rural areas.

Peymana Walizai writes:
'The hot summer of 1928 the King had returned from his grand tour and he had decided to visit his uncle Shaghasi Shaswar Khan Barakzai (my great grandfather) whilst on his regular trips around Kabul. During tea and talking about the grand trip, his uncle told him that he had heard news of the British arming Pashtun tribesmen near the border provinces. He said his workers from the south had come to convey a situation to him, and they had told him that after the photos of the Queen had been distributed the Mullahs had gone to pray, and there dug into in the ground were huge supplies of guns. The King told his uncle there was nothing to worry about and these were just rumours. He bid farewell to his uncle and got up to leave. As he was walking towards the gates of the house, my great grandfather suddenly remembered something he had not told him; barefoot he ran towards the gates, so as to not miss the king and stopped Amanullah. He called over his son, my grandfather and asked him to take his son with him and register him into a good school of the Kings choice. At that time my grandfather, Shaghasi Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a young boy and King Amanullah chose Habibya school in Kabul as the perfect choice for his cousin. The education my grandfather received allowed him to become a part of the Royal government of Nadir Shah. But like the rest of his family he too witnessed the downfall of one of the most modern thinking Afghan kings. '

The message that had been conveyed to my family in the presence of my grandfather turned out to be true as Habibullah Kalakani (Bach-e Saqqao (Son of a water carrier) marched on Kabul with a force consisting of the Mangal, Khostwal and Shinwari tribesman, to remove the King in the defence of Islam forcing Amanullah Khan to abdicate to Italy.

Habibullah Kalakani (Bacha-e-Saqqao) had in 1919 joined the Afghan Army but later due to low pay and poor facilities  left the army and did other jobs to sustain himself. His life after this is described by Noreen Naseer
'He travelled to Khost and came to Kurram (the tribal area under the protection of the British attracted him) and he was soon caught for stealing a goat. He was sentenced by a British Agent for theft and imprisoned him in Parachinar jail (narrated by Dr. Naseer Hussein as his father Malik Naad Ali Khan was in that durbar). According to Dr. Naseer Hussein, his punishment was a conspiracy to get him in contact with the British agents, as there is record of Bach-e-Saqqao’s offence. Trained as a soldier and supported by the British, he carried out propaganda against King Amanullah and his family, distributed Queen Suryaya’s pictures dressed up in western clothes.'

All this propaganda was so effective that the already aggrieved clergy, tribes and Maliks found these pictures and the lifestyle of the Queen so offensive to Islam that they supported Bacha-e-Saqqao against the King. Amanullah Khan fled to Italy with his family, and the existing Royal family were put under house arrest. Bacha Saqqao and his ragged followers arrived in Kabul and subjected the city and its hapless inhabitants to a nine-month reign of terror. The looting, pillaging and arson, and the rapes perpetrated by the wild invaders, alienated even those religious leaders who had opposed Amanullah, such as the influential Hazrat of Shor Bazar, the head of the Mujaddidi family and of the ancient Naqashbandiya Sufi order, who had first acclaimed the bandit as ‘The Holy warrior. Habibullah, Servant of the faith’.

General Nadir Khan, the hero of the Third Afghan Anglo war and a powerful member of the Musahiban family, also a Royal clan, with the help of his four brother assembled a force from both sides of the Durand Line and defeated the bandit force and took Kabul in October 1929. He publicly hanged Habibullah Kalakani with his leading followers a month later on the 3rd of November and Nadir Khan became the new King of Afghanistan.  


So did the Britsh Raj fuel the ouster of Amanullah? How did Habibullah go from being a petty Army deserter imprisoned in British India's tribal areas to someone who could rally various tribes and oust an Afghan King? While their support for Nadir Khan is well known, historical references showing any overt support for Amanullahs ouster are mostly anecodatal. Perhaps someone needs to do a bit of research through the British Indian papers and answer this once and for all ?


  • Dupree, Louis (2002), Afghanistan,(USA: Oxford University Press)
  • Arney, George (1989),  Afghanistan, (London: Mandarin)
  • Rasanayagam, Angelo (2005), Afghanistan: A modern history, (London:I.B Tauris) 
  • Personal accounts on Amanullah Khan from Peymana Walizai whose Grandfather is Abdul Ghaffar Shaghasi Barakzai, the cousin of Amanullah Khan through his uncle Shaghasi Shaswar Khan Barakzai 
  • Personal accounts on Bacha Saqqao from excerpts taken from the diary of her father, Dr Nasser Hussein , by Noreen Naseer, as recounted by her grandfather, Late Malik Naad Ali Khan
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