The contemporary crisis in Afghanistan, mainly caused by violent foreign interventions and concomitant rise of religious intolerance, is somewhat demeaning and demoralising to a people who have an otherwise chequered history. India’s own current interest in the country and adjoining regions is not entirely misplaced either, even if not looking at the situation as an opportunity in hawkish nationalistic terms.
Before the boundaries of modern nation-states were arbitrarily drawn, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh formed part of vast swathes of territory comprising roughly the whole of the subcontinent. The region, now also called South Asia, witnessed through ancient and medieval periods large-scale state formation, providing considerable political stability, economic prosperity and social harmony, with occasional phases of political upheaval and churning leading to fresh rounds of political centralisation. Some such attempts at empire-building were led by the Afghans, who are something of a martial race, mainly fighting to survive another day with some power and dignity. For the Afghans, honour and a territory where they could protect it is more important than killing or dying for any religious ideology. So, when they rose to power, ruling large parts of the subcontinent in 15th-16th centuries—and in some regions even during the period of Mughal decline in the 18th century—they styled themselves as best of the monarchs. Though conscious all the time of customary practices of Afghan lineages, the sturdy Lodi sultans of Delhi and Agra and one of the most ambitious Afghan empire-builders, Sher Shah Sur, drew on the universal tropes of kingship for the articulation of their power. In the welfare-monarchy they created, public weal was an important feature of political discourse, in which charitable endeavours of rulers coupled with their personal piety and association with men of religion, especially Sufis, were among virtues celebrated by contemporary and near-contemporary writers.
A contemporary Sufi enthusiast, Malik Muhammad Jaisi, who wrote his celebrated poetry of love, Padmavat, in Awadhi-Hindi, has eulogised in an exaggerated phraseology Sher Shah’s rule for his munificence, generosity and concern for justice. Another account by an Afghan historian of Akbar’s time, Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi of Abbas Khan Sarwani, highlights the considerable power and resources controlled by Sher Shah, deploying them for massive infrastructure development in the form of construction of forts, cities and road-networks for faster communication and mitigating security concerns. Law and order issues were taken care of with a heavy hand, justice was established without discrimination, welfare mechanism ensured the poor were not left to die a wretched death, and conditions were created for social harmony in general. A certain degree of political centralisation was achieved through armed resources, even as certain allies were allowed autonomy in their own homelands in different regions.
In this socio-political context created by Afghan rulers, Sufi-Bhakti convergence witnessed the rise of religious reformers such as Sant Kabir and Guru Nanak, who attacked the hierarchical nature of society which in turn was protected by conventional religious orthodoxy of Hindu and Islamic traditions. The efforts of Sufi and Bhakti figures for social justice and the language of love in which they spoke are an important component of the subcontinent’s pluralistic culture, transcending narrow nationalistic boundaries and rising above jingoistic chauvinism. The built heritage of the period of Afghan rule as well as vibrant literary cultures, not only in Persian but also in a wide range of Indic vernaculars, further substantiate the considerable appropriation, synthesis and syncretism which happened in various art forms and religious practices. This process was somewhat ruptured by Babur’s conquest of Hindustan, though we know Sher Shah led a massive Afghan resurgence which drove away Babur’s son and successor Humayun out of the subcontinent into the territories of Safavid Persia. Iranians, who never liked the Afghans, supported the Mughal fight-back against the Afghans to re-establish their rule on a firm-footing with a series of very capable emperors from Akbar to Aurangzeb, considerably marginalising the Afghan chiefs and their followers who, in turn, continued to resist and looked for opportunities to regain lost grounds.
In conclusion, historical insights drawn from 15th-16th century onwards can help understand the current crisis in contemporary South Asia. Large parts of frontier regions, borderlands and certain pockets in the hinterland are in a political flux. As history has shown, one of the two ways can control the situation in terms of checking violence and bloodbath: big empires providing political stability even as they give considerable freedom to autonomous regions, or regional reconfiguration in which credible local political leadership can emerge and create conditions for establishing peace and prosperity with sincere commitment to the best of the governing principles. In either case, some degree of political maturity, sincerity and sagacity are required—attributes which are generally lacking in the political class of the time.