Amanullah Of Afghanistan: What Might Have Been
Afghanistan today is a war ravaged country, with most of its people living in abject poverty. The war between the Americans and the Taliban has been going on there for 20 years now and is likely to continue.
It would have been different had its King Amanullah succeeded in his efforts to modernise it.
King Amanullah (1892-1960) of Afghanistan is one of my heroes. Although he failed in his effort to modernise Afghanistan (where Mustafa Kemal of Turkey had succeeded, due to the machinations of the British imperialists hand-in-glove with the reactionary clerics and feudals, nevertheless he deserves to be applauded for his effort. If he had succeeded Afghanistan would today have been a modern welfare state, with its people enjoying a high standard of living. Above all, they would have been spared all the suffering of recent times.
Amanullah was King of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929. Before him, Afghanistan had hardly any freedom, being caught up in the rivalry between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia, both of whom wanted to excercise hegemony over the country.
On assuming the throne, he declared in a grand durbar:
“I proclaim myself and my country completely free, independent and sovereign in all domestic and foreign issues. My country will thus become an independent state, just like other countries of the world.”
He then sent this message to the great Soviet leader Lenin:
“Although Afghanistan by its spirit and nature has always been a supporter of freedom and equality, however, due to certain reasons, it was deprived of the opportunity to maintain relations with other states and peoples. I am therefore happy to send you on behalf of the Afghan people, who are striving for progress, this friendly message from independent and free Afghanistan.”
The Soviet Union then signed a treaty of friendship with Amanullah, inter alia providing that neither state would allow its territory to be used against the other.
This scared the British authorities, who were allergic to the idea of a free, anti-imperialist Afghanistan.
Amanullah then introduced – like Mustafa Kemal did in Turkey – modern and progressive schemes in Afghanistan, to pull it out of centuries of backwardness and poverty. He opened up new schools and technical institutes, both for boys and girls, and planned to develop the economy. And he was interested in women’s emancipation as well as limiting the power and influence of the reactionary clergy. He planned to send young Afghans to Europe for technical education, ban polygamy, etc.
Towards the end of 1923, the first Afghan Constitution was framed and promulgated. This Constitution proclaimed the independence and sovereignty of Afghanistan. The people were granted fundamental freedoms, equality before the law, personal freedom, etc. And the document abolished religious inequality and feudal duties. The organs of the state were modernized. Land reforms were introduced and the clergy restrained.
Amanullah went on a tour of Europe – like Peter the Great who modernized Russia – to study conditions there personally.
All these measures met with fierce resistance from the feudals, who felt that their vested interests and influence over the masses would be mortally affected. And this resistance was backed by the British imperialists who paid a huge amount of money to the mullahs and feudal chieftains for it. The British also supplied rifles to the Afghan rebels, and organized a military coup which deposed Amanullah in 1929.
How different Afghanistan would have been today had Amanullah succeeded!
Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.