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Masterly Inactivity versus the Forward Policy

For most of recorded history, the Indus River has formed a great natural boundary which conveniently divided countries which were not only geographically separate, but also socially distinct; countries differing from each other in their material configuration and popular institutions. At times the boundary was in the Trans-Indus lands, just to the West of the River, rather than to the Cis-Indus territories, just to the East of the River. But in any event, as often as not, seldom straying too many miles from the River itself. The Indus, for a great part of its course, formed a natural and little-traversed boundary between two essentially distinct territories.

From the mountains to the sea, it is the Indus that gives life to the whole country. Along its banks lie narrow strips of fertile land; beyond these lies desolation. On the right bank the sandy desert commences almost immediately, and stretches far away to the west; on the left bank the strip of cultivable land is somewhat broader, but from the Rann, itself 150 miles broad, the desert gains rapidly on the country, till, under the 28th degree of latitude, it occupies a breadth of 360 miles. From its mouth to its confluence with the streams of the Punjab, an attack is scarcely to be apprehended , for though the first Mahometan from Kandahar and Ghuznee pressed forward by this route to Guzzerat, they did so only by small parties, their main armies always crossing the Indus at Attock.

Modern historians have marvelled at the sagacity of Alexander the Great in attacking India precisely on that point by which it was most easy of attack; but there is nothing more marvellous in this than in the sagacity of an honest journeyman-mechanic who finds his way on foot from Vienna to Paris. Even in Alexander's time, the produce of India found its way to Persia and Greece and the aerchant who carried it thither, chose the only road by which it was possible for him to convey his merchandise. Many writers have marvelled even more to find that all the subsequent invaders of India should have chosen the same route as Alexander; but here is as little cause for marvel as in the former case; they chose this route only because they had no choice; there is no other by which it is possible for an army to march.

The expression used locally was that the Indus was a 'hud-i-Secundur," or Alexandrian boundary. This did not intend to say that Alexander the Great had decided the Indus to be the boundary, but that the Indus was an Alexander in its onm peculiar way, dividing lands as it thought proper, and giving them to whom it chose, by fiats which could neither be disputed nor resisted.

The Persian Empire of 500 BC barely extended into the Cis-Indus territories, and Alexander the Great ventured here before despairing of further conquests and quiting India. Some two millennia later, the British Empire barely extended across the River into the Trans-Indus territories. The Trans-Indus districts were only conquered and annexed to the Sikh kingdom late in the reign of Runjeet Singh. They were mostly inhabited by peoples different from those which occupied the Cis-Indus districts; and the tribal system prevalent throughout the greater portion of them differed widely from the institutions of the Cis-Indus population.

Some empires have spanned the River for a time, but none for any extended period. The Indus Civilization was centered on the River, but that was some four thousand years ago. Pakistan appears centered on the Indus, but it is not, as the Cis-Indus provinces of Sind and Punjab have little in common with Trans-Indus Belochistan and the North-West Frontier Province. And the Durand Line, the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is an arbitrary artifact of the British colonial Forward Policy, a transient late 19th century artifact of the Great Game between the Russian and British empires.

The Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, paranoid about Russian incursion or influence north of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, issued what was known as the Simla Manifesto in 1838. The Simla Manifesto stated that the welfare of India required that the British have on their western frontier a trustworthy ally. But later the ruler Dost Mohammed, was, due to bungled British diplomatic efforts, eventually regarded as coming under Russian influence.

Sir John Lawrence [Viceroy of India, 1864-1869]The policy of Sir John Lawrence [Viceroy of India, 1864-1869] was called by J.W. Willie, one of its chief literary advocates, a policy of "Masterly Inactivity". This phrase was originally used by Willie in the monthly journal Edinburgh Review. After that it was used to the various Governors-General of India. The "Imperial Dictionary" attributes the phrase "masterly inactivity " to Sir J. Mackintosh, who said: "The Commons, faithful to their system, remained in a wise and masterly inactivity." Mr. Fletcher, assistant in the Watkinson Library, of Hartford, wrote to London " Notes and Queries" in 1879 that "it was in very common use in this country during the late civil war, as descriptive of the policy of some of our generals who were in favor of letting the 'rebellion die a natural death.' Another authority insisted that Cowper must have originated the idea, if not the phrase, in these lines: "When admirals extoll'd for standing still Or doing nothing with a deal of skill."

Then another remarks that "masterly inactivity " was easy to say after Cowper's line was written. In London "Notes and Queries," Sept. 17, 1859, a correspondent has this note: "This expression was used by the late John C. Calhoun in a debate in the Senate of the United States upon the acquisition of Cuba, in which he alleged that when the proper time came Cuba would gravitate toward the United States, and that in the mean while the policy of the United States was a masterly inactivity. I have lately heard that the phrase was used in the British House of Commons during the first French Revolution. The idea seems to be found in a sentence in one of the Hebrew prophets: 'His strength is to sit still.'"

The term "Masterly Inactivity" was not free from objection; for it did not bring out that knowledge and that watchfulness which were of its very essence. It was, therefore, eagerly caught up by opponents, who fancied that the name itself furnished them with an argument against the policy which it indicates. But it is more misleading than such short characterisations usually are. Sir John Lawrence's foreign policy was a policy of self-reliance and of self-restraint, of defense not defiance, of waiting and of watching, that he might be able to strike the harder and in the right direction, if the time for aggressive action should ever come. In a word, it was a policy of peaceful progress at home and of non-interference in the internal affairs of neighbours, more particularly of that congeries of wild tribes along the North-Western border of six hundred miles, who, inhabiting a country of rock, and mountain, and torrent as savage as themselves, happily, still separated British India from the giant form of Russia.

The "Masterly Inactivity" school was opposed by the proponents of a Forward Policy. As early as 1841 Charles Baron Von Huegel, writing in Kashmir und das Reich der Siek (Kashmir and the Empire of the Sikhs), had concluded that "If England is impelled, as she will be, by the force of circumstances, to extend her frontier to the Indus, she cannot choose, but must go farther, and must establish her line of defence between Cabool and Herat, perhaps even at Herat." General John Jacob, a man of great vigor and commanding personal qualities, was the founder of the Forward Policy, which numbered among its advocates men as distinguished for their knowledge, their ability, or their enterprise as are Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sir Bartle Frere, Sir Henry Green, Sir Lewis Pelly, Sir George Birdwood, and Sir William Merewether.In 1854 the idea of the occupation of Quetta was started by General John Jacob. In 1866 the project was revived by Sir Henry Green and Sir Bartle Frere. In 1874, when Sir Bartle Frere, then a member of the Indian Council at home, wrote his famous letter to Sir John Kaye, which had done half the mischief.

These authorities had, for many years past, more or less consistently advocated, as the best means of anticipating an invasion of India, the military occupation first of Quetta, in Beloochistan, and then, as convenience may dictate, of Candahar and Herat. They had also, some at least of them, been anxious to extend English influence over other parts of Afghanistan, by stationing English envoys or Residents in its chief cities; by sending English officers to drill its armies; and by supporting, with arts or with arms, this or that periodical pretender to the blood-stained honor of the Afghan crown.

Lord Lytton [Viceroy of India, 1876-1880]Lord Lytton [Viceroy of India, 1876-1880] reversed the policy of Masterly Inactivity and followed instead the Forward Policy towards Afghanistan. Lord Lytton, in a speech on 28 March 1877, before the Legislative Council in Calcutta, presented a comprehensive and luminous view of this policy. He pointed out, that to rush into border warfare would be an inexcusable act on the part of a Government which, within the past few months, had secured beneficent results from peaceful vigilance. "Uurestrained barbarism," his lordship added, "immediately beyond our frontier, means constant insecurity immediately within our frontier. I consider that the safest and strongest frontier which India can possibly possess would be a belt of independent border States, thronghout which the British name is honoured and trusted; within which British subjects are welcomed and respected, because they are subjects of a, Government known to be unselfish as it is powerful, and resolute as it is humane. I do not believe that this influence is attainable by military expeditious; nor, indeed, by anything except constant friendly contact with our less civilised neighbours."

This speech marked the final abandonment of the policy of so-called Masterly Inactivity. During thc wars of succession which followed the death of Dost Mohammad in Afghanistan, the wisest course open to the Indian Government was one of vigilant non-intervention. From 1864 to 1868 Lord Lawrence pursued that course. But on the reestablishment of a stable government in Afghanistan under Sher Ali, the veteran Viceroy found it expedient to exchange his attitude of watchful abstention from interference for one of friendly interest in the affairs of Afghanistan. In 1868 he pledged the Indian Government to support the new Afghan ruler by a grant of money and arms, and arranged the basis of a treaty with him. It fell to the lot of his successor, the Earl of Mayo, to carry out the new lines of action thus indicated. The policy cleverly characterised as Masterly Inactivity, had been abandoned by Lord Lawrence in 1868; and in place of it a new policy, based on friendly relations with frontier States.

The "Masterly Inactivity" school, with Sir John Lawrence at its head, and supported by successive Secretaries of State and successive Governors-General, as well as by some of the most splendid soldier-statesmen whom India had produced, held that to take any one of the steps advocated by the Forward Policy was to go half-way to meet the dangers which they professed to fear; that it would arouse the suspicion, the alarm, and the hatred of a fickle and a faithless, a fierce and a fanatical, but, at the same time, a brave and patriotic people, a people whom Britian had already deeply wronged, a people who, whatever their faults, were passionately attached to their freedom and their homes, and hate as they have too good reason to do the sight of any foreigner and, not least, it is sad to say it, of any Englishman among them.

The "Masterly Inactivity" school held the Forward Policy would encourage those aggressive instincts of the Anglo-Saxons which are, already, quite strong enough and which need all the tact and the talent, the firm will and the clear insight of their responsible rulers to keep them under control; that it is to draw us away from the natural frontier of an almost impassable river and then of mountain wall piled behind mountain wall, a frontier where our resources are close at hand, and the population is, at least relatively, friendly, to a frontier which will be everywhere and yet nowhere, a will-o'-the-wisp, which, when it has lured the English to an indefinite distance from home base, to fight battles so much the nearer to Brtian's enemies, and with a population in the rear and at the flanks who will rob a victory of half its fruits and will turn a defeat into utter ruin; that it is to guard against a future and contingent danger by neglecting those which are at hand; that it is to concentrate the attention of English and Indian statesmen on matters over which they can exercise little appreciable influence.

The "Masterly Inactivity" school held the Forward Policy would make the imperial policy of India depend upon the flight of a random bullet or the dagger of a paradise-seeking Ghazi; that it is to employ the Indian army on a service which they hate, and so to increase the difficulties of the recruiting officer which were already formidable enough; finally, that it would throw away crores of rupees on barren mountain ridges and ever-vanishing frontier lines, while every rupee was sorely needed by a Government which can hardly pay its way, and by a vast population which, living on little more than starvation rates, cried aloud to be saved from the tax-gatherer, on the one hand, and from actual starvation, on the other.

Each one of these propositions was capable of an amount of proof which to many minds seemed almost demonstrative; each supported, and yet each is independent of, all the others; and the whole have carried conviction to successive generations of enlightened and patriotic Indian statesmen.

The "Masterly Inactivity" school was described as "Convince the Afghans that we do not covet and will not take a foot either of their few fertile valleys or of their thousand barren hills; that we will never attempt to force an English envoy or Resident upon them, for we recognise that, in their present state of civilisation, the instinct which makes them shrink from his presence is a sound instinct, an instinct of self-preservation; that we do not wish, nay that we are not willing, to interfere, otherwise than by advice and by example, with their religion, their blood-feuds, their fratricidal contests, their ancestral customs; that the ruler chosen by them we will always recognise for what he is, the de facto ruler of the country; that, when he is once firmly established on the throne, we may be willing to aid him, from time to time, by presents of money, or muskets, cannon or ammunition by such presents, in short, as one friend may give to another but that we will never help him, by force of arms, to win his throne, or to recover it, if, by his own weakness or his own misconduct, he may have lost it ..."

At the time of Sir John Lawrence, many hundred miles of steppe and desert still intervened between the Russian outposts on the Caspian and those of Afghanistan on the Oxus. But within a few decades, the Lower Oxus had become a Russian stream and was traversed by Russian steamers. The three independent Khanates of Khiva, Bokhara, and Khokand had, for good or evil, been licked up by the advance of the Russian colossus, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. Persia seemed a puppet in the hand of Russia. The wild Turcomans of the steppes, never before subdued, had yielded their submission. The oasis of Merv was next; and from Merv there was a comparatively rich river valley leading to Herat. It was the Russian factor, therefore, rather than the Afghan, which from the beginning, gave a vivid and ever-increasing interest to the Central Asian question. It was the Russian factor which led Britain, into, perhaps, the greatest crime and greatest folly she had committed as a nation the first Afghan War. It was the Russian factor which drewn Brtian, with eyes open, into a repetition of the same folly and the same crime, in the second Afghan War.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2013 18:54:50 ZULU