Water carriers (called behishti, maashik and saqqa) are men who carry water in animal skins on their backs. In an era before the advent of plumbing, they supplied water to households. In summer months they would also sprinkle the streets with water to cool the air and settle the dust.
This is the story of one water carrier who saved a drowning Mughal Empire in 1540. The other was not a water carrier but was the son of one. In a quirk of history, the son of the water carrier (Bacha e Saqqao) forced himself onto the throne of Afghanistan in 1929 and ruled the country for nine months.
First, the water carrier who saved the Mughal Empire. After the death of Zaheeruddin Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, his son and designated crown prince Humayun ascended to the throne in 1530. Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan aspirant, became his nemesis. In 1539, Humayun took his army away from the capital Agra to subdue the provinces of Bihar and Bengal where Sher Shah had a strong presence. Instead, he was marching into a trap laid by Sher Shah. The Afghan commander was waiting for the rainy season when the Mughal army would be most vulnerable in the flood plain.
In the ensuing battle during the rainy season, the Mughal army was soundly defeated. Caught between the enemy and the raging Ganges, the Mughals had nowhere to go. Humayun tried to escape on his horse but while fighting the waves of the Ganges, his horse lost footing and drowned. An injured Humayun was sure to go down to a watery grave when a water carrier by the name of Nizam saw the emperor struggling against the surging river. He inflated his buffalo skin and jumped into the raging river to save the emperor. He managed to reach the drowning Humayun and led him to safety on the opposite bank.
I can’t help but recall the fate of another king 55-years earlier in England. Richard III, after losing his horse in a pitch battle against Henry Tudor, had in desperation, called out:
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
Richard III (Act 5, Scene 4)
It was not a horse that the Mughal ruler needed to cross the Ganges, but a floating device. Nizam Saqqa provided the lifeline in the form of an inflated buffalo skin.
Humayun was grateful to Nizam for risking his own life to save him. The emperor promised Nizam that when he reached Agra, his capital, he would send for him and make him ruler for one day. It is said that Humayun fulfilled his promise and made the reluctant water carrier the emperor for one day. Some reports say that the new ruler issued leather coins to mark his extremely short reign!
The story of Humayun and Nizam Saqqa has entered folklore and also Urdu literature. The famous writer Mumtaz Mufti wrote a stage play titled Nizam Saqqa.
The other protagonist, Habibullah, was not a water carrier but the son of a water carrier. He was born in an ethnic Tajik family in the north of Afghanistan. Raised in abject poverty, he had no schooling and developed a deep hatred of the system that exploited the poor. At age 14, he made his way to Kabul and joined the army of King Amanullah Khan. He saw action in the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1924 and distinguished himself on the battlefield. Sometime after that, he deserted the army and fled to Peshawar across the Khyber Pass where he sold tea in the bazaar. He also started indulging in small-time banditry, looting travelers in the countryside. A restless person, he was never at ease and from Peshawar he traveled south to Parachinar. There, the British authorities caught up with him. He was convicted of robberies and imprisoned for 11 months. The imprisonment further hardened his attitude towards the authorities. When he got out of prison, he returned to banditry and petty theft.
King Amanullah Khan was a reformist ruler. He was married to Soraya Tarzai, a charming woman from the powerful Pashtun Muhammadzai tribe that belonged to the royal Barakzai dynasty. She came from an educated and enlightened background. As Queen Consort, she promoted girls’ education, equal rights and opposition to the veil for women. In 1926, she was on the cover of Time magazine for being one of the most progressive and powerful figures in the Middle East. In 1926, the king declared to his subjects that,”I am your king, but the Minister of Education is my wife, your Queen.” She tore off her veil in public and opted for a wide-brimmed hat. Moreover, she and her husband were also against polygamy. She started the first girls’ school in the country.
The reforms did not go well with the mullahs and some of the tribal chiefs. While the couple were on a whirlwind tour of Europe in 1927, rumours about waywardness of the Queen started circulating in Afghanistan. Fake and doctored photos of the queen dancing with European men were widely shown in the country. When the royal couple returned to Afghanistan, the country was rife with opposition to the King’s rule.
Habibullah, the son of the water carrier, saw an opportunity in the turmoil and started riling people up against the King. He was successful in garnering support from number of tribes – including some Pashtun tribes. Thereupon he led his followers on a march to Kabul. The King realized the game was over for him. He abdicated in favour of his brother and accompanied by his family, escaped to the southern city of Kandahar. The new king lasted barely a few days on the throne. Bacha e Saqqao captured Kabul and crowned himself the king. Amanullah Khan finally made it to Zurich where he lived in exile until his death in 1960.
Though some Pashtun tribes were also disenchanted with King Amanullah’s reforms and had given their support to Bacha e Saqqao, they could not tolerate being ruled by a non-Pashtun. They selected one of their own, Nadir Shah, to challenge the Tajik king. An army was raised from among the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and also from the Pashtun tribes on the British-India side of the frontier.
Bacha e Saqqao’s rule came to an end when Nadir Shah marched on Kabul and captured the renegade Tajik. The Pashtun elders insisted that the usurper be put to death. Thus ended the story of a deserter who became the king of Afghanistan.
Nadir Shah was on the throne for a brief period of 4 years when he was assassinated in 1933. His son, Muhammad Zahir Shah, became the king and ruled placidly for the next 40 years.
Bacha e Saqqao, while dead for 87-years, managed to create a crisis for the current government of president Ashraf Ghani. After he was executed in 1929, Bacha e Saqqao was buried in an undisclosed location on a hill in Kabul. In 2016, some Tajik figures and like-minded scholars wanted him to be buried in a place of honour with a state funeral. They made him out to be a religious scholar and a devout Muslim. Many Pashtuns and Uzbeks, however, opposed the idea. His remains were eventually reburied at a place of honour on the Mausoleum Hill in Kabul. There were clashes between the proponents of Bacha e Saqqao and those opposed to his reburial – that left one person dead and a score injured.
Nizam Saqqa’s daring rescue of Humayun saved the Mughal Empire, which ruled India for another 350 years. On the other hand, the son of the water carrier, Habibullah, triggered events that – with rare exception of the 40-year rule of King Zahir Shah – continue to make Afghanistan unstable.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at email@example.com