A photograph printed this week in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper offered up a reminder of an obscure episode in the history of the British Raj. It shows a banyan tree in the country's Khyber agency, a tribal area near the border with Afghanistan. The tree, which sits inside an army cantonment, is shackled with chains, extending from its myriad branches to the ground. A board still hangs from it: It reads, in part: "I am under arrest."
"According to the plaque fixed on the tree," the newspaper explains, "in 1898, an intoxicated British officer ordered the mess sergeant to arrest the tree as he thought that it was moving towards him. Since then, the tree has remained in chains."
This is apparently a true story. The offended Victorian, a British army officer named James Squid, was in a drunken stupor and believed the multi-limbed banyan tree was somehow lurching toward him. He ordered its arrest. The move was not entirely an act of farce.
"The British basically implied to the tribesmen that if they dared act against the Raj, they too would be punished in a similar fashion," one local speculated when the Daily Tribune, another Pakistani newspaper, reported on the tree in 2013.
So there it stands — rooted to its native soil, blameless yet punished, and fettered by bonds it still can't shake.
In recent years, Pakistan has waged a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the area against elements of the Taliban and other fundamentalist outfits.
The Tribune story suggests that the tree is a parable for the Frontier Crimes Regulations, a regime of harsh, draconian colonial-era laws enforced in the tribal areas of what is now northwest Pakistan. This includes the ability to collectively punish tribes or families for the crimes of individuals within these groups.
The FCR is still largely in place, with the government in Islamabad administering the tribal areas with a different set of laws than the rest of the country. Despite more recent moves toward reform, the status quo remains largely the same as it was decades ago.
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