Friday, May 13, 2005

Pundit - what's in the name 

With so many blogs named "something-or-other pundit" (starting with the blogfather himself, Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit), most of us know that the term denotes a person who is an expert in some area. Fewer know that the word comes from India. But very few would know the term's actual origin. I did not, but a few days ago I finished reading a great piece of narrative history by Peter Hopkirk called "The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia", and can now fill you in.

For all of the nineteenth century, the no-man's - or rather no-empire's - land between Siberia and India had been an area of intense, although rarely bloody, struggle for power and influence between Russia and Great Britain. The ultimate prize was the control over the pearl in the British crown, India. As the strategic thinking of the day went, India could only be protected from foreign invasion from the north if friendly local powers controlled the approaches to the subcontinent - roughly the area that today corresponds to the region's many -stans. The Great Game resembled somewhat the next century's Cold War, in that while Russia and Britain never came into direct confrontation in Central Asia, that did not stop plenty of proxy wars taking place for the control of those wild, mountainous and inhospitable stretches of the continent.

Sometime in the late 1860s, the colonial authorities in India had clamped down on British army officers making trips throughout Central Asia, wanting to avoid appearing provocative and creating potentially explosive diplomatic incidents, should such officers be captured by any of the local rulers and accused of espionage (which would have been a safe and a correct guess). To overcome that problem, a young office working for the Survey of India, Captain Thomas Montgomerie of the Royal Engineers, had hit on a brilliant idea: why not use the locals indeed?

And so, for the next few years, specially trained Indian explorers (mostly from the hill tribes) were sent north to covertly map out Central Asia and gather any useful intelligence. Unlike British officers, they did not need a disguise, and in case of capture there was little risk of public embarrassment (an early precursor of "plausible deniability").

These brave and resourceful Indian explorer-spies were known as pundits. The polar opposite of today's image of an armchair-bound expert - or the proverbial pajamas-clad blogger sitting in front of a computer - the original pundits were not just clever and resourceful, they were also men of action, constantly on the move, braving the often hostile elements and countless other dangers on secret missions to unlock and secure the heart of a continent.

The message? I don't know. Don't blog all the time, try to go out once in a while and have some air. Although if you step out into the Central Asia, make sure you tell somebody where you're going. A hundred years later, it can still be a bit dangerous around there.


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