British colonialism can be said to have “produced” the Pashtuns – both epistemologically and politically – as a bunch of violent, albeit noble savages. This also led the British to categorize Pashtuns as one of the martial races and to recruit from among them for the British Indian Army. Their language was declared a “vernacular”, unfit for official purposes and deemed unworthy of cultural production.
The violent imagery which the British evoked around the Pashtuns was thus meant for their own colonial administrative purposes – and also to keep the spirit of revolt in check by brutally suppressing any political activity. And so, Pashtuns were made to come to the terms with colonial modernity through a self-image of violence and barbarism.
But that colonial image was disrupted by Bacha Khan. He did this by creating a non-violent “army” which used titles like “Salaar” (commander), but the entry to which was an oath of non-violence – both in personal life and in political action!
Bacha Khan would famously say that the only Pashtun that the British know is a violent Pashtun. He argued that the British knew precisely how to deal with such a Pashtun. But they did not know how to deal with a non-violent one because they hadn’t seen one! By throwing the moral self of the oppressors (i.e. the colonizers) into tension and stripping them of any moral authority, by using the human body as a line of defense against the butts of guns and bullets, the colonial arsenal of violence stood impotent against a mass of freedom-fighters. The state, and more so the colonial-imperial one, was well-versed in violence and had a virtually inexhaustible capacity for violence. Bacha Khan, in the vein of all non-violent struggles, correctly diagnosed that on a violent turf there can be no competition with the colonizers. A violent reaction against the state only gives moral legitimacy to the violence of the state and, rather than achieving a long-term political transformation, works as a momentary venting out of frustration. He would also argue that non-violence is an act of courage because keeping your reaction in check is to conquer yourself. This also was necessary to purge the body-politic and self-image of Pashtuns from notions of violence. A political transformation was neatly tied to a spiritual transformation through the philosophy of non-violence.
Bacha Khan had a way of connecting the local-particular with the global-universal. He was not consumed by an undue pride in local culture and didn’t want an isolationist solution to political and social issues
But this non-violence was not passive. It was not an isolationist and quietist project of conformism. It was deeply political and subversive both of the political oppression and of the epistemological violence of the imperial-colonial state – and its post-colonial successor.
Bacha Khan’s politics was an adequate response to his times. He was a believer in the continuity of a memory of resistance and had faith in the moral cohesion of society through its traditional values – and yet he was also was a reformer of those very traditions. In short, he was a modernizer while being rooted in his own sociocultural background.
His project, unfortunately, was not to be fulfilled because the violence of the post-colonial state was such that even the commitment and willpower of Bacha Khan proved insufficient to totally overcome it. Or perhaps, that could never possibly be accomplished within his epoch. As Walter Benjamin has showed, the current epoch is dreamt by the last one. And in the current epoch, the dreams of the previous one have to be recalled to lay them finally to rest.
Political action based on non-violence defined at least 60 years of Bacha Khan’s political struggle. In those 60 years he saw the worst of massacres, both in Qissa Khwani Bazaar (in the colonial era) and Babarra (after Pakistan’s independence) and many more in other places. He spent 35 years of his life in prison yet he neither abandoned the political struggle nor succumbed to the lure of violence.
Some would argue that so much suffering and not getting what he intended was a failure of non-violence. But that is a misreading of the later part of his struggle i.e. equal political rights and civil rights within the framework of independent Pakistan. The important thing about civil rights is that any discrimination – unless it is mandated by a constitution or law as with the slavery in the US and apartheid in South Africa – is a result of political structures of governance underlying the policy and ideology of the state, which can’t be easily displaced and eradicated. But Bacha Khan through his political struggle and social reform opened a rupture in the neat linear narrative of the British Empire – one which the state wasn’t able to stitch up through measures of co-optation or of brutal suppression. In one way the present continuity of a political movement for equality and for a strong federation are the echoes of his struggle.
Another way in which Bacha Khan’s non-violence is relevant is that it has to be tied today with direct political action and not as a passive tribute to an era bygone or invoking his name only to gain political sympathy. Bacha Khan would say that a people which has a hunger for power can’t have democracy. Read ‘power’ here as a desire to rule others for self-aggrandizement.
Regarding the question of the place of women in a society, Bacha Khan famously said, “If you want to see the level of progress of a society, see how it treats women.” The Azad Madrassas (schools) were open to both boys and girls in a deeply conservative setting. Gender equality in Pakistan seems a far-fetched dream but Bacha Khan took the very first steps – in a marginalized region which was characterized as a land of violent barbarians by the ruling elites. He had a clear emphasis on education and equality for girls and the political emancipation of women.
Religion, being part of the socio-cultural reality, isn’t always reduced to the margins where theological debates occur. In our times, there is a fervent debate about fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Claims of “religious sentiments being hurt” are often used as a tool to silence critics and weaponize public sentiment – all in an effort to suppress dissent and dissuade alternative perspectives. It is important to truly detect the direction that religious discourse is taking. Perhaps, in this time it may not even be possible to cite the ideals and semantics of religion for a secular and progressive future because the mood of mainstream politics has co-opted a fundamentalist variety of religion for vested interests. But it is possible to open alternative avenues of debate and thus alternative imaginings of a future based on egalitarian and tolerant interpretations of Islam.
We know it can be done, because Bacha Khan did it.
Lastly, Bacha Khan had a way of connecting the local-particular with the global-universal. He was not consumed by an undue pride in local culture and didn’t want an isolationist solution to political and social issues. He connected that struggle with a wider progressive struggle, the terms of which were never nostalgic and exclusionary. Realizing his struggle for a participatory, tolerant and equal future for all would be a way to liberate us from the current dystopia we find ourselves in.
Walter Benjamin said, “If they are successful even our dead in their graves will not be safe.” He was referring to the fascists and authoritarian extremists of his era, in the 1930s.
If they are successful, not only we will live in a horrible reality, but our memories of resistance will also be taken away, and thus we will be floating around as rootless, groundless specks.