Why Bacha Khan matters today - I

Hurmat Ali Shah explains how Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s worldview provided a route to progress – in the 1930s and in our time

Why Bacha Khan matters today - I
For Walter Benjamin, the great German philosopher, history was alive in the now – the everyday of this age. The past according to him is incomplete. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that it is a revolutionary duty to liberate the past. This can be done only by fulfilling the objectives and the dreams of yesterday. The past has to be laid to rest, to put it another way.

In such a view, the past is not a mere collection of tales to draw lessons from – or worse – to magnify for conservative nostalgia or for imposing an exclusionary identity on us. In other words, this rules out narrow nationalism of any kind or religious fundamentalist revivalism.

The past, for Walter Benjamin, is active, alive and unfulfilled.

19th-century revolutionary Jamaluddin Afghani

If we apply that idea as we look back at our own story, i.e. the past of the South Asian Subcontinent, is it possible to trace some projects or find political figures which can be resurrected today – to complement the present and to move towards a more liberated future for us all?

To put it simply, for this author, the answer is a resounding “Yes”!

Unfortunately, given the lopsided and linear view of history that is imposed by the state and its established cultural institutions (as well as the academia), it often happens that influential and significant figures who not only transformed their local settings but also dreamt of an alternative, progressive future are erased. This bleak state-sponsored vision of history instils and encourages alienation from our own past and culture and transports us to a rootless and totally concocted version of the past.

But against this vision, we can also offer another version of history, which is truer to our roots. And it also connects our roots to a universal project of emancipation for all humankind. Such figures and projects can be dug out from the ruins of our past.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Bacha Khan, and his movement of social reform and political transformation, known as the Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek (literal meaning: “Movement of the Servants of God”) are, perhaps, the best candidate for this.

Bacha Khan was a social reformer and a politician active in what was then the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) under the British Raj and then subsequently under Pakistan. He was an ally of the All India Congress and in Pakistan’s official historiography he is much maligned for his pre-Partition politics.

Colonial troops shoot at protesters during the
Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre, Peshawar, 1930

But Bacha Khan was much more than a politician. He was leader of a complex movement. The imagery and metaphors of the movement were Islamic, and its framework was meant to be harmonious with the fascination that the masses usually have for religious imagery (even in today’s setting). And yet, the political vision was secular and progressive and its objective was social reform and political emancipation. The movement was defined as,

“Khuday ta da khidmat hajat nishta. Da hagha da makhluq khidmat kawal da haga khidmat dy,”

(God is in no need of being served. Serving His creature is a service to Him.”)

Famously he also said about the organizational structure and the spirit of the movement,

“Da khuday pa khidmat ke ikhtilaf nishta. Itkhtilaf da khudgharzai na paida kegy,”

(“The Service of God does not create differences. Differences are born from self-interest.”)

Such statements are best read in terms of the concept of Wahdat-ul-Wajood (Unity of all Existence), the most popular Sufi mystical tradition of the Subcontinent. Bacha Khan was a close follower of the 17th-century Bayazid Ansari, popularly known as Peer-e-Rokhan, who had his own school of Sufi Islam and fought the Mughal Empire for autonomy of the Pashtun lands.

The Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek was preceded by Tehreek-e-Islah-e-Afghana (Movement for Reform of Afghans). That movement was limited in scale but defined the direction that the Khudai Khidmatgars would go on to take. After seeing the waste of resources at lavish weddings, Bacha Khan would travel to each village and would lecture people on the virtues of simplicity. He also urged people to channel their resources towards economic activities rather than wasting on a day or two of celebrations. Later, the Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek would make people swear a pledge that they would spend at-least two hours doing some civic service free of cost – be that cleaning the streets, offering some help to the poor or lending a helping hand in the fields.

Bacha Khan was fiercely anti-colonial. His movement was subjected to harrowing brutality at the hands of the British Empire. The Qissa Khwani massacre, also discussed before on these pages, stands as a memory no less excruciating than the Jalianwala Bagh massacre but it is in the backwaters of the history of the Indian independence movement – because it happened in as fringe a locality as Peshawar under the British Raj. In response to the challenge of colonial modernity, Bacha Khan sought to find answers by rooting himself in a historical identity of resistance and solidarity of his people with the wider Indian nationalist and anti-colonial struggles through affiliation with the All India National Congress.

Bacha Khan’s anti-colonialism was all about finding a local response to colonial modernity which was not based on a sense of inferiority – and it is something that eminent 19th-century Muslim thinker Jamaluddin Afghani would have gladly approved of!

As if tracing the footsteps of Jamaluddin Afghani, Bacha Khan saw a moral community based on a shared history and culture –inspired by certain spiritual traditions. But unlike the revisionists and revivalists, he didn’t cling to a romanticized or a glorified vision of those traditions. In-fact they were criticized and, as mentioned earlier, the first step he took in the realm of social activism was to reform some cultural traditions. He also founded Azaad Madrassah, a school for modern education – later transformed into a chain of schools. That initiative faced stiff resistance from the local clergy and he faced many hostile Fatwas. He mentions in his autobiography how a mullah in the early 1920s came to the groundbreaking ceremony of a new school in a nearby village with sword in one hand and a Quran in the other and challenged him to ‘Jihad’ if he thought that he was right in opening a school! Bacha Khan, cool by temperament, replied that the first word of revelation was the command “Iqra” (Read!) So if the whole Quran is a continuation of the first injunction to read, how can a place devoted to reading and learning possibly be un-Islamic?

The outlook, the program, the spirit and the matter of Bacha Khan’s movement was secular and progressive in nature but in order to make it palatable he didn’t use borrowed terms and concepts which would have sounded alien in the historical setting of his time. The kind of social progress imagined was also complemented by a practical and immediate political goal of freedom from British imperialism. In that sense, this was not a conservative movement for reform of society by relying on puritanism and revisionism. Instead the language of religion was employed to appeal for a progressive social transformation and a radical political demand for freedom.

Bacha Khan’s understanding of religion was not the one which the fundamentalists employed at that time. His understanding of religion was that of a complex phenomenon which gave meaning and a sense of social cohesion to people and he employed that language to both reform the society and the religion itself. The “Wahdat-ul-Wajood” of Pir-e-Rokhan guided him rather than the rootless asceticism that religion has now come to be synonymous with.

Bacha Khan was borrowing the imagery, vocabulary and content of spiritual and cultural traditions at a time when the same kind of Islam was used for completely different purposes. By comparison, the All India Muslim League drew upon a different understanding of the role of Islam – as an argument for Muslim exclusiveness and thus for creating a separate homeland for that community. Meanwhile, Bacha Khan rallied the masses for a secular future by deploying the evocative grammar of religion itself. A future community was to be formed on the basis of equality guaranteed by a modern constitution but a social transformation had to happen by reforming the religion.

To draw upon this memory of resistance, as Bacha Khan himself did, would be vital to any project for democracy, human dignity and freedom today.

(To be continued)