“Only a dead nation remembers its heroes when they die. Real nations respect them when they are alive.” This famous quote by Abdul Ghaffar Khan has never been more relevant today. 31 years since his leaving the mortal world, his legacy is indelible as before.
Born in 1890 into a prominent feudal Mohamadzai family in Charsadda, he would rapidly turn the Pashtuns, seen by the colonial state as a violent people, into law-abiding Khudai Khidmatgars (non-violent soldiers of Islam). This talk might sound out of place in today’s world, but it was true until 1947 when Pakistan came into being and the NWFP government headed by Dr Khan Sahib was dismissed prematurely.
The world has yet to acknowledge his stature as one of the foremost icon of universal peace and tolerance in the Subcontinent. But in his own time, Mahatma Gandhi held Bacha Khan in high esteem. During his visit to Sadaryaab, the headquarters of the Khudai Khidmatgars in Charsadda, Gandhi is quoted as informing the large audience: “Bacha Khan and Khudai Khidmatgars deserve more credit than me and Congress together, as Hindus belong to a comparatively non-martial race, while taming the most violent people into peace-loving and law-abiding citizens was an incomparable achievement!”
This is an extraordinary statement by a renowned icon, considered as the foremost torch bearer of non-violence in history. For comparison, consider that Nelson Mandela was a follower of Gandhi and was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in1993 for a peaceful termination of the apartheid regime and laying the foundations for a democratic South Africa. Regretfully, this honour was denied to Bacha Khan though his struggle was against an inhuman colonial state apparatus.
Bacha Khan spent more time in prison (37 years in total) both during the British rule and under post-independence Pakistani governments. For comparison with others who served arduous prison terms, Nelson Mandela did 27 years in prison, Gandhi 5 years and Nehru 9 years
Gandhi and Bacha Khan were shoulder-to-shoulder in waging a peaceful struggle for independence from British colonial rule, where religion or caste would no longer divide people. They stood for an egalitarian society. Sadly, both India and Pakistan are far from these syncretic ideals. Instead both countries have become among the very worst examples of intolerance and bigotry. This state of affairs has continued to hinder the progress and prosperity of the Subcontinent.
Bacha Khan spent more time in prison (37 years in total) both during the British rule and under post-independence Pakistani governments. For comparison with others who served arduous prison terms, Nelson Mandela did 27 years in prison, Gandhi 5 years and Nehru 9 years. This fact alone reflects the legacy of unrecognized suffering he endured for a noble cause till his last breath.
He is yet to receive commensurate recognition by the world at large – and even more painfully by the Pashtun people for whom he sacrificed his entire life and endured incomparable hardships. His followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God), paid a heavy price with their lives as thousands were imprisoned and killed during this period.
Pashtunwali and non-violence: How did Bacha Khan succeed in reconciling the two?
“When I turned back from the outer battle
I set my face towards the inner battle.
We have returned from the lesser jihad….
We are with the Prophet (PBUH) in the greater jihad.”
––Jalaluddin Rumi, Mathnavi-e-Ma’anavi (1386-7)
Are Pashtuns really the bloodthirsty holy warriors that the world often portrays them to be or another people altogether? Is the Taliban movement a natural phenomenon of “Pashtun identity and independence”, or is there something else going on?
Mukulika Banerjee, in her an anthropological research The Pathan Unarmed (Oxford books) has portrayed the Pashtuns as historically a wild people living by a strict code of honour in a volatile environment, and having a proclivity for violence. Therefore, the former NWFP seems the most unlikely setting for a movement with an ideology of non-violence.
Historically, Pashtuns excelled in warfare and prided themselves on being a martial race. As with their martial counterparts in the Subcontinent like the Sikhs and Gurkhas, their chivalry was exploited by the British rulers, and they were used to good effect as cannon fodder and mercenaries for imperial exploits around the world
How, then did Bacha Khan blend his ideas of non-violence with Islam and the traditional code of Pashtunwali?
Doubtless, for Bacha Khan the vision to achieve prosperity and a tolerant society was only possible through education. This was the reason when he opened several Darul Afghania schools across modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the British had forcefully kept the population under draconian laws like the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), besides regulations banning all kinds of civil associations’ or political activities.
To Bacha Khan, as mentioned in his memoir My Life, My Struggle, education was a sacred tenet of Islam, which he quotes as a commandment of Allah. “Iqra” (“read!”) was the first divine command to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Allah had meant to educate and thus humanise his people through the divine revelations of the Holy Quran.
“Non-violence is a power and has an army just like violence. But its weapon is preaching while the weapon of violence is the gun,” said Bacha Khan famously.
His detractors wrongly paint him as a blind follower of Gandhi. His worldview was far more rooted in Islam and Pashtun history. He had a deep understanding of Islam being a religion of peace and forgiveness. He used both Islamic and Pashto idioms to propagate the mission of non-violence. This philosophy was an article of faith for the non-violent Khudai Khitmatgar movement.
While Bacha Khan was struggling to turn the tribal Pashtuns into law-abiding citizens with a vision of peace and education, his mission was aborted by the British. The colonialists preferred a dehumanized, violent version of the Pashtun. So, as far as the British Raj was concerned, the Pashtuns were unworthy of modern education. Historically, Pashtuns excelled in warfare and prided themselves on being a martial race. As with their martial counterparts in the Subcontinent like the Sikhs and Gurkhas, their chivalry was exploited by the British rulers, and they were used to good effect as cannon fodder and mercenaries for imperial exploits around the world, including the First World War.
Bacha Khan was one of the great Indian leaders who recognized that this had to end.
Both Bacha Khan and Gandhi were intensely practical men who tailored participatory social programmes. Both were also conscious that their followers would have to purge themselves of anger and arrogance in order to undertake civil disobedience successfully. Demanding high standards from their followers, they did not hesitate to rebuke them for their shortcomings.
“It is my inmost conviction,” Bacha Khan said, “that Islam is Amal, Yakeen, Muhabat” – Selfless service, Faith and Love.
However, it would be simplistic to consider this relationship as the only narrative for the Khudai Khidmatgars’ non-violent ideology. Many Muslim League and Congress commentators have erred on this account alike.
Though he drew inspiration from the Congress anti-colonial struggle and the precise techniques of civil disobedience, the needs and shortcomings of Pashtun society inspired Badshah Khan long before he met Gandhi. Where Gandhi’s philosophical inspiration was the Gita, Bacha Khan was a devout Muslim and had performed Haj, besides being well-versed in the Quran and Hadith.
(to be continued)