King without a throne

In the popular Pakistani imagination Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a traitor of the state. On the 26th anniversary of his death Raza Wazir attempts to set the record straight

King without a throne
Bacha Khan, as he was popularly known was born Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the Utmanzai area of Charsadda Tehsil, then a part of District Peshawar in 1890. His father Bahram Khan, a local tribal chief, had some land in the area of Hashtnaggar (literally “eight towns”). Unlike the other Khans of the area, as Bacha Khan would later recall, Bahram Khan was a pious but at the same time a liberal and enlightened man, unaffected by the propaganda of Mullas of the time. He admitted both his sons, the elder Abdul Jabbar Khan (Dr Khan Sahib) and Abdul Ghaffar Khan in a missionary school by the name of Edwards Mission School in Peshawar where the initial evolution of Bacha Khan’s mind and spirit occurred. Rev. E.F.E Wigram, a missionary who conducted the affairs of the school instilled in Ghaffar Khan the value of service to his community. “The teacher who had created in me the spirit of service to God was the Britisher Rev. Wigram who would give scholarships to three or four poor students, an act that left a deep impact on me. I said to myself, ‘We the Pakhtuns have no sympathy for our poor brethren, and yet how much sympathy those who came from a foreign land have’, wrote Bacha Khan in his biography “My Life and Struggle”.


In 1910 when he was just twenty years old he founded a chain of ‘Azad Schools’ for children of local peasants and the poor. His mission was opposed by Mullahs but he had a solution to it: He befriended a Mullah, the great freedom fighter Haji Sahib of Turangzai in this endeavour and thus, in the words of Bacha Khan, he shielded himself from the danger of Mullahs.

His social activism led naturally to an entry into active politics. In 1913 he attended the annual Muslim League meeting in Agra, India. Here he not only observed the political situation of India proper but also met with some leading nationalist leaders including the ulema of the Deoband seminary, who in early 1914 decided upon forming two centers for the struggle of independence, one in India and the other in the tribal territories of the frontier. To this end they decided to prepare an army, not necessarily unarmed and nonviolent. But before this plan could be executed, his Azad Schools were closed down and Khan faced an extended crackdown in the area brought about by the foreign rulers.

Gandhi's belief in nonviolence inspired Bacha Khan's own Khudai Khidmatgaar Movement
Gandhi's belief in nonviolence inspired Bacha Khan's own Khudai Khidmatgaar Movement

Not allowing himself to be deterred by these setbacks, from 1915 to 1918 he traversed about 500 villages of Pakhtunkhwa. It was in these days of his vigorous campaigning for the unity of the Pakhtun nation that he was termed as Bacha Khan (“King of Chiefs”). In 1919 he tried to offer his support to then Afghan King Ghazi Amanullah Khan who at the time was fighting with the British and eventually gained independence. At the same time he denounced the unjust and tyrannical “Rowlatt Act” for which he was put in prison. When asked whether he was trying to agitate people against the government and was a “Badshah of the Pathans” he answered: “I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that I am a servant of the community. We cannot take the Rowlatt bills lying down.”

This was “a mere start to a bitter career of imprisonment that altogether would swallow twenty seven years of Bacha Khan’s life,” (from Badshah Khan: The Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns by Rajmohan Gandhi). His faith in his resolve remained unshaken. When in 1921 his younger brother Dr. Khan Sahib came to visit him in prison with the offer that if he ceased his tour of the frontier he would be allowed to run his schools, he instantly turned it down and the struggle went on.

In 1924 upon his release from prison he was presented with the title of “Fakhr e Afghan” in a meeting attended by thousands and organized by “Anjuman-e-Islah-e-Afghan” (The Afghan Reform Society) founded by him in 1921.

But there were also more personal costs to the struggle. While he was still in jail his beloved mother died,  a fact he was unaware of aware of till one day in jail he read it in a passing a reference in a newspaper. In 1928 he started the first Pashto language magazine by the name of Pakhtun which still has a tremendous following among Pakhtun men and women.

In 1929 after attending the annual session of the All India National Congress in Lahore, he formed the now famous Khudaai Khidmatgar movement (The Servants of God) dubbed by the British as Red Shirts. It spearheaded the first organized, secular-nationalist and above all nonviolent struggle in the history of the Pakhtun nation. In the months to follow he was convinced of his new faith, a faith in nonviolence which presented formidable opposition to the British on the Indian frontier. Comparing the violent opposition of the 1890s to the movement of 1930 he wrote in his autobiography, “The British crushed the violent movement in no time, but the nonviolent movement, in spite of intense repression, flourished.”

Bacha Khan in his later years
Bacha Khan in his later years

[quote]"The Raj's demise was scripted by the Khudaai Khidmatgar's nonviolent revolt in Peshawar's Qissa Khwani Bazaar"[/quote]

The intense repression became evident in 1930, a year after the formation of KK when 200 to 300 unarmed, Pakhtuns peacefully protesting the detention of Bacha Khan were killed by the British. According to Rajmohan Gandhi, the biographer of Bacha Khan, “The Raj’s demise was scripted by their (KK’s) nonviolent revolt in Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar on that fateful day of 23 April”. It was only the charisma of Bacha Khan which could prevent the otherwise warrior-like Pakhtuns from hitting back with nonviolence, offering their chests to be pierced with British bullets.

[quote]The last words he uttered to Mahatma Gandhi were, "You have thrown us to the wolves"[/quote]

Another milestone in the Indian Independence Movement came when the Khudai Khidamtgars joined the Quit India movement in 1942. Unlike in other parts of India where the movement became violent, in the frontier the KKs remained peaceful and sent some 6000 prisoners to jails, a huge proportion when compared to 60,000 from all over India. In the events leading up to independence and eventually the partition of India, Bacha Khan toured the length and breadth of the Pakhtun territoy of the frontier – this time including the tribal areas – with Jawaharlal Nehru where he sought support for united India. But at the end the Congress caved in to Muslim League’s demands, which Bacha Khan had opposed vociferously. He felt betrayed. The last words he uttered to Mahatma Gandhi were, “You have thrown us to the wolves”, a rather prophetic statement in light of what he was to face in the newly created country.

The imposing Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan with Jawaharlal Nehru
The imposing Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan with Jawaharlal Nehru

Bacha Khan attended the first meeting of Pakistan’s constituent assembly on 23 February 1948 where he took the oath of allegiance to the new country and its flag. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, invited him to tea and is reported to have remarked: “Today I feel that my dream of Pakistan is realized.” Khan’s chance of speaking to the assembly came on 5 March 1948 where he said: “Now that the division has been done, the dispute is over”, referring to his opposition to the idea of partitioning India. He spoke of the need of new political parties as the work of Muslim League was now over with the creation of Pakistan, a country formed on economic lines. He constantly spoke about the rights of his people and an autonomous government of Pakhtunistan, not necessarily a place outside Pakistan but “a room in the same house”.

But it was a demand that could not be tolerated by the high-ups. He was put in prison in June 1948 for six years along with thousands of his KKs. Praying for their imprisoned relatives, a group of people, among whom were many women with miniature copies of the Quran hanging from their necks, gathered in Babra village, where they were fired at by the police, killing at least 150 and injuring 400. But the movement still remained adamantly peaceful and nonviolent.

But this followed a strict crackdown of the rank and file of Khudai Khidmatgars in which the military also joined the police. After his release from jail in 1954 he urged the constituent assembly (of which he was still a member) to run the new country on democratic principles. He was prepared to bury the past, but his detractors weren’t. A series of imprisonments, mainly due to his opposition to Martial Law and the autocratic rule of civilians, along with an insistence on democratic principles marked his life journey in Pakistan, ultimately ending upon his death in Peshawar where he was still in house arrest on 20th January, 1988.

Bacha Khan remained a devout follower of Gandhi and a true pacifist until his death. In the later years of his life when asked about past memories, he would speak with affection of his elder brother Dr Khan Sahib, and positively of Jinnah and Caroe, a British administrator of the Frontier, according to S.K Singh, then Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan. His funeral prayers and burial, which according to his wish, were carried out in Jalalabad in Afghanistan stood in testimony of his bridge-building life: when the fighting sides of the Afghan conflict announced a ceasefire for the occasion.

On the 26th death anniversary of Bacha Khan it is important for our part of the world not to forget the message and legacy of this nonviolent soldier of the Islamic world.