The scars left by the division of the British Raj between India and Pakistan were not just communal in nature. There is a whole undercurrent of ethnic grievances and politics conducted along such lines – a history which has often been misrepresented or suppressed in Pakistan.
A violent crackdown from 1948 is among the events which have coloured Pakhtun perceptions of the country’s post-colonial history. The memory is particularly strong amongst Pakhtun nationalist political organisations. Outside Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it is largely absent from the public memory. The matter becomes all the more fraught when one considers that those who invoke the memory of the event hold the Muslim League responsible for the use of deadly force – the very party that had led Pakistan to independence.
It came to be known as the Babarra massacre.
Some background would be in order, if we are to understand the political milieu in which it all happened. As the British Raj ended in 1947, the Frontier Congress – also known as the Red Shirts and Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) – were the ruling party of what was then the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Abdul Jabbar Khan popularly known as Dr. Khan sahib, brother of Ghaffar Khan, was chief minister. Only a week after the birth of Pakistan on the 22nd of August, the governor of the province sacked the elected government of the Red Shirts. At that time, in the provincial assembly, Congress was in a 34 – 16 majority. The government was handed over to the Muslim League’s Qayyum Khan. For the next few months, a provincial assembly session was not held because the Khudai Khidmatgars were still in the majority!
In the NWFP itself, memories of the Qissa Khwani massacre were still fresh: in 1930, peaceful protesters from the Khudai Khidmatgar movement were gunned downed by the British colonial forces
The position of the Muslim League was that the Khudai Khidmatgars as represented by Chief Minister Dr. Khan didn’t attend the flag hoisting ceremony of the newly formed Pakistani state on the 15th of August – which led to sacking of his government because its loyalties to the nascent state were suspect.
Others, however, dispute that view. A letter was written by Governor Lockhart to Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, in which he stated: “Muslim League wants to dissolve Dr Khan’s ministry before 15th August. Hence, I along with my colleagues decided that Pakistan government shall find a way for it. But I will be opposing any such act and it will be harmful for Pakistan.” (National Archives, S.No 634, 11 August 1947, page. 161, Special Branch on 7th August)
On the 10th, Mountbatten wrote to Liaquat Ali Khan, “I am instructed by the Secretary of State that dismissing Dr Khan’s government will be undemocratic and unconstitutional”.
For harsher critics of what came next, it was the beginning of “horse trading” and unconstitutional decisions in Pakistan. The claim is that the new government of Pakistan sacked an elected provincial government. Further, it is claimed, the process was spearheaded by Qayyum Khan in a ruthless manner. It must be noted that until at least 1945, Qayyum Khan himself was part of Khudai Khidmatgars. The disaffected political figure had, on leaving the Red Shirts, become a Muslim League stalwart by 1947.
In May 1948, the renowned anti-colonial leader of the Khudai Khidmatgars, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan, had started his annual visit to villages and towns of NWFP after participation in the Legislative Assembly. He had been arrested in Kohat’s Bahadur Khel village for three years under 40 FCR, part of the Frontier Crimes Regulation – as cited by Professor Minhaj-ul-Hassan in his research.
The authorities in newly-formed Pakistan alleged that Bacha Khan was working on a plan along with the separatist militant Faqir of Ipi to topple the government. This further widened the rift between Qayyum Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars. It is alleged by supporters of the latter that provincial Muslim Leaguers from the NWFP were keeping Mr. Jinnah distant from Bacha Khan on purpose. It is even claimed that Qayyum Khan led Mr. Jinnah to believe that the Red Shirts planned to harm or even murder him. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that a liberal-minded political leader like Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not able to connect with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his philosophy of non-violent political resistance.
The Khudai Khidmatgars, in a futile effort to patch up with the Muslim League government, on the 3rd and 4th of September 1947 called a meeting at Sardaryab near Peshawar and passed the following resolutions:
“1.) The Khudai Khidmatgars regard Pakistan as their own country and pledge that they shall do their utmost to strengthen and safeguard its interest and make every sacrifice for the cause.
2.) The dismissal of Dr. Khan Sahib’s ministry and the setting up of Qayyum Khan’s government is undemocratic, but as our country is passing through a critical stage, the Khudai Khidmatgars shall take no step which might create difficulties in the way of either the Provincial or Central Government.
3.) After the division the Khudai Khidmatgars sever their connections with All India Congress and therefore, instead of the tricolour adopt the Red Flag as the symbol of their party. “
No reconciliation took place, unfortunately, and the effects are felt till today: for many who take a pro-establishment perspective in Pakistan, Ghaffar Khan remained suspect – a man whose fidelity to the new country was to be suspect till his last breath. In fact, such accusations of disloyalty dogged his son Wali Khan too.
Perhaps one of the biggest tragedies is the lost opportunity: policy makers at that time missed the chance to benefit from 100,000 trained, organised and disciplined Khudai Khidmatgar volunteers as assets for the new country.
And soon the government issued The North West Frontier Province Public Safety Ordinance, which further empowered the administration to take action against the Khudai Khidmatgars. This act was criticised the national newspapers in strong words. The Pakistan Times wrote on the 11th of July, 1948:
“The administration in the NWFP already has wide enough powers to deal with any likely situation. It is difficult to understand therefore why it has been found necessary to add further to those powers in such a way and to an extent that parliamentary rule becomes a mockery and the rule of law a mere fiction … Our advice to the Qayyum Ministry is to govern the province by law, and if cannot, to make room for those who can”.
In response the Khudai Khidmatgars organised a provincial jirga gathered and passed four resolutions.
1.) The Government arrested Bacha Khan over allegations of supporting the Faqir of Ipi financially. The authority shall issue details of the amount along with receipt.
2.) If through the court, the accusations against Bacha Khan were proven, the Khudai Khidmatgars would separate from him.
3.) As the Muslim League promised Islamic Law in the new Muslim state, so the government was expected to fulfill its promise.
4.) The Red Shirts demanded elections in the new country.
The jirga also agreed upon a protest, scheduled for the 12th of August, 1948, in district Charsadda’s village Babarra. But the government cordoned off the area a day before, as it was unannounced curfew in district and thousands of Red Shirts were arrested.
Dr. Sohail Khan, chairman of the Pashto Department at Wali Khan University, Mardan, points out that at that stage, thousands of Khudai Khidmatgars and top leadership were in prison and the decision to proceed with the protest was made by Salar Ameen Jan – and he was leading the procession on that unfortunate morning.
Tragedy then struck – in the form of a violent crackdown.
Despite the conditions of repression for their movement, hundreds of Bacha Khan’s followers gathered and began to walk to the venue that had been decided upon. As protesters approached, state forces opened fire from vantage points on surrounding buildings.
Almost immediately, the ensuing massacre came to be compared to the atrocities of the British Raj, especially the famed Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In the NWFP itself, memories of the Qissa Khwani massacre were still fresh: in 1930, peaceful protesters from the Khudai Khidmatgar movement were gunned downed by the British colonial forces. The massacre at Babarra came to be seen in a similar light, especially by supporters of Bacha Khan.
For the Red Shirts, the massacre was just the beginning of an intensely difficult time
Today, Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP) who are heirs to Bacha Khan’s political legacy, speaks of it in these words: “In human history it happened for the first time that those who received bullets in their chests and heads, paid financially too!” He points out that the Khudai Khidmatgars were punished financially after the massacre and in 1948 they were fined 50,000 rupees. This, according to Khattak, was the cost of the operation at Barbarra!
Even 69 years later, this ugly incident remains etched in the memories of Pakhtun nationalist organisations. Their leaders still raise the demand for an independent inquiry into the massacre. They claim that 611 protesters lost their lives and 1,200 were injured on that day, the 12th of August 1948.
“We want a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to inquire all such cases and apportion responsibility. After that, Babarra can be brought to a closure.” Khattak demands.
Dr. Sohail Khan claims in a research paper that more than 265 dead bodies were drowned in the nearby river in the course of the massacre.
According to him, the first victim of the violent crackdown was a diehard loyalist and loyal party worker of the Red Shirts, Speen Malang. Before he died, he was waving the party flag – his usual duty at protest marches.
In Dr. Sohail’s narration, dozens of women were part of the march, including Wali Khan’s wife and mother of ANP chief Asfandyar Khan, Taju Bibi.
The painful memory of that day is invoked also by Mian Ifitikhar, Central General Secretary of the ANP, as he speaks at a huge gathering at the Ghazi Baba mosque. Here it is alleged that the police had fired at the advancing protesters.
“It was a rain of bullets on that day – the ruthless administration didn’t even spare women and children!” Iftikhar thunders.
The allegation is not a new one.
Jehanzeb Niaz writes in his book Zama da Jwand Qissa (Tale of my life): “On the 12th of August many women were amongst the injured and killed and the rest of the women were tearing their shawls and dupattas to bandage the wounded and stop their bleeding.”
In any case, for the Red Shirts, the massacre was just the beginning of an intensely difficult time.
The government machinery blew up the Khudai Khidmatgars’ central office at Sardaryab and started to come down hard on them across the NWFP. It seemed to many that the goal was the elimination of the Red Shirts as a political force.
Hayat Roghani, editor of Pukhtoon magazine, says that when Bacha Khan was freed from prison and came to Sardaryab, thousands of Khudai Khidmatgars gathered there. Bacha Khan is known to have asked “What have you planned about the future?” It is said that many proposed revenge against what they considered to be a usurped provincial government. Nevertheless, Bacha Khan informed all of them: “Our path was non-violence and it will be the same!”
Roghani grins as he points out that Pukhtoon magazine itself was founded by Bacha Khan in 1928 to raise its voice against social evils in Pakhtun society.
Sultan Kaka of Prang, Charsadda was among the protestors on the day of the massacre. He remained missing on the 12th and 13th of August and returned home in the pre-dawn time. His son Murad Ali recounts his story: “My mother and grandmother were badly upset because news of killings was coming in and my father was in the rally. When father (Sultan Kaka) came back, he told shocking tales with tearful eyes.”
Murad goes on to quote his father:
“I buried 6 dead bodies in one grave because the authorities were collecting 50 rupees fine for one grave and 100 rupees for each injured!”
After the firing, a First Investigation Report (FIR) was lodged by the police against the marchers: FIR No. 184 dated 12.08.1948 at police station Prang.
Hayat Roghani claims: “Orders for not treating the injured were issued by the local authorities to nearby hospitals and therefore dozens succumbed to their injuries.”
Poetry and music have always been fundamental elements of the rich Pakhtun culture. Echoes of the Babarra incident found their way into intense poetry: the rebellious and grief-stricken themes became a compulsory part of the Khudai Khidmatgars’ political culture, according to Roghani.
For its part, the Qayym Khan administration later held that the government had already announced section 144 and that the protesters were therefore challenging the government’s writ.
The late politician Wali Khan in his book Bacha Khan and Khudai Khidmatgari” contests their position: “At that time Hidayat Ullah Khan Toru was Deputy Commissioner of Charsadda. He informed me later that neither I am asked nor I have imposed section 144.”
Today, politician Afrasiab Khattak believes that these unfortunate events from 1948 instilled in the minds of Pakistan’s traditional ruling elite a feeling that Pakhtuns, particularly those who subscribe to Pakhtun nationalist ideas and the legacy of Bacha Khan, are somehow not fully ‘loyal’ to the country. He insists that the Khudai Khidmatgars may have been in favour of a united Hindustan during the pre-Partition era, but once it happened, they accepted it pledged themselves fully to Pakistan. Khattak believes the sacking of Dr. Khan’s elected government and the later atrocities attributed to the country’s ruling party laid the foundation for mistrust and suspicion of Pakhtun leaders.
“And it is something which never stopped!” observes Khattak..
“Ideology doesn’t die. The government of that time tried to eliminate Bacha Khan’s followers but we have increased and does anyone know where Qayyum Khan lies buried?” Mian Iftikhar asks defiantly.
Professor Minhaj-ul-Hassan notes in his research that Qayyum Khan himself addressed the provincial assembly and defended his actions without qualms.
The non-violent resistance of the Red Shirts continues to inspire the ANP of today, as well as other political forces. But it is in a different context: that of the current war against the Taliban and other fundamentalist militants.
“Bacha Khan’s philosophy and its followers are still in Babarra, but in a different shape,” Hayat Roghani says. He points out that in the war against terrorism, the ANP claims to have has lost 850 committed workers in different parts of the country because of its hard stance against militants.
Whatever the truth of the unfortunate events of August 1948 might be, they continue to reverberate today.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain says:
“Today we pledge to the martyrs of freedom that we will keep up your spirit of a democratic fight for social justice and equal opportunities, oppose state repression, and stand for progressive politics with non-violence.”
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @theraufkhan