Islam plays a very important role in Pashtun life as a vital component of identity. But Pashtunwali is as influential as Islam for the Pashtuns. Once non-violence had been portrayed in an authentically Islamic way, it may have been acceptable to the Pashtuns who would not have viewed it as being in contradiction to Pashtunwali. Violence was previously seen not as a criminal aberration but as central to the wider ethical system of Pukhtuns.
It was, therefore, important for Bacha Khan to assert that non-violence did not compromise the Pashtun code of honour by drawing rhetorically on the traditional elements and idioms of Pashtunwali. Therefore, the wider perspective of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement was essentially indigenous. It was not borrowed from the Congress movement as such.
In this way, the key terms of Pashtunwali such as shame, honour, refuge, and hospitality were subtly redefined. Many affirmed: “Badshah Khan raised our political consciousness so we could understand what was happening.”
Bacha Khan motivated his people to wage a non-violent struggle instead of taking up arms; a novel chapter in the blood-soaked history of the region. His followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God), paid a heavy price with their lives as thousands were imprisoned and killed during this period.
In their jihad, the Khidmatgars declined to take an eye for an eye, and instead decided to turn the other cheek. “Rather than conceive a culture passively and an immutable charter, the KK ideology exemplifies the selective and innovative use of traditional cultural elements in order to form responses and solutions to particular historical challenges.”
Mohammad Badshah, an aging KK activist, recalls: “The common man could not make hujras, only the Khans could. Earlier, if they did, then the police came and demolished them. But Dr Khan Sahib changed that. Low castes were given the opportunity to buy land. They also became eligible for government jobs. Female education was started because earlier even the Azad schools were only for boys. Dr Khan Sahib reduced taxes by one-third. Moneylenders were done away with – everyone was treated equally.”
Pashtun custom did not grant women the inheritance rights prescribed in the Quran. In 1937, a national Sharia conference of Muslim leaders and theologians passed a resolution by which a daughter could inherit a share equivalent to half of her brother’s, and Dr Khan Sahib’s ministry passed legislation to this effect. “Ours was the only province where this resolution was passed into law. People did not resist the change because as many people stood to gain by it as to lose.”
At the start of the Second World War, when Congress offered to cooperate with the British war effort in return for complete Indian independence afterwards, Bacha Khan resigned from the party in protest. He argued that the principle of non-violence could not be put aside in any context, whether local or international, and neither he nor the Khudai Khidmatgars could go along with this policy.
When Congress offered to cooperate with the British war effort in return for complete Indian independence afterwards, Bacha Khan resigned from the party in protest. He argued that the principle of non-violence could not be put aside in any context, whether local or international
Thus he emerged as more determinedly non-violent than the rest of Congress. It had taken much effort on his part to persuade the Pashtuns to lay aside their violence and this could not be traded for political compulsions. The Pashtuns had been officially designated as a martial race and were “natural recruits” into the Indian army. This affected the British war policy and they did not take kindly to this.
Later, when his son Wali Khan was sent to jail by PPP, an enraged Hama Gul challenged the frail and aging Bacha Khan, “I know that it is in the Quran that if anyone wrongs you, you forgive him — but is anyone ever going to forgive us, or are we expected to do the forgiving all the time?”To this and many other questions, however, Bacha Khan’s cool response remained the same: “Violence would get us nowhere.”
Obviously, in 1947 at the dawn of independence, there was limited choice for the great apostle of peace, despite his efforts, along with Gandhi, for reconciliation among the sparring Muslim League and Congress party machines. Their mutual visits after eruption of the first-ever large-scale communal violence in Calcutta in 1946 and later in Bihar extinguished the fires of communal hatred and restored peace.
Bacha Khan and Gandhi’s desire for a prosperous and peaceful subcontinent did not materialise as the region was destined for a blood-soaked Partition. History is a witness that the erstwhile NWFP suffered very few incidents of communal violence as compared to Punjab and Bengal that were immersed into unspeakable horror as the two nations saw the dawn of freedom.
The Congress ministry led by Dr Khan Sahib ensured that the fleeing Hindus and Sikhs were given protection and safe passage to their new homes across the border despite provocations and the belligerent politics of the Subcontinent in 1947.
The failure of nonviolence in the subcontinent.
“My religion is truth love and service to God and humanity. Every religion that has come into the world has brought the message of love and brotherhood. Those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, whose hearts are empty of love, they do not know the meaning of religion” – Bacha Khan
India became the first victim of intolerance when a RSS ideologue Nathuram Godse killed Mahatma Gandhi at a prayer meeting at his ashram. Pakistan followed hounding and later arresting Bacha Khan, a towering leader of independence who stood for peace. This indeed was an inauspicious beginning for the two nation states, delivered in communal genocide despite the idealism of its Congress and Muslim League founding fathers.
The belligerent Subcontinental nations have failed to achieve peace and progress. The two warring states waged three overt wars and have indulged in mutual bellicosity. Their socio-economic indicators are far from enviable. The population is amongst the poorest, most underfed, most under-clothed and most disease-ridden in the world. Yet, the two states flaunt their latest weapons that promise only mutual destruction.
Bacha Khan’s prophetic words at Torkham, in 1980, at the beginning of the Afghan jihad, still ring loud and clear. He returned after three decades of self-exile from Afghanistan. The Soviets had spurned his efforts to roll back the Red Army, which Bacha Khan termed a recipe for disaster for the entire region during his visit to the Kremlin to meet Leonid Brezhnev.
His bewildered audience listened to his prophecy: “The blood that is now being shed in the name of religion shall soon engulf the entire Subcontinent. I can see rivers of blood flowing across Pakistan and when it reaches India it would be catastrophic for the entire region.”
His perplexed audience questioned his logic, since India was a world democracy with uninterrupted Congress rule which was considered secular.
“Why a bloodbath in India?” they wondered. To this, his answer was, “I have seen the violent response of the Hindu bania in retaliation to the mullah’s provocation during the Partition riots. Violence shall not confine itself to geographical boundaries but will travel far and wide and would be impossible to extinguish.”
Bacha Khan had a valid point in his argument that has been proven right after several years. One could not have imagined that intolerance of the worst kind would unravel secular states like Iraq, Syria, Libya and even cross over into the Western nations who now do not know how to control the extremism they unleashed to contain the Soviet Union some 40 years ago.
Seventy years after independence, Pakistan continues to be shackled by the same oppressive, undemocratic, feudal and militarised political system. There seems to be no end to its woes and little hope for the future. India by all standards has recently earned the distinction of becoming a fascist state under the BJP government. Both nations are inevitably sliding into anarchy and state terror that negates their raison d’etre in the first place.
The Pashtun region is still embroiled in a global conflict and Afghanistan as a state has been divided along ethnic, cultural and sectarian lines. In fact, sectarian violence is at its peak while the peacemakers plan a US exit plan from Afghanistan in early 2021. KP and Baluchistan are no better in terms of peace and prosperity as compared to Punjab and Sindh. Pakistan as a whole is also undergoing an ideological and constitutional crisis for decades.
Today one can see not just his clairvoyance but also Bacha Khan’s struggle for nonviolence being portrayed as a failure in Pukhtun regions and in the Subcontinent as a whole.
Are there any lessons for Pashtuns to learn from the legacy of Bacha Khan, if they are to chart a new democratic and peaceful future? Will the Indian Subcontinent as a whole learn of non-violence from Gandhi and Bacha Khan in the 21st century?
This is the crucial political question of our time.
The writer teaches Public Health at Northwest School of Medicine, Peshawar, and is a founding member of Sarhad Conservation Network. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org