“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” wrote Isaac Newton in a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1675.
Since the early 19th century, the South Asian Subcontinent was under the yoke of British imperialism. There were prominent yet unsung figures who spoke truth to power and waged an undeterred battle against the empire. Today, independent historians assert that the textbooks written under the influence of state narratives tend to indoctrinate according to a selective history that tries to erase the historical consciousness of the students and such selective history deliberately makes the anti-imperialist figures invisible from the pages of history.
Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, an icon of independence and a non-violent, anti-imperialist hero, is no exception. He is the crusader from the frontier who spent almost every second day of his life behind bars for his crime of consistently pursuing the ideals of freedom and autonomy in his motherland where his people (Pashtuns) were residing for centuries.
The man who came to be known as Khan Shaheed, Abdul Samad Achakzai, was born in 1907 in the muddy village of Enayat Ullah Karez: a strategic place at a crossroads of empires. He was raised in a house where the term ‘ferangi’ was not alien to him even in his early years. The love for motherland and his nature of fighting the oppressive colonial powers was something in his very genes. He was of illustrious descent: Barkhurdar Khan Achakzai who was the chief commander serving Afghan Emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali, and Ghazi Abdullah Khan who was a star in the first Anglo-Afghan war, were his forefathers. The latter, Ghazi Abdullah Khan was the stalwart leader who marshalled Afghan tribes against the British Army.
Abdul Samad Achakzai’s basic education came from his village madrassa. His voluminous autobiography reveals that even in his adolescence, he got a deep understanding of the exploitative mechanism of the colonial system and the miseries of oppressed nations denied their right of self-determination.
When he was merely a grade 8 student, he was warned twice for his political actions and mobilisations against the British Raj.
On one hand he resisted the colonialists, whereas on the other he also consistently struggled to fight against the pharaonic role of the tribal jirga, which was a mere congregation of handpicked tribal chiefs. What makes him an indispensable figure in the independence movement is his indefatigable struggle and his scientific approach in every field. And so, his struggle against the exploitative mechanism of the British Empire was based on a scientific process – on one hand going pillar to post mobilising people, while on the other hand presenting the case of the ‘wretched of the Earth’ through his writings in various papers.
He boldly challenged all patriarchal notions which degraded the role of women in the society – leading by example, through sending his daughter Khor Bibi to a boys’ school as there was no girls’ school. The school was at a distance from his home and in the absence of transport system, he encouraged his daughter to bicycle to the school across the villages
In line with his untiring efforts at various fronts, his journalistic toil is central to his struggle. He was acutely aware of the significant role of free press. In British Balochistan, under the dark law of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), it was difficult to even establish a press. The continuous struggle of Achakzai and his companions paved the way for the re-establishment of the Press Act. He established his own press, Aziz Print Press in tribute to his comrade Yousaf Aziz Magsi, who lost his life at a very young age in the catastrophic 1935 earthquake in Quetta. And in the year 1938 he established Balochistan’s first newspaper Istiqlal. His persistent efforts in journalism earned him the title of ‘father of journalism’ in Balochistan.
Mahmood Khan Achakzai recalls of his first encounter with his father: “I rushed towards my mother and called her out in alarm when I saw an unfamiliar man enter our house, but then she told me that this man is your father,” who was released from prison in 1953.
The longest spell that this undeterred man spent out of prison consisted of the last four years of his life (1969-1973). After the 1947 Partition, Abdul Samad Achakzai suffered heavily because his pre-Partition struggle was against the division on communal lines. He was arrested merely one day after Ayub Khan imposed martial law and was released after Ayub’s downfall.
In his autobiography, he recalls the post-Partition years in prison as being worse than those he spent in the prisons of the British colonialists. He was dealt with using great coercion and denied the facility of writing material.
During his years in jail, he translated several books and a greater part of his autobiography Zma Zwand ao Zwandon (The Way I Lived) was penned down while he was in prison. In jail, among other issues, he also came to the conclusion that if people are taught in their mother language, everyone will be able to learn reading and writing in 6 to 7 months. He thereafter remained a staunch advocate of imparting education in people’s mother tongues.
Khan Shaheed was a progressive leader despite residing in a deeply patriarchal and backward society. In this context, he was a great advocate of gender equality. He boldly challenged all patriarchal notions which degraded the role of women in the society – leading by example, through sending his daughter Khor Bibi to a boys’ school as there was no girls’ school. The school was at a distance from his home and in the absence of transport system, he encouraged his daughter to bicycle to the school across the villages. In his inspiring autobiography, he mentions the name of his mother before mentioning that of his father. That, in a society where even today it is commonly considered taboo to mention the name of female family members.
He manifested through his actions and later through his writings that without having half of the population i.e. women on board, no political struggle is possible. So, he was a firm believer in gender equality.
His untiring struggle for democracy and for the formation of provinces on historical-cultural lines did not suit the designs of the military establishment, which seeks power through back-door and illegitimate means. Unfortunately, his political choices did not qualify him for admission into the official club of patriots. Ours is a society where dissent is equated with a foreign conspiracy to undermine the country.
This icon of independence, democracy constitutionalism was undeterred in the face of brute force. He could not be wavered by means of solitary confinement. This left the dark forces with no option but to strike him down physically. Grenades were hurled at his house, which martyred this Great Khan on the 2nd of December 1973.
But his assassination provided quite the opposite results as those desired by the assassins. They gave birth to a national movement led by his outspoken son and champion of democracy Mahmood Khan Achakzai.
The Great Khan will sparkle like a bright star on the horizon in the annals of this land, as his legacy continues to inspire generations for the ideals that he sacrificed his life for.
Abdul Bais Khan is a political analyst, columnist and a student of political science, residing in Quetta