“Takkar is in the throes of war,
Bullets are flying everywhere, and the trees are shedding their leaves,
And Takkar is engulfed in war[…]”
While growing up in my ancestral village Takkar, a suburban town of district Mardan, I have heard this Pashto folk song from elders in gatherings as well as from women singing it in weddings. This emotional and epic Pashto song has been immortalised throughout the Pashtun belt, which remind us about the tragic day when British forces stormed my village on 28 May 1930, and killed and injured dozens of unarmed people.
Every year, on 28 May, the villagers and the Awami National Party (ANP) leadership remember what they call the “Martyrs of Takkar” to pay tribute to those killed on this day 92 years ago and to recall how the arrogance and lust for power of the British imperial forces made the blood of innocent and peaceful people of my village flow with utter disregard and indifference in this small and far-flung town of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), formerly the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Situated two miles away from Takht-i-Bhai, the famous archaeological site of Buddhist relics and one of the global UNESCO heritage centres, Takkar has long been a stronghold of the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) and it served a solid bastion of the anti-British resistance movement in the region during the struggle for independence. Many families from the village lost their loved ones on that tragic day. Perhaps that is the reason that the storytelling around the massacre has become a tradition of our village. As a child, I have heard an eyewitness account of the incident from my grandfather Malik Aman Khan, who experienced living under the British rule as a teenager. He would always become emotional recalling the story of the valour of elders of the village from that time, who greatly suffered in their struggle to get their due rights from the British rulers. Recalling the fatal events of that day, my grandfather would say that those struck with bullets began to fall to the ground. Many women of the village came out, crying and demanding an end to the firing. Whenever my grandfather would share the story with us, it was as if he were living through that time again, and as if he were experiencing all those emotions which he felt during that testing time for the beautiful village. The retelling of those events seemed to enliven in him those memories of resistance, endurance, bravery and terror.
Massacre of the non-violent protestors
When the independence moment was gearing up in the Subcontinent in the 1920s and ‘30s, iconic Pashtun leader Bacha Khan challenged the legitimacy of the British rule through a policy of non-violent protests. Bacha Khan believed that a non-violent movement is more dangerous than a violent movement. As part of this strategy, when the Bacha-Khan-led Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek was increasingly becoming popular in the region due its non-violent approach, the British rulers were desperately trying to provoke them to violence and retaliation.
After the 1857 revolt against British rule, the first direct confrontation between the freedom fighters and the imperial forces occurred at Peshawar’s famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar on 30 April 1930, leaving hundreds of Pashtuns dead and many more injured. The Qissa Khwani incident trigged widespread anger amongst Pashtuns of the region and they resorted to peaceful protest rallies. While Takkar was a small settlement, still it was considered to be a stronghold of Bacha Khan’s followers.
In a pre-emptive move to suppress a possible peaceful protest by the local villagers, the British administration dispatched a police contingent led by an officer named Mr. Murphey to apprehend local leadership of the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement. Amongst them, a group of five elders were the most wanted in the village and surrounding areas such as Malik Masim Khan, Malik Hameed, Salar Shamroz Khan, Malik Khan Badshah and Pir Shahzada. As the British contingent demanded surrender of the village elders, a war of words ensued between the police officer Mr. Murphy and the resisting villagers.
According to local retelling, the five wanted men launched a peaceful protest, moving towards Mardan, but they were not allowed to enter the garrison city – which furthered intensified tensions in the area and the British authorities decided to use full force against the innocent villagers on 28 May 1930. The British forces opened indiscriminate fire on villagers, leaving around 70 dead and more than 150 injured. Local tales suggest that they even fired at trees in the village to scare people – captured in sorrowful and popular folk song: “Pa Takkkar Jang De, Gole Waregi, Wone Panre Rajaweena” (“Takkar is in the throes of war, Bullets are flying everywhere, and the trees are shedding their leaves, And Takkar is engulfed in war[…])
The importance of the event is so exceedingly great that a memorial has been erected in honour of the martyrs and those who struggled against the British imperial forces on that fateful day. The beautiful memorial, set in marble, at the top of which four hands surround a red candle, stands as a witness that the blood of the martyrs shed against British oppression didn’t go waste, but added impetus to the liberation struggle against the colonialist oppressors and became a part of the larger Indian independence movement and Pakistan’s creation. The epic heroes of that day – collectively known as Takkar’s Martyrs — have become proverbial figures of Pashto literature and folklore.
However, it is a pity that Pashtun history has many such black days where the followers of Bacha Khan’s non-violent resistance have been brutally attacked: before the Partition of the Subcontinent and even after the creation of Pakistan. Worse, none of these sad historical events are mentioned in the country’s textbooks or mainstream discourse.
Bacha Khan’s legacy
One of the crucial lessons from the tragic killings of unarmed Pashtuns in Qissa Khwani Peshawar, Takkar and Charsadda is about the need to promote the teachings of Bacha Khan by staying peaceful even in the face of sheer terror and brutalities. The independence movement had produced many great leaders of reputable stature, among which Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan became a global icon for leading non-violent resistance against the British Raj in the Pashtun region. It is true that he opposed the slogan of having a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims, but once Partition became inevitable and Pakistan came into existence, Bacha Khan announced his allegiance to the new state of Pakistan by taking oath in the Assembly in 1948.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan’s mainstream discourse he is still considered as a “traitor”: despite the fact that his party – today the Awami National Party – paid the heaviest price in the last two decades of the War on Terror in Pakistan by sacrificing hundreds of its workers and many top leaders.
Ghaffar Khan launched the non-violent movement in 1929 by establishing the “Khudai Khidmatgars” (The Servants of God) which earned him the title of “Sarhadi Gandhi.” His teachings laid a strong emphasis on the non-violent aspects of resistance and abhorred the use of any form of violence. He devoted his life to his ideals and paid a heavy price by spending a major portion of his life in jails.
Bacha Khan’s teachings have become an indispensable part of Pashtun society. Perhaps it is due to widespread adherence to this ideology that Pashtuns went through a lot of terrible circumstances and suffered the most since the creation of Pakistan, yet they remained non-violent in the face of each adversity and stood firmly by the teachings of Bacha Khan.
The so-called War on Terror in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States ushered in a new era of sufferings for the Pashtuns due to the state’s wrong policies.
The prevailing political crisis and polarisation in Pakistan also calls for Bacha Khan’s teachings: that only through non-violent means can the divide be mended. The country’s current political crisis can be resolved only through dialogue and peaceful resolutions: other methods would fail badly and will lead the country to further political instability and worsening economic and social conditions.