Each January, on the anniversary of his death, followers of the late-Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan gather in Peshawar and elsewhere in Pakistan to remember the man known to many as the Frontier Gandhi. Recognised also as Bacha or Badshah Khan (‘khan of khans’), he preached non-violence, but his task was much more difficult than that of his mentor, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. As the Mahatma walked through Indian villages waging a non-violent struggle against colonialism, Badshah Khan attempted to convert his warlike Pakhtun people to an alien way of life – weaning them away from guns and violence.
It was on 20 January 1988, in a British-built public hospital in Peshawar, that Badshah Khan took his last breath. He had been in coma for some time and his supporters had been keeping a vigil by his side. Mourners converged in Peshawar from throughout Pakistan and abroad. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi led a delegation from India to pay last respects to the man who had befriended leaders from the Mahatma to Jawaharlal Nehru and aligned with the Hindu-led Congress Party instead of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. Condolences were received from Bangladesh, and a ceasefire was called to allow for a day of mourning in Afghanistan.
Having remained a controversial, non-conformist political figure all his life in Pakistan, Badshah Khan courted controversy even in death by leaving a will that provoked pro-establishment figures in Pakistan to condemn him as a traitor. His wish to be buried in Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan not far from Peshawar, was poorly received by his critics, mostly in the majority Punjab province. Already resentful of the Pakhtun nationalist leader for having opposed the creation of Pakistan in 1947, his opponents stoked new fires of resentment for his supposed unwillingness to be buried in Pakistani soil. Badshah Khan’s followers, on the other hand, saw the decision as a remarkable effort by their leader to unite the crossborder Pakhtun communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In their view, Badshah had offered his grave as the meeting point for the Pakhtuns of the two countries, halfway between Peshawar and Kabul.
For Pakhtun nationalists, the Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was and remains entirely unnatural – a British-drawn barrier that separates one people from each other, dividing tribes, clans and villages (See Himal Nov-Dec 2005, “The line Durand drew”). Hopes that Badshah Khan’s final resting place in Jalalabad would help to break down such barriers, however, remain unfulfilled. Pakistani collaboration in the US ‘war on terror’ has instead made the 2500 km-long Line an even more formidable obstacle.
Servant of God
Badshah Khan was born in 1890 in Utmanzai, in Charsadda District, near Peshawar. Although his father was a wealthy landowner, young Badshah chose a life of sacrifice in the struggle against British imperialism. His first known political activity was to participate in the annual session of the All India Muslim League, in Agra in 1913. Six years later, outrage over the massacre of peaceful protestors by British forces in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar prompted the 29-year-old Badshah to organise his first political protest, in Utmanzai. By that time, he had already become involved in the religious-social movement of Fazal Wahid, a respected cleric commonly known as Haji Sahib of Turangzai, who opposed British occupation of India and urged the enforcement of Shariah law.
On 1 April 1919, Badshah Khan spearheaded the formation of a social movement called Anjuman-i-Islahul-Afaghina, or the Association for the Reform of Afghans. Originally setup to tackle social evils and forge unity in Pakhtun ranks, the organisation gradually assumed a definitively political character. After becoming provincial head of the Khilafat movement in 1921, which aimed at the restoration of the Islamic-based caliphate in Turkey, Badshah was arrested for the first time in his life for taking part in demonstration against British rule. A sentence of three years rigorous imprisonment gave him a foretaste of a life of political struggle. During his life, Badshah would serve more than 25 years in jail, making him one of the longest-serving political prisoners of Southasia.
Over time, other organisations sprouted in Utmanzai. Da Zalmo Jirga, or the Afghan Youth League, provided a platform for young Pakhtuns. Members of the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God), took an oath to “…never use violence … retaliate or take revenge”. Khudai Khidmatgar workers wore shirts dyed with brick dust, a colour that led them to be known as the Red Shirts and alarmed British rulers who associated it with the Russian communists. Still stinging from Great Game dynamics that had been played out in neighbouring Afghanistan, the British persecuted Red Shirt activists despite the group’s embrace of non-violence.
It was from the womb of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement that nationalist Pakhtuns campaigned for Pakhtun rights and struggled against British rule. After Independence, the movement evolved into political parties such as the National Awami Party (NAP), the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the present-day Awami National Party (ANP). Badshah Khan was always the inspirational head of this movement, and after him, these parties were led first by his son, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, and today by his grandson, Asfandyar Wali Khan. The democratic and nationalist character of the movement meant that it was unable to coexist with the military, and the Punjab-led Pakistani establishment. The movements’s leadership continually attempted to form alliances with other nationalist parties representing Bengalis, Sindhis and Balochs. Some secular and progressive Punjabis also joined hands with these nationalists from the smaller provinces. The campaign never gained momentum, however, and was fatally weakened when the Bengalis revolted against Islamabad and carved out Bangladesh in the bloody uprising of 1971. In due time, the nationalists parted company and confined their activities largely to their own ethnic groups and provinces.
When Badshah Khan died under house arrest in 1988, his movement had become weak and disunited, suffering from state persecution and splits within its own ranks. The poor performance of the NAP, NDP and ANP in successive elections demoralised workers, forcing the leadership to make alliances with parties of differing ideologies. Despite his age (officially he was 98 when he died, although more than 100 according to his followers), Badshah Khan continued the struggles he had started, taking on new causes such as opposition to the controversial Kalabagh Dam project.
The grand old man of Pakistani politics had reluctantly accepted the idea of Pakistan, and his dream of an independent Pakhtun homeland had remained unfulfilled. By preaching non-violence, he stood accused of depriving Pakhtuns, who had been long known for their bravery and fierce independence, of their possible ties. The Afghan war, triggered by the communist revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion of 1979, turned the homeland in both Afghanistan and Pakistan into a battlefield, prompting the already-armed Pakhtuns to acquire still more sophisticated weapons. During the intervening years, violence became a widespread credo, as young Afghan Pakhtuns became all at once the mainstay of the armed Communist Khalq and Parcham factions, the Afghan Mujahideen and the Taliban. The local Taliban emerged in Pakistan and fought on the side of Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. This ongoing polarisation in the Pakhtun ranks is both dangerous and unprecedented.
Most Pakhtuns have by now adapted to a way of life that stands in stark contrast to Badshah Khan’s teachings. More than a failure of his political philosophy, however, one could argue that the violence in the Pakhtun borderlands is primarily due to the self-serving policies of the United States, which aided and equipped the Afghan Mujahideen (as well as their ‘guest’ fighters from other parts of the world) to fight the Soviet army in a bid to destroy communism. That same dynamic is now being played out again with a different bogeyman – Islamic rebels – and with a different goal – ending terrorism. Those who are being hurt most in the processare the Pakthun..
At a time when the people Badshah Khan served all his life have become victims of another geo-political game, his absence is palpable. By being rooted to his culture, yet embodying universal values of tolerance and ahimsa, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan had shattered notions about the violent Pakthun warrior that have once again gained currency in these troubled days. He had attacked oppressive political structures, be it colonial or national. And he had radically altered the discourse and practice on resistance in the northwest of Southasia. All this, without lifting a gun.
~ Rahimullah Yusufzai reports out of Peshawar for The News daily, the BBC and other media organisations, with special focus on the NWFP and Afghanistan.