India’s Frontier Fighters
Today, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, on the Afghan-Pakistan border is in the news for all the wrong reasons. In the frontline of war, it only makes news for Taliban attacks, bombings and brutal tribal conflicts. Today, it would be hard to believe, that the Pashtuns, who are often stereotyped in the media as savage, brutal and violent, launched one of the most progressive and non-violent resistance movements in Asia. The ’Khudai-Khidmatgar’ was a movement for freedom, against British rule. It is a betrayal of this movement and the brutal obliteration of its memory by Pakistan that laid the seeds of violence in the region, which festers even today. One link to that heady movement interestingly is Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. His father Meer Taj Mohammad, was a proud member of the Khudai-Khidmatgar and he refused to swear allegiance to Pakistan, migrating to India in 1947. The story of the Pashtun movement, its suppression and the repercussions it had, is truly a lesson from History!
– Shah Rukh Khan’s father Meer Taj Mohammad was a proud member of the Khudai-Khidmatgar
The Pashtuns, popularly called the Pathans in India, are Pashto speaking people, who inhabit the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and adhere to a ‘Pashtunwali’ – an ethical unwritten code of conduct. Historians like noted Indologist Heinrich Zimmer have traced their ancestry to the Pakhtas or Pactyan tribe that inhabited the area between 2nd and 1st millennium BCE. Guarding their independence fiercely through time, the Pashtuns held their own through the Sultanate and Mughal periods all the way till the fall of the Sikh Empire in 1849, when the British took over the region. By the end of 19th century, the Pashtun society was also extremely poor, backward, and illiterate and dominated by the hard line religious clergy, the Mullahs.
It was in such a society that Abdul Gaffar Khan was born in 1890. From a prosperous landowning family, his father enrolled him in the Edward's Mission School, the only fully functioning school in the region run by British missionaries. It was his British tutor Reverend Wigram who mentored him, encouraging him to study further. Wigram was very keen that Khan enrol at Oxford or Cambridge, however his parents were not willing to let him go to Britain.
– Azad School, set up by Abdul Gaffar Khan, was shut down by the British government for pro-independence leanings
Seeing the benefits of a good education, Abdul Gaffar Khan, himself became a strong proponent of the need to uplift society through education. In 1910, at the young age of 20, he started a school called the Azad School in his hometown of Utmanzai, around 27 kms north of Peshawar. However, due to its strong pro-independence leanings, the school was shut down by the British government in 1915. This did not deter Khan in his mission and so between 1915 and 1918, he traveled across more than 500 Pashtun villages to understand their problems and needs. It is during this time, that he gained fame as ‘Bacha Khan’ or ‘Badshah Khan’
Between 1921 and 1929, Khan led a number of social reform initiatives in the Khyber region. In 1929, he established the ‘Khudai-Khidmatgar’ or ‘Servants of God’ movement with the aim of uplifting society. The movement attracted more than 100,000 followers, from every strata of society in the region including, oppressed peasants, the ulemas or clergy, and the intelligentsia. The organisation managed programs for poverty relief and established a network of ‘Azad schools’ that not only provided religious education, but also emphasized on subjects like mathematics and English and vocational skills like carpentry and weaving. The members had uniforms, varying in form and color. This was because a lot of them couldn’t afford to buy new clothes and thus were advised to dip their ordinary clothes in dark red or brown color, which was cheap and easily available. As a result they were popularly known as ‘Surkh Posh’ or ‘Red Shirts’.
– Khudai-Khidmatgar attracted more than 100,000 followers, from every strata of society
What made the ‘Khudai-Khidmatgar’ movement so unique was its core belief in non-violence. Khan believed that non-violence was not incompatible with Pashtun beliefs and he looked to the life of Prophet Mohammad, for inspiration. When people expressed surprise over Khan's nonviolence philosophy, he said
‘There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of non-violence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.’
Khan believed that there was nothing that the British would fear than the non-violent and peaceful Pashtuns. They would go to any length to provoke the Pashtuns to violence.
Tired of the fact that the Khyber region was only being treated by the British as a ‘Buffer Zone’ with Afghanistan, a few prominent Khudai-Khidmatgars attended the Lahore session of Indian National Congress held in December 1929 and the Congress high command promised to look into their grievances.
– The troops of the British army fired on the unarmed protestors of Khudai-Khidmatgars killing more than 200 people at Qissa Khwani Bazaar
In April 1930, as promised, a delegation of the Congress was scheduled to arrive in Peshawar from Delhi to investigate the complaints. However, they were detained in Punjab and denied entrance to the province. This outraged the volunteers who staged a demonstration at Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar. The troops of the British army fired on the unarmed protestors killing more than 200 and injuring hundreds of others. It would forever be remembered as infamous ‘Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre’, one of the worst atrocities after the killings at Jallainwalla Bagh in Amritsar. This was following by other shoot outs, the ‘Takkar Massacre’ and the ‘Hathikhel Massacre’ in which as many as 50 to 100 unarmed protesters were simply shot dead by British Indian troops.
The British response to the peaceful protests by the Khudai-Khidmatgar followers was exceptionally brutal. The activists were tortured, castrated and even poisoned in prisons. As one Khudai-Khidmatgar activist remembered
‘The British sent their horses and cars to run over us, but I took my shawl in my mouth to keep from screaming….’
In 1932, the British bombed an entire village in the Bajaur valley. This bombardment continued even in 1936-37. It is interesting to note, that in this very area, the Americans would later bomb, as a part of their ‘War on Terror’ between 2000 and 2010.
Realizing that brute force was not working, the British decided to revert to their policy of ‘Divide & Rule’ by the early 1940’s . The book Politics of Identity: Ethnic Nationalism and the State in Pakistan reproduces a policy note dated 23rd September 1942 by British Governor, Sir George Cunningham which reads -
‘Continuously preach the danger to Muslims of connivance with the revolutionary Hindu body. Most tribesmen seem to respond to this.’
Ulemas and Pirs were recruited and paid to portray Khudai Khidmatgars as Hindu agents. Cunningham later noted -
‘Our propaganda since the beginning of the war, had been most successful. It had played throughout on the Islamic theme’
Despite strong propaganda against them by the Muslim League and the British, the Khudai Khidmatgars swept the provincial elections of 1946 and formed the government in Peshawar.
Khan believed in the concept of one India and was vehemently opposed to the creation of Pakistan. Hence, Khan felt betrayed when the Indian Nation Congress accepted partition plans. In one of his last conversations with Mahatma Gandhi, Khan is said to have remarked -
‘You have thrown us to the wolves’
– After the partition, Khudai-Khidmatgars took oath of allegiance to Pakistan and the movement was promptly banned by Pakistan government in 1948
Again, these words seemed prophetic. Let down by his allies in India, Khan and Khudai-Khidmatgars took oath of allegiance to Pakistan and attempted to reconcile with the Muslim League. However, the newly formed Government of Pakistan was in no mood to tolerate what they saw as ‘Indian agents’. The Khudai Khidmatgar movement was promptly banned in 1948. In fact, the Pakistani government was even more ruthless than the British and used all the force it could muster to see that the movement was destroyed from the roots.
In 1958, Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, Bacha Khan’s brother, had served as the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa then known as North West Frontier Province in 1946, was shot dead. The Pakistani government kept arresting and imprisoning Bacha Khan. In 1962, Bacha Khan was named an ‘Amnesty International Prisoner of the Year’.
By 1970s, the peaceful and non-violent Khudai Khidmatgar movement died out. In 1982, Indian government conferred the highest Indian honor, Bharat Ratna to Bacha Khan. In 1988, Bacha Khan died in Peshawar whilst he was under house arrest, at a ripe old age of 98. His death, marked the beginning of a dark and dangerous phase in the history of the Pashtuns. His funeral was attended by more than 2,00,000 people, during which two massive bombs went off killing around 15 people.
– Indian government conferred the highest Indian honor Bharat Ratna to Abdul Gaffar Khan
Thanks to Islamist, believed to be trained in the West the Pashtun areas soon became one of the most violent and dangerous places on Earth. A title it continues to hold today. In hindsight, one wonders how the events of 9/11, the global war on terror and in fact the history of the region and the world would have turned out if the Khudai Khidmatgar movement had succeeded.
Would Pakhtunkhwa - have emerged as a modern, educated, progressive society? Sadly, we will never know.
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