Bacha Khan, Anti-Partition Hero Who Can Help Pakistan Today
By Mauro Vaiani for Pakistanis for Peace
A person once stigmatized as an enemy of Pakistan, has something important to say in the contemporary public discourse in the second Islamic country in the world. His name is Abdul Ghaffar Khan (in the picture), a Pakhtun patriot, social reformer, charismatic leader. He was a lifelong activist in favour of his fellows Pathans living North and South the frontier Durand Line. He became a very close friend of the Mahatma and he himself was called the “Frontier Gandhi”.
Anti-Partition apostle of nonviolence
He was born on 1890 in Utmanzai, a town in Charsadda District, in the North-West Frontier Province, today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan. He was an apostle of nonviolence, that he considered a form of spiritual jihad for his time and for the future of his people. He founded a nonviolent movement which arrived to count 100,000 members. As he wrote in his 1969 autobiography, “My life and struggle”, “in 1929 we were able to found the kind of organisation we wanted. We decided to call it the Khudai Khidmatgar movement (Servants of God movement). Our motive for choosing that name was that we wanted to awaken in the Pathans the idea of service and the desire to serve their country and their people in the name of God, an idea and a desire which was sadly lacking among them”. The Khudai Khidmatgars were also known, for the color of their uniforms, “Red Shirts”. The founder was called by his followers, as a mark of esteem, Badshah Khan, also spelled Baacha Khan, or more commonly Bacha Khan, that means “king of our nobles”.
Baacha Khan fostered free education for all, women rights, religious freedom, judicial reform. He also was a pioneer of ecology and sustainable development. He believed in self-government for both the settled and the tribal Pakhtuns. He strongly opposed the Partition of India, proposing autonomous provinces in a unified Indian federal framework. When the Partition became inevitable, he renounce to oppose it with riots or violence. He and his Khidmatgars accepted, reluctantly, Pakistan as their new country and decided to be loyal. They hoped the new regime would have given the Pakhtuns a chance to live united in their territory, free to self-govern their own province. The autonomy of the federal units in Pakistan was instead nipped in the bud and their movement was declared illegal.
For the freedom fighter, a new cycle of imprisonment started. Baacha Khan spent one-third of his life in prison, but, more precisely, he spent more time, about 15 years, in Pakistani prisons than he had spent in the prisons of the British Raj, “only” 12.
He also went in exile in Afghanistan, where he supported local Pashtun cultural, social and economical development, fighting backwardness, clanism, family feuds. He gave in Afghanistan many speeches in favor of “Pakhtunistan”, which were free of every kind of chauvinism, fostering freedom and self-government of his people, within the Pakistani federation, firmly anchored to a commitment for peace in all South Asia, all over the world.
“I am looking forward to the time when free, general elections will be possible again in Pakistan. – he wrote in his 1969’s autobiography – For only then will the world know which way my people are going and whom do they follow. This is the main conflict between me and the rulers of Pakistan.”. This champion of Pakhtun patriotism remained unheeded. He won’t see general and local fair election either under the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, nor under Yahya Khan, nor under the civil but still authoritarian rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, nor under Zia Ul-Haq.
He couldn’t see the general elections of December 1988, when Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali, became Prime Minister, for he died in Peshawar on January 20.
He had requested to be buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. He hoped this way to witness the need of friendship, and mutual understanding, among all Pakhtuns, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His last wish succeeded in leaving a footprint in the heart of many throughout South Asia. As one can read in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of Bacha Khan (New Delhi, 2004) his funeral resulted a mammoth rally: “Though the Afghan struggle was not yet over, the Kabul government and the mujahedin both announced a ceasefire for the event. Tens of thousands of the Frontier’s mourning Pakhtuns accompanied the coffin and crossed the Durand Line. Pakistan’s military ruler, Zia-ul Haq (who would be killed in a plane crash later in the year), and India’s Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi (also destined for a violent death), were present for the last rites.” (see Gandhi R., Ghaffar Khan, 2004, p. 263).
After decades of oblivion, his political heritage are now again gaining momentum among Pakhtuns. An important political player in the re-established Pakistani democracy, the Awami National Party (ANP), wrote in its manifesto that it “draws its inspiration from the example and teachings of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, affectionately known to his people as Baacha Khan. He spent his entire life in the struggle for freedom and justice. He and his Khudai Khidmatgars offered great sacrifices in the fight against colonialism, imperialism and all other forms of oppression. In a broader sense, Baacha Khan saw politics as the highest form of public service and often described himself as only a social worker. His objective was to liberate the masses of South Asia and, particularly, his own people, the Pakhtuns, from the shackles of ignorance and poverty, so that they could rise to their full potential.” (cf http://awaminationalparty.org/).
The ANP was led in the past by Bacha Khan’s son, Abdul Wali Khan, and today the most prominent figure is his grandson, Asfandyar Wali Khan. In the 2008 elections, the Awami National Party won the majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elected its first Chief Minister since the independence, in coalition with the Pakistan People’s Party. ANP is allied with PPP also in other provinces and at the federal level.
The parable of the Taliban regime and the political violence that still sets fire through the area, has been a terrifying experience for everybody but especially for Pakhtuns. Baacha Khan is being rediscovered, as a source of inspiration for a better future. He was a devout Muslim believer, but he refused terror and was also alien from any bigotry. His political action was centered on peace and social reformation. He sacrificed as a satyagrahi in nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience, firstly against the British Raj, but later also against Pakistan authoritarianism and military rule.
His spiritual heritage helped ANP to defeat the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the Islamist coalition, which was in power in Pakhtunkhwa before 2008. It was a highly symbolic victory. In the name of Baacha Khan, the modern ANP defeated the Islamists, as well as the ancient Khudai Khidmatgars had always defeated the Muslim League in both the elections hold in the province, under the British rule, on 1936 and 1946. Many hope that this political change could represent the end of a cycle, dominated by a tangle of Islamist and nationalist ideologies, which have painfully marked the history of the Frontier, of all Pakistan, Afghanistan.
Several notable cultural foundations and charities are working in South Asia to promote peace and human rights through the rediscover of Badshah Khan’s life, thought and action. We must nominate the Baacha Khan Trust (see http://www.baachakhantrust.org/), whose chief aim is propagation of Ghaffar Khan’s philosophy, his vision of renaissance for the oppressed and marginalized Pakhtuns communities, and for peace in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the whole South Asia.
Nowadays efforts to make the public opinion and new generations aware of the figure and the teachings of Baacha Khan would certainly help the stabilization of the so called Afpak area. After 60 years of political authoritarianism and violence in Pakistan and 40 years of civil war in Afghanistan, it’s probably time to know something more about Bacha Khan.
His Red Shirts were able to provide “local leadership for education and development, and stood up for the dignity and rights of their community. They balanced affirmations of the rights and dignity of all people with teachings about responsibility and sacrifices needed to serve those same communities.” – Ali Gohar, founder and guide at the Just Peace International center, in Peshawar, recently wrote, adding that the beauty of this kind of nonviolent struggle is again alive in 2011 Arab Spring heroes cf http://www.khyberwatch.com/index.php?mod=article&cat=MediaWatch&article=391).
“You all know that I believe in the principles of non•violence. – he said on August 31, 1966, talking in Afghanistan on the Pakhtunistan Day, as reported in his 1969’s autobiography – I am convinced that there will be no peace in the world till the problem of the Pakhtuns has been solved. I am telling both the Russians and the Americans the same thing: if they really want peace, they should solve the problem of the Pakhtuns. What do we want? We keep on telling Pakistan to consider us their brothers and not to make us their slaves. We were never the slaves of the British and you should not expect us to be your slaves.”. Heared today, these words are somehow prophetic and should encourage a serious reflection.
The Pathans, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, still need an accountable local self-government, in order to take on full responsibility of their own territories. They can hardly be governed from Kabul, or from Islamabad. May be they can resolve their own way their problems, included terror-related and security’s ones.
The recent Pakistani devolution can be seen as a historical accomplishment on the way indicated by Baacha Khan. This is what many political leaders, not only ANP’s ones, strongly believe. Federalism was part of the independence struggle and the only way to make the idea of Pakistan into a lasting reality.
Unfortunately, the centralized, bigoted and corrupt, republic chosen by Afghani Pashtun leadership, after the fall of the Taliban regime, is much farer from Baacha Khan’s ideal of decentralized responsible and accountable self-government. The present solution resembles too much like the 1973 republic. It may be not reveal the right solution for the future of such a vast, diverse, and bitterly divided, country.
Don’t let anybody deceive you in the name of Islam
Abdul Ghaffar Khan, along all his existence, advocated for reforms, social justice, change through education, and, last but not least, peaceful coexistence of all communities, without any kind of ethnic, religious, caste, clan, social discrimination.
He strongly demanded his fellow Pakhtuns, to strive against ignorance, bigotry, prejudices, family feud and political violence. His message, which follows the furrow of modern nonviolent revolutions, which have already brought down more than an empire, can drive the Islamist factions and wider Muslim public opinion to a radical rethinking.
His teaching was prescient and it is today more relevant than ever: “And you, misguided Pathans, you do not even stop to think whether this is Islam or not, you just swallow anything you are told… I want you to promise me that you will never let anybody deceive you in the name of Islam.” (from Baacha Khan’s speech in Afghanistan, on Pakhtunistan Day, 31 August 1967, as reported in Baacha Khan’s autobiography, 1969).
-Mauro Vaiani is a Geopolitics PhD Candidate at the University of Pisa in Italy and is a Facebook group member and contributor of Pakistanis for Peace. His page at the university is at http://www.sp.unipi.it/hp/vaiani and he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org