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Af-Pak 2013: The fight for non-violence

Ataullah Khan and Fareedoone Aryan
The legacy of non-violence, progressive education and women's rights propagated by Bacha Khan may not be obvious either side of the Durand Line. But followers of the 'Frontier Gandhi' both in Pakistan and…
31.12.2013  |  Kabul/Peshawar

"I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it."  Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988)

Good friends: Bacha Khan (left) and Mahatma Gandhi, circa 1940. (This and main photo: Wikimedia Commons, authors unknown)

He was an anti-colonial hero, universal educator, linguist, poet, politician, publisher, prisoner and non-violence prophet. A man who spent years at the forefront of his people's history, only to spend many more in jail and exile.

Yet the legacy of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, otherwise known as Bacha Khan, 'king of chiefs' or the 'Frontier Gandhi' as he is known in India - arguably the most influential and famous figure in Pashtun history - endures, even if his message may be fading amidst fundamentalist voices.

Pashtun Gandhi

"Today Afghans and Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line need Bacha Khan’s ideology of non-violence and progress more than ever," believes Ghulam Mohammad, an auditor at the Afghan Ministry of Education.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups continue to dominate communities on both sides of the border. Yet many of those who remember Bacha Khan from his anti-colonial struggles recall resistance from internal forces, as well as from the British administration Khan opposed, even back then.

“I loved Bacha Khan’s rules and regulations of life, but clerics of the time spoke against the Bacha Khan Movement," recalls Bibi Taj Mahal, whose father Israr Khan was a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar or 'The servants of God', a non-violent civil disobedience uprising and protest movement against British colonialism led by Khan.

"Bacha Khan urged people not to quarrel with each other and to let their children be educated," says Taj, who remembers being struck by Khan's presence and punctuality.

But the elderly lady also recalls colonial security forces searching her house for links to Khan, and her father being shipped off to prison for being a member of Khudai Khidmatgar.

Khan's civil disobedience and boycott movement went onto recruit 100,000 members and became well known for sit-ins and opposition to the British-controlled police and army, helping establish an independent Pakistan in 1947.

Bacha Khan had been a key figure in the resistance to British colonialism, but he was sidelined, even placed under house arrest and imprisoned several times in decades subsequent to independence. So does his legacy survive?

Non-violent struggle continues

A 2013 'Political Leadership Training' seminar organised by the Bacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation. (Photo: Gohar Nangyal, BKTEF)

In 1957, Khan and his factions, who had opposed the One Unit policy which aimed to unite West Pakistan into one region, became founding members of National Awami Party. A split in the party would later see Khan's son Abdul Wali Khan lead a faction of the party in West Pakistan.

In 1986, Abdul Wali Khan founded the Awami National Party (ANP), not to be confused with the now-defunct National Awami Party. The ANP, currently led by Khan's grandson Asfandyar Wali Khan, remains the most popular party in Pashtun-populated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa today.

But it is in the fields of education, journalism, domestic industry and women's rights that Khan's impact is most evident. In 1921 he opened the Azad Islamia School, where both his sons studied and his brother was a teacher. It was the first of many educational centres he would establish, and a great irritation of the British colonial administration, which responded by harassing and intimidating the staff at Khan's schools. The colonial administration also briefly imprisoned the founder himself.

Today, the Backa Khan Trust and the Bacha Khan Trust Education Foundation (BKTEF) have opened 14 branches of Khan's co-educational schools, often sponsored by the ANP.

"Revolution needs leaders and scholars"

"During Bacha Khan's visits in Pakhtun areas, he noted ignorance and illiteracy among Pakhtuns," says Khadim Hussain, the managing director of BKTEF. "From those experiences he concluded that for the revival of Pashtun society a revolution was needed. And revolution needs leaders and scholars."

Hussain says an educational model emerged from Khan's schools, which focused on offering Pashtuns (varyingly called Pakhtuns, Pukhtuns or Pattans in Pakistan) a mixture of traditional and modern skills. Education should be accessible to everyone, relevant to the environment, local 'social contracts', and accessible to everyone either side of the Durand Line, argued Khan.

With female education still under threat from hardline Islamists, Khan's legacy has gone on to inspire a new generation of education activists. The most recent and prominent example is schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2012 for writing a blog about education and women's rights in Swat Valley.

Educator, jirgaist and pamphleteer

Professor Khadim Hussain, MD of the Bacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation (BKTEF), oversees 14 schools under the organization's banner. (Photo: Gohar Nangyal, BKTEF)

Khan's footprint on Pashtun history can also be seen in the development of the language. In 1928, the prolific thinker published the first Pashtu-language journal, 'Pakhtun'. The journal had circulation of up to 3,000 in an area at the time still largely feudal and illiterate.

"The journal contained well written articles on different subjects like politics, Pashtu literature, Pashtu poetry, Islamic history, gender issues, Indian affairs, social problems of Pakhtun society, Afghan affairs and more," says Hussain of the BKTEF. "In no time the 'Pakhtun' journal became a mouth piece of the Pashtuns."

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan opposed the partition of India but still pledged allegiance to Pakistan, nevertheless calling for an autonomous 'Pashtunistan' after 1947. The idea was floated at the 1927 'Pashtun Jirga', held at Khan's bequest.

After independence, Khan was placed under house arrest, later imprisoned and then sent into exile. Following an invite from Afghan King Zahir Shah, he settled in Afghanistan in 1964, where his legacy as Fakri Afghani, or 'Pride of Afghans' remains entrenched, untarred perhaps by his name being attached to a political party as in Pakistan.

'Pride of the Afghans'

Sher Ali Khan, 92, remembers meeting Bacha Khan nearly 45 years ago. “I think it was in 1970 that Bacha Khan visited Kunduz," says the soft-spoken elder.

"I was in town with my father to sell wheat in the market. My father exchanged greetings with him and told me that this is Bacha Khan," recalls the Kunduz landowner clearly. "He was tall, with big eyes, broad shoulders, a short beard, white clothes and a white scarf on his shoulder and when he spoke there was a command in his voice," adds Sher Ali Khan.

Khan, born in 1890, eventually settled in Jalalabad, where he was later buried. As a testimony to his stature, his death in 1988 brought about a ceasefire, even only temporarily, between the Mujahedin and Soviet forces.

Guns fall silent

"Even in death, Bacha Khan, who died under house arrest in Peshawar, had expressed his wish to be buried in Afghanistan so that both sides of the Durand Line be unified in his last gesture of unity for the Pashtuns," recounts Ghulam Mohammad, from his study in Kabul, where various copies of Khan's books are evident on several shelves .

"Even in death, Bacha Khan had expressed his wish to be buried in Afghanistan so that both sides of the Durand Line be unified in his last gesture of unity for the Pashtuns." Ghulam Mohammad, Afghan civil servant.

Ghulam Mohammad remembers the incident well: "The day he died, tens of thousands of people attended his funeral procession. The government and the Mujahideen announced a ceasefire for his coffin to be carried from Peshawar to Jalalabad, moving through mourners stretching from the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad."

Such gestures - even if a bomb blast shattered the ceasefire - highlight the broad respect for the 'Frontier Gandhi'. New disciples, however, stress the need to maintain his legacy of non-violence. 

“Bacha Khan did not envision what we see today in the Pashtun belts on the two sides of the Durand Line,” says Waheed Momand, a law graduate and provincial candidate in the last Afghan elections. "Bacha Khan, who all his life struggled for non-violence, social welfare, peace and progress, is being slowly forgotten."

The cause goes digital

Nevertheless, the 'king of chiefs' appears in no danger of fading yet. His name permeates everything from higher education institutes, such as Bacha Khan University in Charsadda to Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar.

While history and tradition are increasingly being sidelined by current events and agendas, the teacher's philosophy and writings have been picked up by a new generation and his ideas have even been resuscitated through social media.

"I read about Bacha Khan in a Facebook comment," says Ismail Seeyaal, a young Afghan photographer. He says he was surprised to see that international figures like Hilary Clinton had paid their respects to Khan, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1984 and was an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience in 1962. He was also the first non-Indian to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, in 1987.

Seeyaal says he now has a better picture of Khan and is thankful for it: "I am glad I now know a great man."

A seminar sketch drawn by participants at a BKTEF school. (Photo: Gohar Nangyal, BKTEF)