OVER A COFFEE : Peace: as envisioned by Bacha Khan — Dr Haider Shah
Though himself a practising Muslim, Bacha Khan did not approve of projecting the identity of Pashtuns along religious lines only
In less than a month, two All Parties Conferences have been held to endorse the need for bringing back peace to terrorism-stricken Pakistan. Of late, the Awami National Party (ANP) has become very vocal about negotiations with extremist groups. It therefore seems pertinent to revisit the dreams of the legend of his times — Bacha Khan, the Sarhadi Gandhi (Frontier Gandhi). Peace, yearned for by the ANP leaders today, to what extent is different from the peace envisioned by the tall Pashtun leader? A humanist par excellence, Bacha Khan, despite his determined opposition to the British rule in India and years of incarceration, drew his earliest inspiration of serving the community from a British missionary, the headmaster of Edwardes School in Peshawar. A Buddha of his times, Bacha Khan embarked on reforming his society after experiencing a kind of nirvana while living among his villagers. When other men of his age were either busy in romances or settling scores through vendetta, the young Khan at 20 opened his first school in Utmanzai, which proved so successful that other villages also began inviting him to do the same. Thus was born one of the most significant political movements of the subcontinent with the name of Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God). In Bacha Khan we see a fusion of the spirits of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, as a social reformer, and of Gandhi, as a political leader using non-violent protest as a strategic tool.
Bacha Khan, as a conscientious and principled anti-imperialist politician, is well known. The rationalist reformer side of his personality is however less covered in our national discourse. As J S Mill tells us, challenging a cruel despot is much easier than challenging the tyranny of social norms and customs. Bacha Khan had the courage and sagacity of fighting the battle on both fronts. He not only promoted the cause of education but also went a step further by challenging the cultural norm that an ordinary Pashtun took for granted as the essence of the Pashtun code: the cult of violent revenge. This is not less than a miracle that without using any threats or violence he trained a corps of political workers who would swallow insult and provocations but would not retaliate or break the law. And more surprising is the fact that he was transforming those people who were known for vendetta at the slightest excuse.
In 1926 when Bacha Khan’s father died, the local mullahs turned up in expectation of alms. But after consulting the gathered villagers he declared that the alms of 2000 rupees would go to the school instead of the mullahs. To achieve his ideal of reforming society he formed a Youth League of graduates of his Azad schools. One of the most cherished objectives was the empowerment of women in a male-dominated society. Unlike many hypocritical leaders, Bacha Khan practiced whatever he preached. His sisters, therefore, became leaders of the gender equality movement. They began touring various districts where they delivered speeches — a daring break with the taboo-ridden Pashtun society. To help spread his reformation message, Bacha Khan, like Sir Syed’s ‘Tehzeeb-ul-Ikhlaq’ magazine started a Pashto journal ‘Pushtun’ which soon gained popularity. Many authors in the magazine engaged in critical introspection. For instance, one female author bitterly complained in one article, “Except for the Pashtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but is ardent in suppressing women…O Pashtun….when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?”
Though himself a practising Muslim, Bacha Khan did not approve of projecting the identity of Pashtuns along religious lines only. Once he said, “You have heard of America and Europe. The people in those countries may not be very religious, but they have a sense of patriotism, love for their nation, and social consciousness. And look at the progress that has been made there. Then take a look at ourselves !”
Not only the followers of Bacha Khan showered him with boundless love and respect. His name became dear to all freedom loving leaders of India and other countries of the world. God also seemed to be generous in bestowing honour on Bacha Khan. His sons also made names in different walks of life. Abdul Ghani Khan became a noted artist and philosopher-poet of Pashto whose poetry has gained international fame and has been translated into many languages. Abdul Wali Khan became one of the most prominent nationalist progressive leaders of Pakistan and the third son, Abdul Ali Khan, distinguished himself as an academic and became the Vice Chancellor of the Peshawar University.
A few lines here can do no justice to the greatness of a man who was a called a “match to his mountains” by his biographer Eknath Easwaran. The Pashtun leader dreamt of three things happening in Pashtun society. First, it is free from the British rule after gaining political independence. Second, every child gets education of the highest quality and third, there is no gender discrimination in terms of social and legal rights. The extremist militant groups have left no stone unturned demolishing these dreams. Today the British no longer rule us so the first dream has become a reality. But when the political inheritors of Bacha Khan’s legacy make demands for negotiations with the militant extremists, one hopes that they have not completely disowned Bacha Khan’s dream of a progressive and thriving Pashtun society.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org