Unarmed Pathans

By Mukulika Banerjee

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There are good reasons why civilizations need to remember and celebrate their history, even when it is made by insignificant subalterns or away from the centres of power. Any reluctance to incorporate these smaller and sometimes divergent movements into the nationalist historiography can create a picture of the nation that is uni-dimensional, rigid and eroded of its rich cultural archive. Yet, when the unexpected happens and the country is laid to siege by forces beyond the control of individual people, it is precisely these historical resources that allow for new and energetic responses to the current predicaments. In Pakistan, the example of the now largely forgotten Khudai khidmatgar movement, which flourished in the NWFP for seventeen years from 1930 until 1947, is a case in point.

The Khudai khidmatgar movement was a largely Pashtun (Pathan) movement which was arguably the longest lasting civil disobedience movement anywhere in the world. It was guided by a whole new ideology made up by combining elements of its existing culture. Thus, this anticolonial movement was inspired by suras from the Q’uran in facing the colonial oppression with patience and non-violence, its members drew on their manly Pashtun virtues of honour and courage to face the enemy armies unarmed and it resurrected a Pashtun identity which was last in evidence in the revolt against the Mughal Empire. It is salutary to remind ourselves today when the mention of words “Pathan” or “NWFP” immediately conjures images of fanaticism and violence, that in the same villages and mountains of the Frontier, only a few decades ago, the most successful demonstration of political protest through civil disobedience was in full flow. Then, during the days of the Great Game, like today, the enemy was as much imperial as it was internal and yet it managed to bring them both to their knees. Then too, religious leaders threatened any alternative interpretations of Islam, specially those which called for a moderate response that required introspection before confrontation.

As a critique of the governmental neglect of basic welfare programmes in education, sanitation and health, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and his colleagues, started a movement of self-reform which included cleanliness drives in every village, the setting up Azad schools which delivered primary education and the picketing of liquor shops. But for these activities, the Khudai khidmatagrs were branded kafirs, they were forced into saffron clothes to prove that they had turned Hindu and they were threatened with an afterlife in hell for daring to educate their children. But having sworn their allegiance to the movement on the Q’uran, its participants managed to stand their ground. In all of these, the top leadership of the movement led by example. Badshah Khan’s own sons studied in Azad schools, he stopped covering his head to prove that he was neither a long-haired Sikh nor a Hindu and advised his followers not to enter into debates with religious leaders but work on the rightness of their own actions. To do this, Badshah Khan walked for miles everyday visiting people in their villages to talk to them about the movement, he ate frugally and always shared what he had in front of him. The ostentantious standards of Pathan hospitality were shunned for a larger heart towards one’s opponents instead.

While such virtues of asceticism and humility seem anachronistic in today’s world, it is striking that it was these qualities that drew an impoverished Pathan population to join the movement in the thousands and the ones that people talked about avidly up to the early 1990s. Every village I visited in the Frontier had stories to tell of this charismatic man, who dressed like a fakir but had the leadership of a Badshah, who gave the Pathans back their self-respect by letting them take the reform of their society into their own hands through simple measures ensuring basic hygiene and education. In today’s world too, when the NWFP and other regions are controlled by religious leaders, it is the responsibility of the Pashtuns to ask themselves if those agendas bring any real benefit to their basic and fundamental human needs: the welfare of their children, the health of their people or the prosperity of their villages. The Khudai khidmatgars showed that the best way of serving Khuda was through khidmat, humble service towards one’s own people. An inner jihad, a jihad-i- akbar, the inner struggle of an individual to develop a true commitment to Islam and cultivate the spiritual qualities which the Q’uran cherishes, was a harder but more worthwhile struggle than a jihad-i- asghar which relates to legitimate military struggle and “holy war” againist injustice.

The added attraction of joining the Khudai khidmatgar movement was also its uniform, the surkh posh. Made from hand-spun khadi, tightened with Sam Browne belts and mirroring and mocking the colonial armies’ opulent red broadcloth uniforms, “every youth looked like a flower!” said one veteran. At the heart of the Khudai khidmatgar movement’s success lay the recognition that discipline was the most important asset of a mass organisation and to this end, it had two main branches: the civil and military wings. The former did all the organisational work, handled parliamentary politics when they won electoral power of the provincial government three times, published the weekly newsletter, maintained minutes from every meeting while the military week engaged in the civil disobedience activities that so unsettled the British government. Each wing has its office bearers: President, Secretary etc. for the civil wing and General, Subedar etc for the military. The movement experimented with democracy, electing the office bearers on the basis of Badshah Khan’s philosophy of “give it to the man who wants it least.” Training camps were held where regular drills, parades and the manoeuvres of mass protest were rehearsed. It was these “soldiers” who then picketed courthouses, liquor shops, and government buildings and stood steadfast and courted arrest when faced with armed troops. The colonial government had to specially build the Haripur Jail in NWFP to house these new and unexpected protesters! This required discipline and courage, both of which were helped by being in uniform as it was by their inner strength of character, cultural and ideological traditions.

In today’s discussions on Pakistan when “being in uniform” has become such a high profile and contentious issue, it is worth remembering that uniforms have been used in the history of the same country in creative and positive ways: to instil discipline and courage in the wearer, foreboding in the enemy and camaraderie among the freedom fighters—but all in an entirely non-violent fashion. Generals who are non-violent and look like flowers could make for great statesmen!

In the early 1990s I had the opportunity to spend several months, over three visits, in various towns and villages of the North West Frontier Province. No other Indian to my knowledge has had so much contact and immersion in Pakistan society in the absence of any kin or religious ties there. As a doctoral student, a young Indian, Hindu woman, I was eager to experience and embrace a culture which could boast of such an interesting historical experiment—a non-violent Pathan movement. In many ways, those visits were a life-changing experience. Traveling the length and breadth of NWFP in search of the forgotten freedom fighters, I met thousands of Pathans and Afghans, slept in innumerable houses, befriended many women and men and spent hours with venerable old revolutionaries of the Khudai khidmatgar movement when I finally tracked them down.

I found them usually in a state of impoverishment having had their lands and possessions taken away, weak in health after years of imprisonment most of which occurred after Independence than during the colonial period. They had been branded “traitors” in the new nation of Pakistan for having opposed partitioning of the sub-continent and the violence that would inevitably bring. Living in silence, obliterated from history, they were keen to talk, to describe their movement, its novel ideology, its successes and their struggles with both the British and their own people for daring to upset all stereotypes and question the authority of the state and religious establishment alike. They had demonstrated that it was possible to be brave even when the enemy looked invincible and stressed that it was only compassion, discipline and patience which can give the courage which no gun can. But they also stressed that they were able to remain non-violent because the colonial government despite its hostility also responded over time with its own sense of honour and non-violent techniques to control the protestors. Non-violence only works when the enemy also has a sense of shame and responsibility, they used to say. These old revolutionaries wanted the future generations and future governments of South Asia to hear the story of the Khudai khidmatgar movement to learn about politics, protest and governmental control.

We have erased this story from our history books and this may be our loss more than it is theirs. Most of those brave and noble Pathans have now passed on; the stories they narrated were their swan song. It is now our duty to listen and learn for the future.

For a fuller account of the Khudai khidmatgar movement see Mukulika Banerjee, The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier (London, Sante Fe, Karachi and New Delhi: James Currey, SAR Press and OUP, 2000).

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