The forgotten philosophy of Bacha Khan


Rafi Ud din Mehsud

Bacha Khan whose real name was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a Pashtun nationalist leader, who was born in the Utmanzai village of Charsadda, North-West Frontier Province, the present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in 1890. His father Behram Khan was a well-to-do landowner of his village. Bacha Khan was sent to the local mosque where he learned to read the Holy Quran. For his early education he was sent to the Edward Memorial Mission School, Peshawar. However, he left his matriculation incomplete as he wanted to join the army, but he was unsuccessful in his goal.
After that, Bacha Khan decided to work for the welfare of the people of his area, and he opened a school at Utmanzai realising early in his life that development was impossible without education. In 1921, he set up the Anjuman-e-Islah-e-Afghan (Society for the Reformation of Afghans) to rid the Pakhtuns of illiteracy and social evils. Thereafter, a network of about 70 Azad Islamia madarassas were established throughout the province to promote education, Pashtu language, literature, patriotism and true love for Islam. Being a great promoter of education he opened many schools. During the Khilafat Movement he joined the Hijrat movement and migrated to Afghanistan.
Bacha Khan established the organisation Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God), also known as Red Shirts. They were pro-Congress and worked hard for a united ‘Pakhtunistan’. Initially, it was a social organisation but later it turned into a political party. This movement was very significant because it was deeply rooted in the ideology of non-violence. Pashtuns are strong adherents of their traditional way of life known as Pashtunwali. The centuries-old Pashtunwali is a social code of Pashtuns in which revenge and conflict are almost a way of life. And therefore, it was very
tough for Bacha Khan to teach the philosophy of non-violence to the warrior Pashtuns.
Bacha Khan’s philosophy of non-violence was deeply religious and in the light of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. He was also famous by the name “Frontier Gandhi” due to his philosophy of non-violence. Like Gandhi, Bacha Khan focused not only on gaining independence from the British but also the transformation of the self. As Gandhi advocated Satyagraha (insistence on truth), Bacha Khan advocated a radical transformation of the Pakhtuns as peaceful, forward-looking people. He was very active against the British Raj, and he had organised a group of 100,000 nonviolent soldiers; he was fighting for freedom of India, as he believed that hate begets hate. But he was fighting nonviolently. He believed that education was the only way forward for the betterment of his people.
One wonders why a great leader like Bacha Khan is conspicuously absent from most Pakistani history books or, worse, is referred to in passing. He is rarely mentioned in Pakistan’s media. There are some reasons why Bacha Khan and his philosophy do not fit the narrative of Pakistani state. Firstly, his revolutionary ideals were stifled in the evolution of Pakistan simply because his ideas did not ‘fit’ in the meta-narrative that did not allow any deviation from the line of the Muslim League. Secondly, as his brother, famously known as Dr Khan Sahib, was pro-Congress and was against the Pakistan movement, Bacha Khan also followed the same ideology, and rejected Muslim League’s struggle for Pakistan. He wanted to make a separate state for his own people. Bacha Khan’s opposition to the Pakistan movement was based on his political principles. After the establishment of Pakistan, he had a cordial meeting with Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The Awami National Party (ANP), which is now being run by his grandson Asfandyar Wali Khan, is one example of Bacha Khan’s principles. There are many people in Pakistan, especially in Punjab, who raise criticism why there is an airport and a university in the name of Bacha Khan, a person who was buried in Afghanistan. If there is any logic in that argument one wonders why Pakistan named her missiles Ghaznavi, Ghori and Babar; those warriors were not from the region now known as Pakistan but had come from Central Asia and Afghanistan.
For a number of years we have been facing the evil of terrorism and extremism, but the teachings of Bacha Khan remain a bulwark against extremist tendencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country. Pashtuns have suffered the most at the hands of terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. The one great hope against this tendency is the ideology of the Khudhai Khidmatgars and the non-violent philosophy of the Frontier Gandhi. Let his struggles serve as a reminder that one doesn’t need to be violent in order to bring about change, for change can be possible through peaceful means as well.