Bacha Khan: Lessons from the past
July 20 2011: Ali Gohar, founder of Just Peace International in Peshawar, Pakistan, recently shared with us one of the inspirations for his work - the life story of Bacha Khan. A pacifist Pashtun leader from the early 20th century who strove to transform not just his own Pashtun society but the whole of India. He used rigorous nonviolence and drew hundreds of thousands of followers into his movement despite harrassment, assault and torture from the British colonial regime, and against the backdrop of being in a country ruled by a foreign regime.
Ali Gohar is the founder of Just Peace International in Peshawar, Pakistan. He recently shared with us one of the inspirations for his work – the life story of Bacha Khan, a pacifist Pashtun leader who strove to transform not just his own Pashtun society but the whole of India. He used rigorous nonviolence and drew hundreds of thousands of followers into his movement despite harrassment, assault and torture from the British colonial regime, and against the backdrop of being in a country ruled by a foreign regime. According to Ali, today, more than ever, people in India, Pakistan and beyond have much to learn from looking at the life and lessons of Bacha Khan.
Domination and Disillusion
Abdul Ghaffar Khan, born into a local elite landowning family, grew up in the dawn of the 20th century, enjoying education, amongst other privileges. He grew up with everything one needed for a bright future within a class of influential Pashtuns integrated into the power structure of the colonial system.
But as Ali points out:
After completing his education, he was planning to join the British Army but he saw the cruelty of the British toward the Pashtun, so he left and then just followed his father in the agriculture field. But in agriculture he also witnessed a lot of cruelty, which motivated him to educate people and work for reform.
The India Khan grew up in was one of domination, penetrating all aspects of society. Not only were Indians ruled by British, but also poor tenant farmer families remained under the control of religious clergy and landowning families such as Khan’s. The latter kept the former in tight dependence by denying these workers access to any form of education.
Ali stresses the daunting implications of Khan’s situation.
Due to ‘Azizwali’ the Pashtun ‘code of life’ it was very difficult for Pashtuns to start something against Pashtuns in their own community who had been given power and money to crush the people.
The King of Chiefs
In 1910, Khan, at only 20 years, felt compelled by all the suffering around him to start a reformation.
He was not a politician in the beginning. He was just a reformer, a social reformer, tackling the exploitation in the community
Searching for guidance in his efforts to reform society, Khan started reading the Qur’an and studying the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Inspired by what he found, Khan also read about Islam and Pukhtoonwali, the cultural values and way of life of the Pashtun people. Between 1910 and 1918, Khan visited around 500 villages across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, trying to raise the Pashtun people’s awareness of the injustices taking place around them. As result of these endeavours he came to be known as ‘Bacha Khan’ – King of Chiefs.
Describing this early period of Khan’s activism, Ali stresses how Khan:
Started establishing schools on his own, beginning a change of his pattern of life. He was a landlord but became a simple layman. From this educational project he went on to cleaning streets, because his philosophy was that by cleaning the environment, you are cleaning your inner self.
Striving to transform his environment from within:
Khan put a lot of energy into mending relations between different families and tribes who were murdering each other, always saying that if we don’t even have unity among ourselves, we would always be exploited by others.
As Ali further highlights:
Our culture has a class system – like the Hindus. And Bacha Khan empowered the class of marginalised people. He himself was participating in a daily drill under the command of a very poor man from his own village.
Altogether Khan founded 70 schools that were teaching boys and girls about a peaceful, nonviolent way of life, thereby standing out from the crowd of scared and subdued people caught between domination from fellow Indian elites and British colonialist reign.
The birth of a movement
Soon the British caught wind of Khan’s activities. They closed his schools and put him into prison. After Khan was released, he started the newspaper ‘Pukhtoon’ in 1928, which promoted the values of sacrifice, courage, nonviolence and charity. Encouraged by his success, Khan organised a grand ‘jirga’ meeting in 1929, assembling all regional tribal leaders.
Ali explains the significance of this meeting in Khan’s time and ours.
Jirga is a community based institution that has been part of the Pashtun community for 5,000 years. If you go to them today and talk nonviolently I am a 100 per cent sure that they will listen to you, they will be with you. My main concern is that there is this institution and we need to use it.
Khan’s jirga led to the start of a nonviolent Islamic movement, called ‘Khudai Khidmatgar’, or ‘Servants of God’. In accordance with Khan’s ideology, these ‘nonviolent soldiers’ – all volunteers – dressed in red and practised ‘nonviolent drills’. When joining the Servants of God, or ‘Red Shirts’ as they were nicknamed after their red dyed uniforms, members would vow not to harm their enemies and practise forgiveness even in domestic quarrels. They were completely committed to enduring repression without considering retaliation. Their life was one of simplicity which centred on a worldview of interconnected religious and nonviolent values, as well as a vision of political, social and economical alternatives to the status quo. This was naturally at odds with the British Empire’s grip on India.
Perseverance in Intimidation
Strikes and other activities of nonviolent opposition were the means by which the Red Shirts were able to achieve support from the local population and dominate regional politics.
At its height the Red Shirts constituted around 100,000 members. The British felt increasingly threatened by Khan’s growing movement and tried to silence it through imprisonment, torture and even killing.
Ali points out how:
Khan was beaten in prison. One time he was beaten so much that two of his ribs were broken, and he always, always stayed non-violent. The Red Shirts were attacked so many times by the British Army, and were even burned. But they were always non-violent. And that’s why the people followed.
The combination of Islam and nonviolence was vital in Khan’s eyes. He viewed his struggle as a jihad only with the enemy who held a sword. As a result of their bravery, facing relentless repression with acts of nonviolence, he and his Servants of God’s gained an immense respect.
Khan’s ideas today
Today the people of India and Pakistan are again, or still, caught in fierce and violent conflict, claiming countless lives and leaving whole regions deprived and despaired. Ali mentions how Islam dominated society back in Khan’s time. “Islam was embraced by the Pashtoon in totality. Islam was not the choice of a single individual, but of whole tribes”, and stresses that Islam is still important for understanding the region nowadays. Ali goes onto stress the importance and relevence of Khan’s ideas in peacebuilding today, stating that “these things, the reformation, the community based approach and the grassroots level work should be exposed to the people of the world.”
I interviewed people who are ‘Servants of God’. They told me how they ask someone blamed of being a murderer to go and seek their accusers, and put themselves at their mercy. If they didn’t kill you but forgave you then you would be allowed to become a Servant of God. This strive for reconciliation is great, especially now in a time where Pashtuns are extremely violent.
Ali regrets that “Bacha Khan’s message of nonviolence is not practised today and this is our bad luck, because there are very few Servants of God left.” But inspired by Bacha Khan’s nonviolent struggle for peace and justice, as well as speaking from a wealth of experience in local peacebuilding, Ali concludes that “nonviolence is the way for us. I am trying to take these arms from my people in the community who are in enmity with each other”.
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