by Yasser Latif Hamdani
Other than Jinnah and to a certain extent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Bacha Khan is the only politician in Pakistani history to have sustained a following beyond his death. The tall Pushtun – who adopted Non-violence as a creed in a very violent society- is still remembered fondly by the Pushtuns as Fakhr-e-Afghan. In India he is remembered as the Frontier Gandhi for his close association with the Indian leader. In many ways he was more committed (even if at times inconsistently) to the so called Gandhian values of non-violence than Gandhi who was at the end of the day a shrewd politician before a non-violent saint. And yet this is precisely why this great leader of the Pushtuns was not able to achieve much.
When Bacha Khan made up his mind about something, there was no room for negotiation, no room for self doubt and certainly no need for reflection. His blind stubbornness often squandered any advantages that his followers might get but it was his inability to understand the nitty gritty of the constitutional political process that marked the last stage of the “independence movement”. Juma Khan Sufi, a Pushtun nationalist writer very close to Bacha Khan and who had helped him write his book “Zama Zhwand au Jaddujahad” writes:
“As an afterthought after reading Maulana Azad’s India wins freedom in Urdu he came to know about the ‘sins’ of the Congress during partition and blamed Patel, Nehru and indirectly Gandhi for the dismemberment of the dream of united India. Before that Bacha Khan remained ignorant and noncommittal about the happenings of the decisive moments of the Indian subcontinent. Ajmal Khattak is the living testimony to the fact that Bacha Khan agreed with all the inferences of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He made the writers to translate paragraph after paragraph of Azad’s interpretation of the events leading to partition with slight alterations by the writers. With one thing of Azad he understandably disagreed was his reference to the stinginess of Khan brothers… and their pocketing of funds regularly sent by the Congress to them for public welfare schemes. Congress connived with Mountbatten and agreed with the scheme of partition of India. The Pushtuns were left alone… the poor Khudai Khidmatgars took everything for granted as if they were just herd which needed an all time shepherd. They were neither consulted nor did they play a significant role in the shape of politics of the time. Everything was decided behind their back. The intricacies of constitutional wrangling and legal mechanism of transfer of power to Indians were beyond the comprehension of their leader. Congress was good for India especially Hindu India, like Akbar was for Mughal India… both served India well… both betrayed Pushtuns… both used Pushtuns. In both cases Pushtuns had no voice… nobody recorded their grievances… Bacha Khan never came to know of about the much publicized love affairs of Mrs. Mountbatten with Nehru nor was he competent enough to understand the constitutional and legal niceties of transfer of power, the role of Congress and Muslim League therein. He could not see beyond the Deputy Commissioners and Assistant Commissioners of the districts and tehsils who played their due role in the preordained referendum of the province in accordance with the Congress-Muslim League agreement regarding the composition of two dominions, India and Pakistan. Mullah ke dor masjid tak. He could understand these local politics played under the big game which never made any sense to him… Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was never consulted. Nor did he have any independent point of view. Unfortunately he was a pygmy walking amongst the giants of the Congress, who damn cared for him seeing his intellectual depth. He was blindly following Gandhi and Congress. Congress took him for granted. The trouble with him was his anti-intellectualism and his abhorrence for lawyers and legal practitioners- the only educated class allowed to dabble in politics at that time. Intellectuals parted with him in the initial period… unfortunately Bacha Khan was without a clear vision, depth or strategy.” (Random Thoughts – Pages 80-89- Juma Khan Sufi, Published by Khost Independent Cultural Society).
It must be remembered that Bacha Khan’s politics spanned over five decades out of which a significant portion was spent in jail. This fact was like a badge of honor for him and his followers. In fact he epitomized the jail-bharro politics which was in quite unproductive. A self styled “researcher” wrote in Dawn recently of the “painstaking” struggle of the nationalists (meaning the Jamiat-e-Ulema and Khudai Khidmatgars) for the independence of the subcontinent from British rule. A perceptive historian would however point out that the real fathers of India’s independence were the Aryan “Mahatma”, Adolf Hitler, and Mr. F D Roosevelt, the President of the United States of America, the former for starting the world war which depleted Britain’s will to hang on to its Empire and the latter for twisting Winston Churchill’s arm all throughout the war on this major issue. Congress and its local heroes can probably take credit for going to jail but independence was not won through salt marches and civil disobedience, this is a fact of history that cannot be denied.
So did Bacha Khan achieve anything for the people he claimed to represent? According to Juma Khan Sufi, Bacha Khan let his followers down for personal prestige. He also wrote a compelling article in The News on 18 June, 2000 inquiring about Bacha Khan’s will. In this he contrasted Bacha Khan’s efforts on behalf of the Pushtuns with those of Mahomed Ali Jinnah – who left one third of his residuary estate to Islamia College Peshawar – which later became Peshawar University. It is was with money from Jinnah’s will that to date a commerce college, a college dedicated to women, residential block for the employees of Islamia College and a new teaching block were built- all part of the Peshawar University serving amongst others the committed followers of Bacha Khan. This was Jinnah’s contribution to the education of the people of Frontier. In contrast Bacha Khan’s will has never been made public and according to Juma Khan Sufi, Bank Al Milli Afghani has billions of Afghanis in his account which have not yet been claimed. Similarly the vast tracts of land owned by Bacha Khan have been divided up by his children and none of it has been given to some sort of a welfare trust for Pushtuns, as Bacha Khan had promised.
What Juma Khan Sufi forgot to mention that it was Jinnah who had campaigned for and gotten NWFP the provincial status. It was one of the fourteen irreducible minimums put forth by Jinnah to Congress. Jinnah also campaigned for the release of Bacha Khan from prison in 1929-1930 which has been duly noted by Stanley Wolpert in his biography of Jinnah. And ironically it was Jinnah who had put forth Bacha Khan’s name for inclusion in the round table conference. Gandhi, Nehru and other benefactors of Bacha Khan might not even have heard of him at this time. But Jinnah was an all-India figure. Bacha Khan’s contributions to Pushtuns pale in comparison to even those of that Kashmiri Frontier man, Abdul Qayyum Khan. Abdul Qayyum Khan is despised by the Pushtun Nationalists universally – even though till one year before partition he was Bacha Khan’s trusted comrade in the Congress. While Bacha Khan and his progeny continue to raise the bogeys of “Pathanistan”, “Pakhtunkhwa” and the Kala Bagh Dam, Qayyum Khan busied himself with building schools and colleges in the province. He served the people of Frontier well, certainly much better than Bacha Khan or his brother Dr. Khan Sahib (who ironically became part and the first Chief Minister of the One-Unit scheme) or Wali Khan, Bacha Khan’s son and his successor. Contrary to propaganda against him, Qayyum Khan was a democrat through and through- which is why the Ayub regime arrested him.
Is Non-violence Bacha Khan’s legacy? While he took to non-violence as a creed, Zalmai Pakhtoon – a militant organization and wing of Red Shirts- was a decidedly violent organization founded by Ghani Khan, Bacha Khan’s son and which continued to operate way into the 1970s – with some blaming it for the famous assassination of Hayat Khan Sherpao. That Bacha Khan encouraged Fakir of Ipi’s militancy against Pakistan is a well known fact. He colluded with the Afghans and created a situation which has plagued Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan for the last 60 years. Yet if Non-violence was Bacha Khan’s legacy, he was inconsistent about it and his followers definitely did not accept it or internalize it. There was hardly anything progressive or secular about Bacha Khan’s politics, spin it as you may. Secularism/left politics was an afterthought for him and his party. As shown above, the Khudai Khidmatgars were quite unclear and confused about the Congress and its politics. It was after partition that they took up a nominal commitment to these vague ideas which made little or no sense to them. Bacha Khan was a votary of the status quo being its biggest pillar. He stood for the continuation of the tribal traditions and way of life which accorded him and his family their sardari status. His philosophy was essentially a sort of tolerant Islamic Puritanism blended with Pushtun Nationalism, another not so tolerant variant of which was his friend Faqir of Ipi’s Islamically charged Pushtun Nationalism and that strain is still represented by Behtullah Mehsud and the like.
Bacha Khan may be credited for the role he played, along with such figures as Mian Iftikharuddin and other left wingers within the mainstream of Pakistani politics, in the formation of the National Awami Party, which later became Pakistan’s only real leftist organization but within this NAP Bacha Khan represented the ethno-nationalist conservative element. Later his son Wali Khan turned it into a family run affair and what was a grand national left movement became a front of Pushtun parochialism.