Pakistan and Pakhtunkhwa lost one of its most illustrious sons last week. One may not agree with his politics always but no one can deny that he cast a very long shadow on Pakistani politics. Here we explore his legacy. – YLH
With the death on Sunday of veteran politician and renowned Pushto writer Ajmal Khattak, the country has lost one of its most committed political workers and prolific Pushto writers. A vocal advocate of the rights of the Pakhtun people, Khattak told this newspaper last year: “I am deeply concerned about the political situation in South Asia; what is being done against the Pakhtuns troubles me more than my illness.”
He had, indeed, spent a lifetime working for his people through both politics and literature. Influenced by the Khudai Khidmatgars, he worked for the Quit India movement and joined the Awami National Party after partition, of which he was president twice. He was the stage secretary at the 1973 Liaquat Bagh rally of the United Democratic Front, when UDF leaders were fired upon.
As a prominent figure of what was then the National Awami Party, Khattak was wanted by the Federal Security Force and went into self-imposed exile in Afghanistan in 1973. He returned to Pakistan in 1989 when the Awami National Party, the successor of the NAP, entered into an electoral alliance with the IJI. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1990, and became a senator in 1994.
Khattak’s written work reflects the principles of a committed Marxist-Leninist. He is widely considered to have brought Pushto poetry in line with modern poetic trends. There, too, his subject matter was the exploitation and oppression of his people; his first collection of poetry, Da Ghairat Chagha, published in 1958, was banned in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The continued relevance of Khattak’s work is evident in the fact that his poems continue to be sung at progressive parties’ meetings. Khattak’s politics were characterised by an amalgam of reason and dedication to principles. With his passing, we have lost an important voice of sanity in these turbulent times.
Writing in Daily Times Dr. Taqi noted:
Ajmal Khattak provided the modern theoretical basis for the idea of Greater Pashtunistan. Well-versed in the Marxist-Leninist theory — prevalent and ascendant at the time — Ajmal Khattak deployed it to strengthen the case for the right of self-determination for the Pashtuns
“To become truly great, one has
to stand with people, not above them” — Charles de Montesquieu.
Ajmal Khattak was a true polymath — a poet, journalist, broadcaster, linguist, scholar and a politician However, despite all his patrician qualities this Renaissance man was a plebeian at heart.
Despite his capability to — and opportunities available to him for — upward social mobility, Ajmal Khattak chose to live and die in his dignified poverty. In a polity where comprador bourgeoisie, feudals and their quislings were rising to power, Ajmal stood head and shoulders above that upstart crowd, relying solely on his intellectual and political acumen. He was a giant in a political landscape dotted with pygmies.
For the Pashtuns he was the voice of their voiceless angst, expression in the muted humiliation and their freedom cry for the subjugated human dignity. Ajmal Khattak was a man of letters who, in the tradition of the warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak, also unfurled the standard of struggle for Pashtun unity.
Whereas Baacha Khan and his colleagues like the late Hussain Bux Kausar conceived the idea of modern Pashtun unity, it was Ajmal Khattak who eventually provided the ideological backbone of this thesis.
In his book on Baacha Khan, the late Farigh Bokhari had noted that by Pashtunistan, Ghaffar Khan merely meant a renamed province within Pakistan. Narrating to this author the discussions leading to the Bannu Declaration on Pashtunistan, Hussain Bux Kausar corroborated Bokhari’s assertion. Kausar had added though, that for many, including him, the idea was much more than renaming a province — it was a thesis proposing the reunification of the Pashtun irredentas.
Ajmal Khattak provided the modern theoretical basis for the idea of Greater Pashtunistan. Well-versed in the Marxist-Leninist theory — prevalent and ascendant at the time — Ajmal Khattak deployed it to strengthen the case for the right of self-determination for the Pashtuns.
In this, Ajmal Khattak put Afghanistan on notice as well. In 1969 the Afghan government had published a Pashtunistan postage stamp on which Pashtunistan included only the areas of FATA, the NWFP and Balochistan. As a claimant to the mantle of Mirwais Hotaki, Aimal Khan and Ahmad Shah Durrani, Ajmal Khattak was not pleased with this not-so-subtle gimmick of the Afghan state excluding the Pashtun territories under their control from Pashtunistan.
On the Pakistani side, Ajmal Khattak and the Pashtun nationalists were up not only against the establishment but also large sections of the Pakistani Left, who considered secession a dirty word. According to the socialists of West Pakistan, it was sufficient to believe the unverified cliché that “scientific socialism would automatically solve all problems, including the national question”.
In this context Ajmal Khattak relied heavily on Lenin’s writings, such as: “The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. Specifically, this demand for political democracy implies complete freedom to agitate for secession and for a referendum on secession by the seceding nation.”
Though a fixture in the Kabul political circles of the 1970s and 80s, self-exiled Ajmal Khattak never toed anyone’s ideological line — not even Moscow’s.
At the height of their intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviets solicited input from the Pakistani leftists. Out of the two opposing proposals submitted by the pro-PDPA politicians of Pakistan, the Soviets adopted the one calling for restraint as against the one proposing broadening the scope of their operations to drain the guerrilla swamp in Pakistan.
Upon his return from exile in 1989, I put a question to Ajmal Khattak during a discussion held at a mutual friend’s residence in the Board area of Peshawar, and asked him if he and Wali Khan were the ones who opposed the Soviet intervention on our side of the Durand. He deflected the question.
Incidentally, after the programme, he and I were supposed to travel in the same vehicle driven by the host’s son. I had already taken seat in the rear, when Ajmal sahib entered and sat in the front passenger seat. Not realising that I was in the car, he leaned over to the host’s son and asked if the lad who asked about opposing the Soviets belonged to a certain political group (which he did name). I whispered in his ear that indeed I was and that my father was proud of having remained his sub-editor during their days at the dailies Shahbaz and Anjam and then deputising for him as the news editor when he and Qalandar Momand were jailed. He asked me to step out of the car and hugged me. But he still did not answer the question.
Many years later he confided to a vice-president of his National Awami Party Pakistan (NAPP) that indeed he had written a strong critique of any proposed Soviet intervention in Pakistan. He was being treated at a Moscow hospital when a senior Soviet official came to see him and chided him about his opposition to spilling-over of hostilities into Pakistan. He stood his ground.
Ajmal Khattak stood his ground based on his reading of Lenin who concluded at the end of the aforementioned quote that “…this demand (secession), therefore, is not the equivalent of a demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states. It implies only a consistent expression of struggle against all national oppression.”
He, therefore, was neither a secessionist nor was contradicting himself. To him the right of self-determination was an evolutionary stage, not just of politics or modern statehood, but of humanism.
Indeed, Ajmal Khattak’s poetry is humanism personified and transcends time and frontiers. Sa’adi Shirzai wrote that stones have been chained while dogs are let loose (sung-ha ra bastand o sugaaN ra khushadand) and Faiz’s adaption of the same is well-known. However, Ajmal Khattak’s rendition of this thought in his poem “cherta che baran da Khudai da qahar waraidalay de” (where it has been raining the wrath of God, is indeed my home, it is your home), makes the contrasts and ironies of our society clearer than ever to the common reader and the activist alike.
The literary genius in Ajmal Khattak brought Pashto poetry in sync with the modern times. He not only experimented with and improved on the prevalent forms as ghazal (sonnet) and ruba’ee (quatrain) but introduced progressive political thought in his nazm, with a vigour and craft that puts him at par with Neruda, Sahir and Faiz.
Though cognizant of his political and literary stature, Ajmal Khattak remained down to earth till his death. At a friend’s house during hot summer days, he would sleep without air-conditioning or even a fan. This was at a time when the ruling General of the era would have gladly given him anything he asked for. But contentment was the wealth that Ajmal Khattak had amassed over the years and he would not squander that for something petty, for he was the revolutionary dervish.