People & Society

Bacha Khan: A misunderstood leader

Updated 11 Sep, 2017 06:15pm
Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Perhaps the great proponent of non-violence, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890–1988) is needed today by the Pakhtuns, who have been victims of extreme violence for the last thirty seven years. He started a secular non-violent movement in 1929 by establishing a movement called 'Khudai Khidmatgaar' (Servants of God). That earned him the title of the 'Frontier Gandhi'. This was a progressive and non-violent movement in a very conservative Islamic and violent Pakhtun society.

Lovingly called 'Bacha Khan' by his followers, he was close to Mahatma Gandhi and was part of the All India Congress. He did not believe in the communal slogan of having a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. But once Partition became inevitable, he opposed the referendum, which gave the people of North West Frontier Province (NWFP, now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) two options: they could either join India or they could join Pakistan.

Ghaffar Khan and his brother Khan Sahib, then Chief Minister of NWFP, wanted the referendum to include a third option of an autonomous Pakhtunistan after the withdrawal of the British. But their demands were not agreed upon — they encouraged the big Khans to join hands with the mullahs of NWFP and support All-India Muslim League. A Cunningham policy note of 23 September, 1942 reads: “Continuously preach the danger to Muslims of connivance with the revolutionary Hindu body. Most tribesmen seem to respond to this.” In another paper, referring to the period 1939–43, he says: “Our propaganda since the beginning of the war had been most successful. It had played throughout on the Islamic theme.” (Adeel Khan 2005)

But once Pakistan came into existence, Ghaffar Khan expressed allegiance to the new country by taking oath in the Assembly in 1948. He tried to reconcile with Muhammad Ali Jinnah and, during a meeting in Karachi, invited him to visit the Khudai Khidmatgar office in Peshawar. But the meeting never happened as the new Chief Minister Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan sabotaged it with Ghaffar Khan — he told Jinnah that he would be assassinated if he came to NWFP for the meeting.

At the same time Jinnah removed the government of Ghaffar Khan’s brother Khan Sahib soon after the inception of Pakistan. This political move also pulled Ghaffar Khan away from Jinnah. To top it all, Ghaffar Khan was arrested in 1948 without any charges and imprisoned until 1954.

After his short-lived freedom, he was arrested for protesting against the establishment of One Unit in West Pakistan in 1956. One Unit was made to undermine the majority of East Pakistan by creating an artificial parity between the East and West wing of the country. It also merged the NWFP, Sindh and Punjab provinces.

General Ayub's government offered ministry to Ghaffar Khan which was declined by him. He was kept in prison by the Ayub regime until 1964 when he was released due to deteriorating health conditions.

After his treatment in Britain, he went into exile in Afghanistan. He came back to Pakistan in 1972 when the National Awami Party, led by his son Khan Abdul Wali Khan, established the government in NWFP and Balochistan. But again the freedom was short lived and he was arrested by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1973 in Multan. On his release he lamented: "I had to go to prison many a time in the days of the British. Although we were at loggerheads with them, yet their treatment was to some extent tolerant and polite. But the treatment which was meted out to me in this Islamic state of ours was such that I would not even like to mention it to you."

His last political activity was a movement against building of Kala Bagh Dam, which he considered would damage vast areas of NWFP.

He died in Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar in 1988. And according to his wish he was buried in Jalalabad. This is still held against him by his critics who consider him a traitor to Pakistan. This is in spite of him coming to terms with the creation of Pakistan and taking oath in the Assembly. Pakhtun nationalists have reconciled with the idea because over the last seventy years of Pakistan their businessmen, middle class and working class have developed strong economic interests in other provinces of the country.

Ghaffar Khan throughout his life continued to struggle for the maximum autonomy of his province within the framework of Pakistan — a political position that was not acceptable to the strong centre advocates in the establishment.

The writer is a freelance journalist, analyst and writer based in Karachi. He is the author of 'What's wrong with Pakistan?' published in 2013.