THE GREATEST PASHTUN
First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, July 16 2006
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) was without a doubt the greatest political genius the Pashtun people have yet produced.
Understanding the political economy of the Pashto/Pakhto speaking peoples, as well as the Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen and other inhabitants of Afghanistan, remains a top intellectual challenge for everyone including themselves. Afghans have hardly lived a peaceful decade since Genghiz Khan destroyed them avenging his grandson in the 13th Century. Ghazni, Ghor, Peshawar etc. were launch-pads for attacks against the settled people of India’s fertile plains (most recently, the October 1947 attack on Kashmir Valley) while Herat saw wars by and against Iran.
Lyall, one of the architects of 19th Century British policy, thought Afghans “wretched”, “treacherous barbarians with whom it was an unfortunate necessity to have any dealings at all”… “I can only sympathise with the Afghan’s love for his country and his hatred against those who disturb him, although he has no scruple in disturbing others to the best of his savage ability”. Yet the British idea of Russian armies marching into India through Afghanistan was always a wild exaggeration, especially after joint boundary commissions demarcated the imperial spheres of influence. When the Russians did finally enter and occupy Afghanistan in 1978-79, they lived to regret it; and they arrived in independent India on passenger aircraft, were greeted as fraternal socialists selling weapons, and remain so today. Pakistan’s generals exaggerated the prospect of Russia seeking warm water ports, first to Nixon (as Vice President) then to Carter and Reagan, causing the Americans to happily supply weapons which the generals promptly turned against India.
Ghaffar Khan was and remains the only thoughtful figure in Pashtun history who invented a new, living political philosophy as a constructive force for his people’s peace and progress. Even though his ideology failed to take permanent root or survive among them, he commanded universal respect among all Pashtuns and Afghans and became “Badshah Khan” or “Bacha Khan” to them. Afghanistan’s civil war, in which the USSR was pit against the USA, Pakistan etc, stopped with a ceasefire in 1988 for his burial to take place in Jalalabad, with a funeral procession that was miles long.
Pashtun and other Afghan and Arab tribal people have become notorious today by their association with the dogmatism, intellectual insularity and retrograde ideology of Muslim extremism. Yet Osama bin Laden and his Taliban and other friends have been unable to make any moral argument for the cause of violence other than one built on revenge for perceived or misperceived injustices against Muslims. “Because you have done this and this to Muslim people, we are bound by the code of vengeance to do this to you” is just about the entire quantum of moral reasoning contained in Al-Qaida’s statements. “Revenge is a wild kind of justice” and circumstances can exist where injustice is so deep that only revenge suffices in rectification. The current case of the rape-murder of an Iraqi girl and her family by a group of renegade American soldiers may be one such, which explicitly led to the kidnap, torture and murder of some of the soldiers by Iraqis seeking vengeance. But justice too is a civilised kind of revenge, and the transition from a code of revenge to a code of justice is precisely the transition from tribal warfare to civilisation. In Western countries, it occurred recently enough when duelling with swords or pistols came to be banned, giving way to the law of torts.
Ghaffar Khan attempted to change the Pashtun code in this one fundamental and all-important direction by abolishing the right to revenge. In its place he brought the doctrine of non-violence. “I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.”Patience and righteousness are not political virtues that seem to find much mention in Islamic or Afghan folklore, and doubtless they arose in Ghaffar Khan’s thought and actions at least partly through his encounter with Christian altruism, first with Rev. Wigram his schoolmaster, and later in adult life with the Tolstoy-Thoreau doctrines applied along with Jain ahimsa by MK Gandhi in the movement for Indian independence.
“It is the weapon of the Prophet” was Ghaffar Khan making explicit he was and remained at all times the most devout of Muslims and none could say otherwise; “but you are not aware of it” was his new move to tell his people they had misled themselves by sacerdotalism and needed to read the Prophet’s life and message afresh. He once told M. K. Gandhi how he explained to amazed Punjabi Muslim Leaguers the precise evidence in favour of non-violence from the Prophet’s life in Mecca, leaving his audience speechless.
Today’s “Taliban” were named for their purported piety; Lashkar-e-Taiba even means “Army of the Pious”, the typical image being of pious studious youth seated memorising scriptures in a Pakistani madrassa, and later waving AK-47s in a moving truck. Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar “Servants of God” were their polar opposite. Each of some 120,000 members of the order took a fierce oath to non-violence and renunciation: “I am a Servant of God, and as God needs no service, but serving his creation is serving him, I promise to serve humanity in the name of God; to refrain from violence and from taking revenge; to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty; to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity; to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend; to refrain from antisocial customs and practices; to live a simple life, to practice virtue, and to refrain from evil; to practice good manners and good behaviour and not to lead a life of idleness… I will sacrifice my wealth, life, and comfort for the liberty of my nation and people… side with the oppressed against the oppressor… live in accordance with principles of nonviolence… serve all God’s creatures alike… my object shall be the attainment of the freedom of my country and my religion. … will never desire any reward whatever for my service. All my efforts shall be to please God, and not for any show or gain.”
In their founder’s words, the Khudai Khidmatgars were to be ready to lay down their own lives for their cause and never take any life doing so. They became far more forceful practitioners of non-violence than their Gandhian Indian counterparts in the struggle for political freedom from the British, and hundreds of them died in Peshawar under British brutality.
In 1893, Durand’s controversial boundary-line gave the British control over the three mountain passes between Afghanistan and India in exchange for raising the annual British subsidy to the Afghan Amir by 50% from Rs 8 lakhs to 12 lakhs. Today, the Durand Line roughly separates perhaps 10 million Pashtun comprising 40% of Afghanistan’s population from perhaps 8 million Pashtun who are Pakistani nationals (no one has exact figures as there has been no census). In the 1950s and 1960s, the Afghan Government backed by the USSR, on pretence that the Durand Line had not been freely accepted by Afghans, wished for a “Pakhtoonistan” under its sway.
Though jailed by the new and nervous Pakistanis, Ghaffar Khan was averse to any truck with the Afghan Government ~ he had not demanded erasing the Durand Line but had demanded a separate and distinct “Pashtunistan”. A mature self-confident federal Pakistan today would bifurcate itself vertically into one or two mountainous western provinces on one side, and two or three river valley eastern provinces on the other. The former could be named “East Pashtunistan” if the Baloch agreed, or East Pashtunistan and Baluchistan otherwise, and extend to the port of Gwadar, while the latter would remain Punjab, Sindh and “Northern Kashmir”.
Along with an Afghan “West Pashtunistan” and an Indian “Southern Kashmir”, a stable design of peaceful nation-states from Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India would be then finally in place. Badshah Khan’s influence in death may yet become greater than his influence in life.