The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 2, 2001

The force Badshah Khan built
Review by Parshotam Mehra

The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition & Memory in the North West Frontier
by Mukulika Banerjee. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Pages xviii+238. Rs 595.

AS far back as 1930, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, better known as Badshah Khan (BK) and Frontier Gandhi, had organised a movement for the social and economic uplift of his people, the Pakhtuns, or the more familiar Pathans. He christened his band of volunteers Khudai Khidmatgar; literally "servants of God". The British called them Red Shirts from the colour — brick red — of their dress. And pooh-poohed their social and economic planks while heavily underlining their political affiliations to Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.

From a small beginning of a thousand odd, his party had by the mid-1940s claimed a membership of almost 50,000 or thereabout. .Nor were their number the only thing that frightened the Raj. The fact that, not unlike the Congress and Gandhi’s credo of non-violence, the Khidmatgars too swore fealty to the Mahatma’s ideology made the British suspect their facade of a peace-loving outfit. They thought it was deceptive, a mere charade that camouflaged Badshah Khan’s real intent of subverting established authority.

And dislodging the rulers.Badshah Khan and his party’s political affiliation with the Congress were mutually beneficial and had in fact, paid rich dividends. For him and his people, an all-India platform that enhanced their stature in the province; for the Congress, an added emphasis that it was truly a national organisation. For the Frontier and the khidmatgars were, by definition, predominantly, if not exclusively, Muslim. More, with the introduction of provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act 1935, the Congress won political power in the Frontier Province and won convincingly both the elections of 1937 and 1945-46.


The study starts with a brief outline of the classical elements of Pakhtun culture and social structure and the impact of British colonial rule in deforming, if not destroying it. The Raj’s stereotypes of the Pakhtuns made them introduce a mode of governance that did no end of violence to the true Pakhtun ethos. It was Badshah Khan’s dogged determination that led him to the Khudai Khidmatgars, (KK) movemsent, a civilised response to the draconian, if also inhuman, system of British rule.

The author gives a good deal of space to the organisational structure as well as the social and political activities of the movement. And the innumerable ways in which the Pathans were trained to lodge nonviolent protest. In turn, the latter brought about some significant changes in the traditional features of Pathan life, most notably through the widespread resolution of internecine tribal feuds. Understandably, British response to the movement relied both on sophisticated counter-propaganda and a measure of sustained brutality, unprecedented in the Raj.

A typical instance cited by the author bears repetition. When the provincial Governor visited Mouza Gardi to take tea, a certain Abdul Ali and three KKs handed him a copy of their grievances and cases of oppression. For their pains, all the four were arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 250. Nor was that exceptional. The "watershed event", as the author calls it, was the Kissa Khani Bazaar massacre of April 23, 1930. It was part of the Mahatma’s civil disobedience movement when troops opened fire on an unarmed crowd that had assembled to protest the arrest earlier in the day of BK. The toll: 200 killed in the very heart of Peshawar!

The leadership of the KKs was a unique combination of charismatic and bureaucratic elements which together helped sustain the movement’s activism for over 17 years. The organisational structure respected, and also to a degree modified, traditional social status. And reconciled both the hierarchical and egalitarian elements in Pakhtun culture. For the ideology of nonviolence BK did not, as is commonly believed, rely on Gandhian thought but on elements of Islam and Pakhtunwali so as to persuade his followers of the correctness of his creed. It needs to be added that the KKs did, by and large, refrain from violence and communalism even when religious tension had mounted in the mid-1940s. What unnerved them no end, as it did Badshah Khan , was the decision that the Frontier would be part of Pakistan.

The study relies heavily on oral data gathered from such rank and file KKs as the author was able to locate. There were some 70 of them (listed in Appendix I), their ages ranging from 70 to 120/130 years. The oral data has been supplemented by archival sources, especially where events, dates and facts were involved. The author offers an elaborate justification for her extensive use of oral history for "my primary interest" was the "opinions and practice" of the ordinary members. She implicitly believes her informants, one and all, for they were able to summarise "pithily" both their own opinions and the movement’s ideas. Most had indeed been to jail for their beliefs and bore, on their person, the scars to prove it. In the course of their narratives, most of them were aroused to "displays of emotion and enthusiasm."

That oral history has an important role to play in reconstructing the past may be accepted without much ado; yet the reasoning the author spells out, especially in terms of the "displays of emotion and enthusiasm" leaves one somewhat sceptical. These are attributes of a warm heart, not a cool head.

One brief criticism may be in order. The study refers to Nehru’s fateful visit to the Frontier in October, 1946, and its tragic aftermath in a gradual erosion of the popular base of the incumbent Khan Sahib Ministry. And a considerable boost to the fortunes of the rival Muslim League. Yet the future of the Frontier and the Pathans remained an open question down to the last few weeks prior to the transfer of power. Oddly though, the author would have us believe that Nehru, who was "both notoriously vain and in possession of a considerable temper", had "convinced" himself that there would never be peace in the Frontier until it entered Pakistan. In October, 1946, he "returned to Delhi having given up on the Frontier.

"Sadly, this does not tally with the known facts. Until the June 3 Plan, Nehru had striven hard, as did his colleagues in the Congress, that the Governor Olaf Caroe’s stratagem of ordering fresh elections to the Provincial Assembly — on the specious plea that the government had forefeited its popular mandate — did not get the Governor-General’s nod. More, that the referendum, in lieu of elections, was held only after the Governor had demited office.

Besides, Nehru was convinced, as were the Governor and the Governor-General, that despite the vitriol poured and the violence unleashed by its political rivals, the Congress had a sporting chance to win. Oddly, it was BK and his KKs who for very valid reasons of their own to avoid a possible bloodbath and unending civil strife in the wake of a narrow Congress win decided on a boycott. This was in July, 1947. In the event, to suggest that Nehru had given up on the Frontier as early as October, 1946, does not really wash. Or, does it?

An impressive looking bibliography lists some titles that are not directly relevant while managing to omit not a few that are. The glossary too needs a thorough recheck: fakir for "landless peasant"; tehsil for "district"; mujahideen (which is a plural) for "warrior in a religious war", are misleading.

These are however small irritants and one hates to cavil. Nor do they detract in any way from the merits of an excellent study. The author was lucky to be "adopted" by Wali Khan, BK’s son and thus enjoyed a premier Pakhtun family’s protection and patronage. All the same, her effort in building up an extensive clientele of old, and now fast-fading, breed of Khudai Khidmatgars was impressive.

This is more relevant in that successive governments in the Frontier — and Islamabad — were hell-bent on erasing from the national historiography of post-partition Pakistan all traces of a movement that had made such a signal contribution to bringing the Pathans and Pakistan their independence from the Raj.

Mukulika Bannerjee who earned her doctorate from Oxford now teaches anthropology at the University College, London.