Badshah Khan: the frontier’s grand old man – by Dr Mohammad Taqi

A columnist friend recently asked me to do a write-up on what he described as the Pashtun political dynasties and, specifically, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s family. At the time it did not appear to be a difficult proposition to take up and I agreed. However, when I eventually got to the task at hand, it seemed like a herculean undertaking. It is formidable not because one could not or should not write about the Pashtun polity and role of clans in it but because it would be a serious injustice to the proudest son that Pashtun lands have ever produced to lump him together with any other Pashtun leader that came before or after him, including those related to him by blood.

Ghaffar Khan died on January 20, 1988 but these lines are not meant to be some nostalgic reminder of his death anniversary, which, unfortunately, was observed in a subdued manner last week. This is to remember one of the most eminent leaders of the subcontinent, who remained wedded to the highest human values and national ideals with an unwavering resolve throughout his life. What sets Ghaffar Khan apart from both his contemporaries and those who followed him was his refusal to compromise on principles, not just with political opponents but also with his own partisans, fellow travellers and family members.

Not only did Ghaffar Khan not seek political high office for himself, he also remained highly critical of his party and family members when they either did not live up to his high standards when in power or had sought such power through compromising on core principles. In doing so, he shattered the basic premise of a political dynasty, i.e. succession of rulers of the same line of descent who seek and remain in power through whatever means available. It was his undivided devotion to his people — the Pashtuns — and not political power for his family that earned Ghaffar Khan the title ‘Badshah Khan’ or ‘King Khan’ at just 26 years of age.

The first such criticism came after the very first ministry that Badshah Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars formed in the then NWFP in 1937 when he lamented at the central working committee meeting of the All India National Congress in March 1940: “It is astounding the amount of corruption I saw about me when we came to possess a little power.” Of course, his elder brother, Dr Abdul Jabbar Khan Sahib had headed that ministry. But this was not the only time that Badshah Khan would be critical of Dr Khan Sahib’s office.

When the nascent Pakistani establishment decided to amalgamate the four western provinces, Dr Khan Sahib became the Chief Minister of the notorious One Unit. In the months leading up to the Constituent Assembly endorsing the One Unit in October 1955, Badshah Khan made his opposition known to the plan as well as his brother by saying, “My elder brother is the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and among Pashtuns the elder brother is given the position of the father. But then I have dared to disagree with him on the issue of One Unit because I see great harm in it for my people”(Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Faith is a Battle by D G Tendulkar). Little wonder then that Badshah Khan was under house arrest at the time of his brother’s oath-taking ceremony as the premier of West Pakistan!

When the Soviet forces poured into Afghanistan in 1979, the Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties and various underground communist factions in Pakistan either openly welcomed the move or approved of it tacitly. All these political groups had, at one point, been under the banner of the National Awami Party (NAP) that Badshah Khan had co-founded. To the surprise of most of his lieutenants, Badshah Khan became a vociferous opponent of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. He did not fail to demand the withdrawal of the Red Army, even when he was the guest of the pro-Soviet Afghan President, Babrak Karmal, in Kabul. In fact, he intensified his quest to see Leonid Brezhnev to persuade him to pull Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

I have noted in these pages before that to Badshah Khan, Pashtunistan had merely meant a renamed province within Pakistan that unified the Pashtuns of the tribal and settled areas of Pakistan. After his oath of allegiance to Pakistan at the first Constituent Assembly, he never did pursue the idea of an independent Pashtunistan. While many Pashtun nationalists and leftists saw an opportunity for the Greater Pashtunistan in the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and courted a spill over into Pakistan, for Badshah Khan it was beyond the pale to go back on his word of honour even if it meant a reunification of the Pashtun irredentas. This, to me, is the hallmark of a reformer straight out of the pages of the Old Testament and not someone who would found or perpetuate a political dynasty.

Badshah Khan indeed carried himself with the poise and consistency of a reformer while other politicians of his era and later became known for ideological somersaults and intrigue in pursuit of the mirage of power. He certainly was not satisfied with the condition of his people but he never let any bitterness or rancour get into his words or actions. He remained a firm believer in non-violence till the end of his life and cherished regional and world peace. By the benchmarks of real politick and the success that practitioners of this art covet, perhaps Badshah Khan was not a successful man. But he lived a life committed totally to social service, peace and love, and this commitment to humanity gave him the contentment befitting of a saint.

Badshah Khan’s devotion to his people was complete in not just serving them but also by being accountable to them. He acknowledged his mistakes publicly and tried to make amends. He would not hesitate to hold his erstwhile comrades accountable. Addressing a joint session of the Indian parliament, he castigated the ruling Congress Party by saying, “You have forgotten Gandhi (and his teachings) the way you forgot Buddha.”

Unfortunately, there is no one among those claiming Badshah Khan’s political mantle who will stand up and tell the rest that they have forgotten the frontier’s grand old man. I have a distinct feeling that, if Badshah Khan were alive, he would still have been under house arrest.(Source)