Wali Khan: The Frontier Liberal – by Dr. Muhammad Taqi

Originally published in the Peshawar Statesman:

The Frontier Liberal: a tribute to Wali Khan

By Dr. Mohammad Taqi

January 25, 2010

گریزد از صف ما ہر کہ مرد غوغا نیست
کسے کہ کشتہ نہ شد از قبیلہ ما نیست
(guraizad az saf e ma har keh mard e ghaugha neest
kasay keh kushtah na shud az qabeela e ma neest )

He who lacks the will to protest, should step away from my fold. Anyone not willing to sacrifice does not belong to my clan, said Nazeeri Nishaburi.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century Wali Khan indeed remained the voice of protest and democratic opposition in Pakistan.

One is tempted to compare Wali Khan’s legacy to the mystical story in Rumi’s Mathnawi, of the elephant surrounded by several men in a dark room trying to figure it out. He certainly was different things to different people.

For his adversaries like the right-wing Muslim Leaguers a la Qayyum Khan or the populist ZA Bhutto he was the arch-enemy – an absolute traitor – who should have been physically eliminated. And to this end they tried their best – at times using the services of a certain leftist group in the NWFP.

His adversaries at least concurred on him being a constant thorn in their side. However, his admirers faced a bigger dilemma – how to classify Wali Khan and which aspects of his thought and politics to choose,subscribe to and admire.

Was a he a Pashtun nationalist, out to undo the wrongs of history and colonialism and reunite the Pashtun irredentas of Afghanistan,FATA, NWFP and Baluchistan and recreate a greater Pashtunistan – something that had not been achieved since Ahmed Shah Durrani.

The others argued that he was a socialist in the Nehruvian mould, who relished his role in the Afro-Asian Solidarity movement. And yet others believed that the Solidarity was a front for a complete implementation of the Soviet agenda and Wali Khan was somehow keen on carrying the latter out.

Like the people around the elephant in that dark room, in Rumi’s parable, most of us – supporters and detractors alike – only felt parts of Wali Khan’s political being and mistook that part for the whole. Such differences in vantage points and observations made therefrom , make Wali Khan’s legacy infinitely negotiable.

For example, the late Jauhar Mir – a PPP intellectual and poet- writing about Wali Khan had stated that Wali Khan really had no political creed of his own and he borrowed and adopted the leftist ideology from his fellow travelers.

On the other hand, his comrade-in-arms Habib Jalib opened his poem about Wali Khan with :

مرے کارواں میں شامل کوئی کم نظر نہیں ہے
جو نہ مٹ سکے وطن پر میرا ہمسفر نہیں ہے
(meray karwaaN meiN shamil koee kamnazar naheeN hai
jo na mit sakay watan per mera hamsafar naheeN hai)

(There is no one in my entourage whose creed is pettiness. No such person travels with me who can’t make a sacrifice for the motherland)

Jalib was visiting Peshawar in 1990 to address election rallies when I asked him about his inspiration for this particular poem about Wali Khan. He acknowledged that indeed it was the Nazeeri Nishaburi’s verse quoted in the opening which he had paraphrased.

While the contemporary historians and his biographers – of whom there is a dire need – would certainly keep negotiating and determining Wali Khan’s political legacy, one thing is clear that he was a pioneer in the center-left electoral politics in the undivided Pakistan.

Wali Khan’s most underestimated contribution perhaps is that he made a clean break with the politics of street agitation espoused by Maulana Hameed Bhashani and the militant adventurism championed by Major (R) Ishaq and Muhammad Afzal Bangash.

The Peshawar declaration of July 1, 1968 announcing the formation of Pakistan National Awami Party (NAP) with a clear electoral program and a socialist economic manifesto was a watershed event in the history of the leftist electoral politics in Pakistan. Along with Professor Muzzafar Ahmed , Mahmud ul Haq Usmani, Arbab Sikander Khalil and G B Bizenjo, Wali Khan had brought the leftists and nationalists not just together but at the verge of political power through ballot.

Another landmark achievement of Wali Khan was using the anti-Ayub campaigns of the 1960s to help the Pashtun polity metamorphose into the twentieth century political party organization. While Baacha Khan’s anti-British struggle had trickled down to the town and village level, the organization of the Red Shirts had remained arrested at a pre-independence stage. Wali Khan was acutely aware of this shortcoming and deployed the anti-Ayub campaign’s scaffolding to build the NAP’s organizational structure along modern lines.

Wali Khan’s campaign in support of Ms.Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan, not only reflected his anti-tyranny character but in doing so resonated well with the Pashtun youth by then entering the universities and getting exposed to the modern thought. Some of these students like Latif Afridi and Afrasiab Khattak were to later inherit Wali Khan’s political mantle at different levels.

Wali Khan’s foremost acknowledged contribution remains his role in the post-1971 constitution making. It was at this juncture that he shone as a polished Westminster style democrat and negotiated and delivered with Z A Bhutto the unanimously approved 1973 Constitution of Pakistan.

While the PPP’s tactics of political intrigue and personal and political persecution threatened to derail the process every step of the way, Wali Khan and other NAP leaders remained above personal fray and pettiness. Former PPP Law Minister Rafi Raza and Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari’s written accounts are succinct portraits of the magnanimity displayed by the opposition leaders in bringing the constitution-making to fruition.

I am not sure if he would have liked to be called one, but in his words and actions Wali Khan was the liberal in the western sense of the word.

Without subscribing to any textbook ideology, Wali Khan groomed the diversity of political visions he had managed to rally around him. He was bridge between the anti-British struggle and the needs of conducting politics in a modern nation-state. While keeping his values and historical inheritance intact he looked forward to a changing world.In a country teeming with overt religiosity, he had remained a torchbearer of secular ethos till the very end.

I believe that Wali Khan’s politics will continue to be studied,admired and criticized from various ideological,political and personal perspectives but I hope that due attention would also be paid to Wali Khan the man. The man who once acted on the stage as a child-star, who was a repertoire of poetry -whether Pashto tapay or Faiz’s Urdu ghazals, who loved Yousuf Lodhi’s political cartoons and Gulzar Alam’s music.

Like Rumi himself, Wali Khan’s creed was not the moral certitude but an acknowledgment that an alternative view existed too. This, to me, was the hallmark of the Frontier Liberal that Wali Khan was.

January 26th marks the fourth death anniversary of Wali Khan.

(Author teaches and practices Medicine at the University of Florida and is a contributor to the think tank www.politact.com. He can be reached at mazdaki@me.com )



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