Badshah Khan: The unsung champion of federalism and democracy – by Nadir Ali Dirojay Pukhtunyar


The Pashtun homeland in the south and east of Afghanistan and the north-west of Pakistan has become synonymous with terrorism and violence. Certain quarters suggest that the Pashtun region and society is intrinsically violence driven. The Pashtuns have a long history of violent resistance against alien occupation. They are fiercely protective of the freedom of their culture, their ways of life and their homeland.

The Pashtuns struggled against the British occupiers perhaps more than any people of the Indo-Iranian subcontinent. With the spotlight once again on the Pashtun homeland and the makeup and genesis of the Pashtun society of such vital interest, a study of the life and times of Badshah Khan, the oft-forgotten man of the struggle of the people of subcontinent against the colonial occupation of British, would go a long way in answering the Pashtun question. Not only this, with the vitality, viability and efficacy of the state of Pakistan under scrutiny, it would be highly beneficial to present their old ‘foe’ in an altogether different light and , for a change, look at the history in an objective and impartial way.

Born in Utmanzai to a landowning family in 1890, Abdul Ghaffar Khan had an early exposure to the western style of education having studied at the Edwardes Missionary School under Rev Wingram. Modern or Secular education was considered a taboo in the native Pashtun society at that time with mullahs, supported by the British colonialists, warning of dire punishments to anyone who would stray from the ‘guided path’. By his late twenties, Ghaffar Khan had realized that a network of modern education institutes was imperative to bring the Pashtun society a semblance of civilization and socio-political progress. Thus, a society by the name of ‘Tanzeem-ye-Islah ye Afghaana’ was established under which educational institutions by the name of ‘Azad Schools’ some of which exist to this day

That the next logical step in the struggle of Ghaffar Khan for the emancipation of the Pashtun was the realization that the root of all evils was the unjust and unfair occupation of the British of the Indian subcontinent. The second phase of Ghaffar Khan’s life, stretching from the late thirties to the Indian independence in 1947, was a blend of social service and empowerment, social mobilization of the Pashtuns as a political front, and an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle that, though extremely under-estimated, stood steadfast in the face of brutal suppressions and massacres. An organization by the name of Khudai Khitmatgars (The servants of God) was established. It worked for social organization and empowerment among the Pashtun society in itself and also acted as the political voice of the Pashtun populace and a vital cog in the Indian struggle for independence from the British. All this would come despite an avowed allegiance to the principle of non-violence. The eradication violent, petty and vindictive tendencies among the Pashtun society were a major aim of Ghaffar Khan. The movement would prove true to the principle of non-violence even during the most vicious and cruel tactics of the colonial British.

Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khitmatgars had a close personal and organizational relationship with the Indian National Congress up to an extent that the KK became the Congress Party in NWFP and Ghaffar Khan would become one of the prominent leaders of the Congress. This epitomized the essentially secular character of the KK movement as well as of the Pashtun Nationalism which transcends any religious prejudices. Ghaffar Khan and KKs would struggle jointly for the causes of Indian independence and of the Pashtun rights for two decades. Ghaffar Khan strongly opposed the division of British India into two dominions on communal basis, which would earn him and the KKs many enemies within the opportunist clique of the Muslim League.

The post-independence history of the KKs and Ghaffar Khan is a story of distrust, suppression, jail and exile. The KK organization, despite swearing allegiance to Pakistan, was brutally crushed. Many members were jailed and killed. The organization was banned. Despite this, Ghaffar Khan remained steadfast to the principles of democracy, federalism and ethnic harmony and equality. These principles are the pillars on which the modern multi-ethnic nation-states are created and governed. His effort to secure the rights of Pashtuns and his efforts to build a political platform for the small nationalities should have been seen as a natural flow of political thought, an icon of the much-needed political pluralism, and an indispensible element in the development of representative democracy in Pakistan. But, in the manner so befitting of the British colonialists, whose loyalty they swore in their past years and of whom they were the biggest beneficiaries, the ruling clique in Pakistan comprised of the opportunist Muslim League, the influential Mohajir community, and the infant military-bureaucracy alliance dominated by the ethnic Punjabis, saw these as anti-Pakistan, secessionist and seditious. The natural affinity of the Pashtun populace to Afghanistan was seen as a threat rather than an opportunity to build brotherly and friendly ties. The essential ethnic disparities, instead of being seen as a blessing and celebrated, were suppressed and an alien concept of ‘Pakistanniyat’ imposed in the most brutal manner. It is an unconscious vindication of the stance of Ghaffar Khan that almost all the political parties of Pakistan now see these principles as true, genuine and must. The state of the affairs in Pakistan now certainly makes one very conscious and rueful of the potential contributions of Ghaffar Khan to the ideology, democracy and institutions of the nascent state of Pakistan.

The advent of Imperialist funded Jihad, Pakistan-Saudi funded cycles of violence in Afghanistan and now the rampant violence and bloodshed in the north-west of Pakistan brings an altogether renewed sense of relevance of the principles that Ghaffar Khan held so dear and stood by through thick and thin. The endless cycle of violence fueled by inhuman ideologies and played to their gains by regional powers has left a landscape bloodied with death and destruction, homes and lives shattered and economies ruined. That the Pashtuns have been the biggest victims of the Taliban phenomenon is a fact for all those of sane mind to see. All Pashtun Nationalist and independence movements from the days of Ahmed Shah Durrani and Mirwais Hottak down to the efforts of the Faqir of Ipi were essentially and fundamentally based on the premise of independence from the yoke of tyranny, unjust invasion and oppression. But Ghaffar Khan and the KK epitomize these values to the maximum. The creed of non-violence preached and instilled so effectively by Ghaffar Khan into the Pashtun political course of action and the very secular nature of his successful independence movement should go a long way in dispelling the myths perpetuated by those with vested interests that Taliban represent a form of Pashtun Nationalism and that the Pashtun nation has extremism and violence ingrained into its nature.

Ironically the biggest benefactor of the principles of Ghaffar Khan would be the state of Pakistan itself. At a time when the ex- strategic asset and the Frankenstein monster named Taliban threatens to engulf more and more territory and strike at the very foundations of the state, those who wield the real power in Pakistan would do well to realize the futility of using violence as a tool of foreign policy. They should realize that it is imperative that they move to quell all violent movements and stop the propaganda that fuels the rise of violent ideologies and tendencies. The adoption of the principles of non-violence, non-interference and respect for sovereignty are long overdue.

Perhaps the biggest detriment to the well-being of Pakistan as a state is the ethnic imbalance in the various institutions of state. The theoretic supreme decision and policy making body, the National Assembly, and the de facto power circle of the Army and bureaucracy are both dominated by the Punjabi ethnic group. The small nationalities such as the Pashtuns, Balochs, Sindhis and Siraikis are excluded from the decision making. Indeed, the constitution of Pakistan does not acknowledge either their national or cultural rights. The resources of these small nationalities are under the control of a disproportionally powerful centre. Local languages have no rights or means of development.

Ghaffar Khan always stood for a federal Pakistan with autonomous national units. This would ensure the protection of the political, cultural and economic well being of all the nationalities. Ghaffar Khan’s advocacy of a federal setup was vindicated in no smaller terms than the disintegration of Pakistan in 1971. Ghaffar Khan offered his good offices for an effort for reconciliation between the Bengali leadership and the Pakistani authorities but was ignored. Ghaffar Khan strongly opposed all the military dictators and the one-party state of Muslim League. Ghaffar Khan guiding principles were true representative, multi-party democracy and equality of the national units. Ghaffar Khan’s alliance with all the nationalist and progressive forces in Pakistan remains, to this day, perhaps the most inclusive, democratic and progressive political force of Pakistan. A new social contract, acknowledging the multi-ethnic character of Pakistan, delegating resources and powers to federating units created according to ethno-linguistic demographics, giving the smaller nationalities real representation in the power making forums, allowing for a true people’s democracy and political culture to thrive would go a long way in undoing all the wrongs committed under the guise of Pakistan’s supreme national interests.

History cannot be changed but can be learned from. If Pakistan is ever to emerge unscathed from the mess it has got itself into, the political philosophy of Ghaffar Khan, based on the principles of federalism, representative democracy, ethnic harmony and balance and social justice, principles which, if followed, would make the state of Pakistan look infinitely less irrational and help resolve many of its internal contradictions.