Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Two-Muslim Theory: Part 1

Article originally by Tahir Mehdi appeared in the Dawn. Presented here in an adapted format. 

Introducing Bacha Khan

When someone says 'Muslims of Indo-Pak subcontinent' with reference to history, does this refer to one unanimous, monolithic block of people with no shades and diversity? The reality is divergent political interests and ambitions of Muslims throughout the subcontinents history before and beyond the period that ended on this day 65 years ago. A reintroduction to these groups and how the new state of Pakistan responded to their political aspirations might help us understand where we stand now.

Pre-partition Muslims can be classified in many ways beyond sectarian differences within Islam. The followers of one sect are not a completely homologous group either, as they may differ on other counts like economic class, cast, language, culture etc. These attributes have an impact on way people behave and act in spheres of economy, politics, culture and even faith. It's only natural to consider that all these factors make one what he or she is. Instead of labouring over an academically-sound definition of each, this post offers an example of one person from two of these two groups.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 to rural middle-class Pakhtun parents of Utmanzai, a small town in the present day district of Charssadda. At the age of 20 he opened a school in his village. He had woken up to the fact that his people have no future if they don't educate themselves and their children. The tall, young man proved to be a zealous missionary. He would walk for miles from one village to the other with his simple message – educate yourself and abstain from violence. He was a devout Muslim, a five-timer namazi parhaizgar and would draw heavily from Islamic history and the Prophet's sayings to rally fellow Pakhtuns. People joined him in droves. 

His appeal matured into charisma and in his 30s, he founded a social reform movement named Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God). By now he was named Badshah Khan or Bacha Khan. The movemen gave its volunteers a uniform that was red and organised them on the pattern of a militia that was, in his words, armed "with the weapon of the Prophet – that is, patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it." It was only Bacha Khan who could unarm Pakhtuns who otherwise were considered quarrelsome and trigger-happy.

The Red Shirts, as the volunteers of the movement were known as, were against the British rule and demanded self government. For the British, the then province of NWFP had great strategic importance. It was a so-called buffer against the Afghan government that was not friendly with the Raj and also against the Russians whom the British dreaded as their rivals.

The Bolshevik revolution of Russia in 1917 was emerging as a huge challenge for Imperialism. It had a natural affinity with the nations oppressed by the British. The Russian revolution was colored red. The sight of a Red Shirt in the Peshawar valley gave the British a fright. At Qisa Khani Bazar in 1930, the frenzied British forces fired directly at a protest rally of unarmed Khudai Khidmatgars killing many hundreds. The movement and its committed cadre did not budge. They stood fast. Many estimate that at its peak there were as many as a hundred thousand Red Shirts.

When the British adopted a cautious policy of sharing power with local political forces and initiated limited franchise elections, the group allied with Indian National Congress. It contested successive elections, won majority and formed governments in the province. As the British hated them, they would conspire against the Red Shirts and jailed Bacha Khan frequently and for long periods but could not undo the politicisation of the Pakhtun middle class that he had initiated.

Pakhtun felt comfortable with Congress and that didn't bear out of some personal friendship between the top leaders. Congress accommodated politics of budding smaller sub-national groups, offered them space for growth and opportunity to integrate with others without giving much consideration to religion. On the other hand, Bacha Khan did not owe his 'fearlessness' vis a vis Hindus to Pakhtun chivalric traditions, instead he had earned this confidence through successive electoral victories. He had a large constituency where Muslims were in majority. There were Hindus too but Pakhtuns did not see Hindus as threat to their religion or politics.

Despite its vociferous campaign Muslim League could not ignite fears of Hindu domination in the support base of Bacha Khan. His comrades won the land mark elections of 1946 with a thumping majority. He opposed the Partition on the basis of religion, but it happened. His democratically elected government was dismissed 8 days after the independence, on 22 August, 1947 when Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the Governor General and Liaqat Ali Khan was the Prime Minister.

read more in the next posting

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