A few days ago Pope Francis in his Christmas message, mentioned three icons of peace and non-violence from the 20th century; Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Abdul Ghaffar Khan (popularly known as Bacha Khan).
One would have expected it to be an important news item worth reporting by the Pakistani media.
A towering political figure, social reformer and freedom fighter from Pakistan, a country that has been frequently mentioned by international media as source of terrorism, was being recognised as champion of peace and non-violence by the leader of Christian world.
Yet, the news item barely found mention in the mainstream Pakistani media.
It was only on social media that the followers of Bacha Khan celebrated his recognition by Pope Francis.
For those who know the deep biases of Punjabi dominated Pakistani ruling elites it was hardly surprising.
Bacha Khan, founder of Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God), the vanguard of Pashtun national liberation movement in early 20th century, finds no mention in official history books in Pakistan for three reasons.
One, although Bacha Khan and his followers were committed freedom fighters and rendered valiant sacrifices for this cause, but they were opposed to partition of India.
And they were not alone in it.
Other prominent Muslim leaders of the Indian sub-continent like Abdul Kalam Azad, Shiekh Abdullah and Zakir Hussain, among others, were also opposed to partition as they regarded it to be more a partition of Muslims of South Asia than a partition of India.
All these leaders were practicing Muslims but they were secular in their political approach and opposed communal politics.
But at the same time it is also a matter of record that when Pakistan came into being Bacha Khan took oath of allegiance to the new state as a member of its first Constituent Assembly and worked for its progress.
Two, Bacha Khan was opposed to all kinds of dictatorships including martial laws and struggled for a federal democratic system.
That’s why he spent longer periods of time in Pakistani prisons as a political prisoner than the time he had to spend in prisons under the British Raj during the freedom struggle.
Three, Bacha Khan advocated an independent foreign policy for Pakistan and championed good relations with all neighbouring countries.
He categorically opposed perpetual animosity with India and hegemonic policy towards Afghanistan.
These views obviously annoyed those who wanted to turn the country into a security state, busy in unending wars.
Be that as it may, Bacha Khan was too big a stalwart of peace, non-violence and freedom movements to remain obscure forever.
Although he had never personally held the reigns of power, but when he died on January 20, 1988 national flags in three countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India were brought to half mast to mourn his death, their mutual differences not withstanding.
Heads of all the three countries were present at different stages of his funeral.
Even the Pakistani state, after deliberately ignoring him for a long time, has slowly tended to recognise him.
Peshawar international airport has been named after him.
Newly built educational institutions carry his name.
This was something that was already being done in both India and Afghanistan out of deep respect to him.
For younger generations of Pashtuns, his socio-political legacy is not only relevant but also very important.
This is because Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line have borne the brunt of almost four decades of war imposed on Afghanistan.
Bacha Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgars was the only political movement among South Asian Muslims who refused to recognise war in Afghanistan in the 1980s as “Jihad”.
For Bacha Khan it was a big power tussle at the peak of the Cold War that was spilling Pashtun/Afghan blood and destroying their country.
Recent developments have fully vindicated the position taken by Bacha Khan.
Russia that was the main target of the “Afghan Jihad” has in the recent times started flirting with the same “Jihadist “ elements.
It is in this this context that Bacha Khan’s legacy of peace, non-violence and his movement for Pashtun Renaissance has strong attraction for the Pashtun youth.
After all, the credit for modernising Pashtunwali, the Pashtun tribal way of life, belongs to him.
He started a large-scale campaign for educating Pashtuns in the early 1920s, and for this purpose established hundreds of schools.
He specifically emphasised female education and set an example by providing education to his only daughter.
He rallied the weaker social sections of society and introduced social reforms aimed at establishing a more egalitarian society.
He vigorously campaigned for putting an end to tribal and personal blood feuds.
He emphasised the value of forgiveness over traditional revenge.
The aforementioned features of his movement explain his deep-rooted support among Pashtuns every where in the world, despite prolonged campaigns of demonisation and negative propaganda launched against him by the elements with vested interests.
Bacha Khan’s legacy has also vital relevance for interfaith harmony and peace in today’s world.
“The present day world can only survive the mass production of nuclear weapons through non-violence,” he said in 1983.
Proposing a way out for the 21st century he said in an interview in 1985, just three years before his death, “Today’s world is going in some strange direction.
You see that the world is going towards destruction and violence.
And the specialty of violence is to create hatred among people and to create fear.
I am a believer in non-violence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the people of the world until non-violence is practiced because non-violence is love and it stirs courage in people.”
Bacha Khan message has particular relevance in South Asia where he is recognised and respected as a consistent practitioner of non-violence, peaceful coexistence and interfaith harmony.
His legacy can be a bridge for friendship among the countries of the region.
Writer: Afrasiab Khan Khattak
THE PASHTUN TIMES