In 1921, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan founded an organization called Anjuman e Islah ul Afghania (Society for the Reform of Afghans) for economic, social and educational reforms. With the passage of time, Bacha Khan realized that the organization had slender success in mobilizing mass interest in social reform and nationalist struggle. Therefore, he began to give thought to a much greater force. Resultantly, Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement was officially launched under the leadership of the Frontier Gandhi as an interventionist force for social reformation in September 1929. And the following years witnessed the rise of a non-violent and peaceful opposition to British colonialism in the north-west frontier region, which lasted for almost two decades but faded away after the creation of Pakistan; due to the opposition of the nascent state, amongst other reasons.
Red Shirts was the name given to the members of the Khudai Khidmatgars because of the red uniforms they wore. These members drew their inspiration from Gandhian principles of Satya and Ahimsa. The movement was dominated by the Pashtoons, who were otherwise notoriously characterized as violent in the colonial ethnography of India. But the Khudai Khidmatgars embodied a non-violent and peaceful approach dedicated to Indian nationalism rather than communal separation.
During his visit to the Middle East, Bacha Khan came across magazines in the regional language and was inspired to found the first ever Pashto magazine for the Pakhtun nation across the globe. The magazine, called Pakhtun, was the main source of public communication for the Khudai Khidmatgars and it would be distributed to the President and Secretaries across the province, who would distribute it further. The British took every step to curtail them, which is why Pakhtun was frequently banned between 1932 -1937.
The journal was political, literary, educational and reformist in essence, and included both prose and poetry. Khudai Khidmatgars involved the participation of both men, and women, and not only in protests but even in exercising the power of the pen, women participated with men. Most of them would use pen-names while writing in Pakhtun since Pashtoon traditions consider the names of women to be hallowed. The Khudai Khidmatgar movement empowered women with progressive mindsets and Pakhtun offered them a platform to express themselves. They began to talk about female education and equal treatment. For the first time in the history of the Pashtoons, women were able to break cultural taboos and talk about their oppression. In an edition of 1929, a woman named Nagina boldly condemned the patriarchal mindset prevailing in Pakhtun society, “Except for the Pakhtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but ardent in suppressing women. Our hands, feet and brains are kept in a state of coma… O Pakhtun, when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?”
From the platform of Pakhtun, a literary competition on the theme ‘Parda’ was held in 1938. It led to a number of quality submissions from both men and women and the winner was awarded Rupees 25. The wining piece spoke of opposition to religious fundamentalism; an abhorrence of the purdah which has chained women’s hands and feet; an idealization of the conditions in Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey; and an emphasis on female education.
Many early issues of Pakhtun were embellished with the words of Bacha Khan’s son Ghani Khan; whose kalaam still possesses a hair-rising effect on its reader. The aim of Pakhtun was to raise the understanding and consciousness of the audience before instilling sentiment against British colonialism. Pahktun was not only directed towards people from the frontier or the sub-continent but the Pashto speaking community across the globe as well.
In terms of the themes of the Pakhtun journal, it would address various pressing issues such as women empowerment, female education, progressive thinking, oppression by the state, anti-colonial writing, speeches of Bacha Khan, and calls for unity. The magazine would also contain articles propagating the Gandhian philosophy of Satya-grahi non-violence.
In the edition of September 1931, titled “Khudai Khitmadgar and Jirga Members! Get ready for Jail”, Bacha Khan talked about the atrocities of the British government and asked Khudai Khidmatgars to prepare for the hardships of prison; while advocating the pacifist philosophy of Tolstoy, Thoreau and Gandhi.
Ever since Bacha Khan founded his first Azad School in 1910, mullahs tried to make his life difficult but he continued his mission and inundated North West Frontier with countless schools. He saw the opposition from a very different perspective. In his speeches and writings, he would call these Mullahs puppets of British Raj, who are always busy in inciting violence, destruction and killings among people through the notorious notion of ‘badal’ or revenge.
Bacha Khan adeptly used the journal Pakhtun for mobilizing people to join the movement. At times when the Raj was increasingly oppressing colonial subjects, he continuously criticized the government’s conduct and the exploitation of people. Khan spent nearly thirty five years of his life in prison for his struggle against the injustices, and his attempts for the unification of British India after Partition. The British and later the Government of Pakistan systematically destroyed most documents and material records of the movement, by raiding homes and confiscating anything related to the Khudai Khidmatgar, from handkerchiefs to uniforms and flags, to copies of the movement journal Pakhtun. An accurate chronology of the movement has thus remained close to impossible, and the public remains ignorant of the fact that Bacha Khan directed Khudai Khidmatgaris to join hands with Congress only after Muslim League had abstained from providing them support in 1929. Less known in Pakistan’s history is that Bacha Khan gained accolades from across the borders; titles such as Fakhr e Afghan, and was awarded with highest civil award in India. However, a befitting homage to his stature, supreme pacifism and his long lasting wish for a unified land for Pakhtuns occurred on the day of his death when the Pak-Afghan border remained open for people with no restrictions and a one-day cease fire of Soviet-Afghan war was declared.
By Sajid Ullah
The writer studies B.Sc(Hons) Economics & Political Science in the University of Management Sciences Lahore.