In 1987, it was the month of November when my classmate Ashraf Noor and I bunked our scheduled visit to a factory in Peshawar and went to the Lady Reading Hospital instead. I still remember that rickety rickshaw ride as we navigated our way through innumerable fruit and vegetable vending carts and speedy, smoke-emitting jeeps, to safely reach the hospital.
Noor and I were a part of a larger group of undergraduate engineering students from the NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi, who were taking a countrywide industrial tour. But it was only him and I among the group who knew that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — famously and lovingly known as Bacha Khan — was spending his last days in a hospital bed in Peshawar.
Noor was a Karachiite through and through, but his family hailed from Kohat. He told me that they were not particularly avid supporters of Khan, but knew well how great he had been for Pakhtuns and how the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement, founded by Khan, had fought the British colonialists.
In my case, since Peshawar was on our itinerary, my father had particularly asked me to pay the ailing man a visit. Besides his own views that held Khan in high esteem, my father had a childhood memory: he was very young when the Anjuman Kashmirian-i-Hind had organised refuge for some of Khan’s disciples in my great-grandfather’s Lucknow residence, after the 1930 Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre in Peshawar by the British.
Once we reached the ward where Khan was admitted, even Noor’s Pashto did not come in handy. We were firmly asked to get permission from Begum Nasim Wali Khan to visit the patient. But neither she nor anyone else who could authorise us was present at that hour. Finally, a young doctor, who himself had graduated from a medical college in Karachi, sympathised with us when he heard that we were students who had come all the way from Karachi to see Bacha Khan and were pressured for time as we could spend only two days in Peshawar.
Khan had grown very lean and was struggling with bedsores. We stayed with him for some time, but he remained largely unconscious. His big, protruding nose remained the most striking feature even then. We thanked the doctor who allowed us to see Khan and left the hospital with heavy hearts.
The memory of this short trip to Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar came to my mind the very moment I picked up Bacha Khan: My Life and Struggle — Khan’s autobiography that has been translated from Pashto into English by Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada. A hardbound book of more than 550 pages, it was published in 2021 by Folio Books in Pakistan, and Roli Books in India.
Earlier, an account of Bacha Khan’s life had been published in 1969 from India. It was a product of Khan’s narration of his life events in Urdu to K.B. Narang, which was then translated into English with the help of Helen Bouman. However, Khan later thought that the book was not comprehensive enough and began to write his autobiography in Pashto with the help of a few associates. This was first published in Pashto in 1983. Sahibzada has smoothly translated what Khan wrote himself and must be congratulated for making available this incredibly important chapter of our history to a larger audience.
There are four fundamental aspects that distinguish Khan from other thinkers, reformers and political leaders of his times and after. The first is him being anti-colonial and modernist at the same time. The second is his essential Pakhtun cultural identity finding itself in complete harmony with the larger Indian political identity. The third is his staunch Islamic values being in coherence with secular politics. Finally, the fourth is his warrior ancestry succumbing to the charms of non-violent defiance.
Contradictions make a man great. The ability to negotiate between various contradictions and eventually synthesise is what makes a man greater. That was Bacha Khan — a phenomenal man who blazed the trail of freedom not only for Pakhtuns but for all South Asians, as a Gandhian who always spoke truth to power.
Khan’s life was nothing but struggle for the physical and intellectual emancipation of his people. He spent 27 years in jail — before and after independence from the British — and never faltered. The feat is no less than that of Nelson Mandela and the great man who died recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, except that Mandela’s and Tutu’s dreams were realised during their lives.
Khan’s anticolonial struggle in British India made him a hero across the Subcontinent, but his role as a social reformer among the Pakhtuns, at the same time when he was fighting a greater war for the liberation of India, teaches us a basic lesson. Any larger political action divorced from local social engagement is meaningless. Khan opened girls’ schools and taught people to grow food for subsistence in his area.
This was at the same time that he worked closely with Shaikhul Hind Maulana Mahmoodul Hasan and, later, with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, on larger questions of independence.
Beginning from his native village of Uthmanzai, the story of Bacha Khan’s struggle spreads across the length and breadth of South Asia. The autobiography meticulously chronicles everything from the beginning of the 20th century to the time of independence from the British, but does not take us beyond 1947. And, the well-intentioned but thin epilogue by the translator, that tries to hastily sum up what happened in Khan’s life after 1947, leaves many questions unanswered.
Lastly, these days, while the powers-that-be in Pakistan are propagating that Pakhtun culture is more misogynistic than others and averse to the concepts of fundamental rights, I quote from what women who followed Bacha Khan once told him: “If the Pakhtun youth should falter, trust us Fakhr-i-Afghan/ That we, the girls/ Shall, in your case victorious be.”
The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 9th, 2022