Khushal Khan Khattak: The Pioneer of Afghan Nationalism
By Professor Dr Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat
Aman, Peshawar
ISBN: 978-9277598006
178pp.

In a bid to reconnect the past to the present, and in the wake of current social and political issues, Professor Dr Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat — noted research scholar and former vice chancellor of Bacha Khan University — has brought out an invaluable book titled Khushal Khan Khattak: The Pioneer of Afghan Nationalism.

Fondly known as ‘Khan Baba’, Khattak was a poet, a warrior and, at the same time, a visionary with progressive thoughts on female education, family planning, childcare, anthropology, psychology, culture of dialogue, music, peace and many other issues.

Born in 1613 in the era of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, in present-day Akora Khattak, district Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he received a conventional education from informal tutors, including Kasteer Gul aka Kakak Sahib, Maulana Abdul Hakeem Sialkoti and Shah Owais Siddiqui Multani.

However, in the prevalent traditions of his environment, Khattak spent a considerable amount of time in such pursuits as horsemanship, swordsmanship, falconry and hunting — the last being one of his passions.

A new book reinforces Pakhtuns’ debt to Khushal Khan Khattak’s genius, for his immense literary and social contributions and for the active role he played against Mughal imperialism

This, along with responsibilities as a tribal chieftain, prevented him from getting a formal education, but he found the time to read extensively and hardly a subject escaped his sharp, critical mind.

Khan Baba began participating in tribal combat in his early teens, and composing poetry when he was 20. This can be taken as proof of his inborn talent not only as a swordsman and tribal chieftain, but also as a writer of merit.

He acquired political eminence early in life. His great-grandfather, Malak Akor Khan, was appointed mansabdar during the inception of Mughal rule in the Subcontinent. Mansabdars were chosen by the emperor and the position involved both civil and military responsibilities.

In later years, Khattak’s father, Shahbaz Khan Khattak, was appointed mansabdar as well. Shahbaz Khan died when his son was 28 years old and Shah Jahan, emperor at the time, offered the now vacant position to the young man.

It didn’t take long for Khattak to earn the admiration of the Mughal court for his gallantry, vision, scholarship and unique intellect. He proved his mettle by leading expeditions to resist anti-emperor skirmishes in Punjab and the Afghan highlands and, for several years, the Mughal emperors made thorough use of his chivalric and administrative skills.

During Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, Khattak was detained in Peshawar for two months on charges of sedition — the Yousufzai tribe, unwilling to pay tax to the empire and wanting him removed as mansabdar, had hatched a conspiracy about Khattak mutinying against the Mughal court. Khattak was later imprisoned at Ranthambore Fort in Rajasthan.

Two and a half years later, he was released, the charges withdrawn for lack of evidence. However, the damage had been done. Khattak had been deeply loyal to the court, even fighting his own Pakhtun tribes and landlords in order to collect tax revenue for the emperor, but the allegations and imprisonment greatly hurt his immense sense of loyalty. He changed his stance on serving the emperor and declared war on the ruling Mughals.

It should be noted, however, that some research studies show that the transformation of Khan Baba’s views on the Mughal regime was not influenced by personal vendetta, but inspired by his own free will to reunite the Afghans.

During his incarceration, Khattak found a rare opportunity to assemble his thoughts and penned the celebrated document Dastarnama [Turban]. This Pashto treatise on statecraft, politics and the leadership qualities of the ideal Afghan tribal chieftain chronicled the Afghan struggle for survival against foreign invaders and usurpers, and suggested how a leader loyal to his own people and land could reclaim his lost identity through the power of national character.

Khan Baba’s dastarband [ideal Afghan leader] was democratic, peace-loving, inclusive and as far removed from the conniving Machiavellian prince as could be. In one of his couplets, he especially condemns terrorism against the ‘State’ in explicit terms. Roughly translated, the verse goes: A terrorist must not go scot-free in the country/ Even if facilitated by religious clerics or the sacred elites.

The Subcontinent’s political environment during the 17th century was shaped by the interplay between the Afghans and the Mughal court. Khattak was able to restore the belligerent Afghan tribes’ trust in his leadership and mustered their support against the Mughals’ exploitative governance of Afghan resources.

He played a pivotal role in awakening Afghans from their stupor, guiding them through prejudices and uniting them in regaining their national identity. This also encouraged the dawn of Pashto literature.

The turbulence of his times, coupled with Pakhtun society’s own brand of conservatism, led to Khan Baba devising a unique political philosophy and narrative — which he called Nadara Aqeeda — for the reconstruction of Pakhtun/ Afghan ethnicity. He used his versatile genius to build a pluralistic society that believed in universal human values and peace.

His powerful writings, both poetry and prose, are a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom. As well as poetic romanticism, they are an urgent call for his people to remain vigilant about their own identity, rooted in universal values and humanism.

Marwat’s book is a fresh attempt by a senior Pakhtun scholar who finds in Khattak parallels with futuristic ideas of nation-building, as expounded in contemporary theories of reforming societies that have been deprived of their ethnic and human rights.

Marwat reinforces that Pakhtuns are indebted to Khattak’s genius, for his immense literary and social contributions and for the active role he played against Mughal imperialism, so much so that the term ‘Mughalwala’ — a reference to foreign aggression — has firmly secured a place for itself in the annals of modern Pashto literature. Khattak’s reputation as a champion of the Pashto language holds true to this day.

In 1927, Allama Muhammad Iqbal wrote an inspiring article on Khan Baba’s life and works for Hyderabad Deccan’s literary journal Islamic Culture, titled Khushal Khan Khattak: The Afghan Warrior Poet. However, the subject of the article faded from national consciousness not long after.

The credit for rediscovering Khan Baba goes to a Punjabi lady, Begum Khadija Ferozuddin, who submitted her doctoral thesis, titled Illustrious Khushal Khan Khattak, to the University of the Punjab in 1940. Respected political and spiritual leader Abdul Ghaffar “Bacha” Khan also tried to rejuvenate the spirit of Khan Baba among Afghans, to bring back past glory through non-violence and visionary inclusivity.

Towards the end of the book, though, the author regrets that in Pakistan’s official history, academic curriculum and textbooks, Khan Baba is portrayed one-dimensionally as Sahib-i-Saif-o-Qalam [Man of Sword and Pen] with no other attributes, but he was so much more — a cultured humanitarian who believed in progress.

Interestingly, Khan Baba was himself certain of his phoenix-like rise in the years to come, noting that “if Khushal is not regarded and held in reverence today, he will surely be held in high esteem posthumously.”

Hundreds of years after his death in 1689, his prophecy appears to have come true.

The reviewer is a Peshawar-based contributor on Pashto literature and culture. He tweets @Shinwari_9

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 11th, 2022

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