It seemed improbable that a movement that described itself as non-violent would have an impact in an area that was known for militancy, violence and armed retaliation. But it appeared that it worked. At least for sometime when Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan launched his Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek in the then North Western Frontier Province in the decades between the 1920s to the 1940s.
That the movement would be successful seemed even more probable because its purpose was to get rid of the British colonialists and assert one’s freedom and independence in the 20th century. The general mantra should have been the justification of all means to achieve the desirable end of political freedom from an imperial yoke, but Ghaffar Khan convinced his people that the best way of doing so was not through an armed rebellion, insurrection and open conflict but through passive resistance.
He was, it appears, greatly influenced by the Satyagraha of Gandhi who had launched a nationwide campaign to rid the county of colonialism.
The book under review, The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier by Dr Mukulika Banerjee presents “an account of rank and file members of the Khudai Khidmatgar” by delving into their motivations and aspirations, and then goes on to explore how the “violent Pukhtun were converted to an ethic of non-violence”.
The book was first published in 2001, and in 2017 the second edition was released with a new introduction because according to the author “much has changed in the world to challenge our understandings of the core themes in this book — Pashtuns, Islam, Violence and social creativity”.
Usually three approaches were taken by various parties and groups in the colonial struggle — one was of armed struggle and resistance, something that was advocated by many including the Marxists and religious groups, and the second was availing the peaceful options that had been made possible due to the introduction of the parliamentary system especially in the British colonies, this was the option exercised by Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his All India Muslim League. The third approach was of a peaceful but passive resistance through non-cooperation which had been evolved or devised by Gandhi when he started his campaign in South Africa and then replicated it in India. For more than three decades, his political methods were not disputed since they appeared to be achieving political freedom. Passive resistance meant non-cooperation, strikes, courting arrests and boycott of goods which profited the imperialists, but did not involve any acts of violence, both at the individual level or at the level of the group or party. This seemed to have caught the political imagination of the Indians and this method of political struggle became the dominant mode in the 20th century.
The litmus test was whether it would succeed in all parts of the subcontinent and if it would be adopted by all groups, sects, religious denominations, political parties, classes, ethnicities and races.
The other issue addressed in this book is whether the freedom struggle was only a political expression of freedom of the elite or the landed gentry that wanted everything for itself. Was that why they led the struggle and also why the lower classes were not involved, but instead just being co-opted by the upper class leaders, and that there was not much for them in it. This is because the author, deeply influenced by the subaltern approach to history, has been reexamining and analysing the basic premise of the struggle according to the viewpoint of the lower classes.
But in the end the Pathans voted for Pakistan, thus abandoning the national struggle and with it the doctrine and approach of non-cooperation. It was a stab in the back for Ghaffar Khan. It was a betrayal which he may have attributed to Nehru’s agreeing to Mountbatten’s proposal to hold a referendum to decide the province’s political future. The referendum was decided upon instead of an elected assembly, which should have been the case given that there was a provincial legislature.
The Khudai Khidmatgars boycotted the referendum because they wanted the third option of independence or autonomy for the province to be included in it, as it had been with the princely states. But this option was denied and the result though based on a poor turn out was in favour of the province joining Pakistan.
For the author the main reasons for the Congress disassociating itself with the movement were that Nehru and many in the Congress — despite Badshah Khan’s track record — were not convinced that the Pathan could forsake the love for the gun and resort to peaceful means. There was an element of distrust that created a wedge between the provincial and the national leadership which was exploited by others. Another reason was that the peaceful non-cooperation outreach did not extend to the tribal areas and there the tide turned in favour of the creation of Pakistan led by non-elected Maliks.
The formation of the government after 1935, by the Congress and its allies had created conditions that did not wholly approve of the way the governments were run in the provinces and it foretold the difficulties that lay in such an arrangement if it led to the independence of the country. The Muslim League which hardly had a presence in the Muslim majority province of NWFP, overnight became a force to be reckoned with.
It has also been stressed in the book that the leadership of the colonial administration was very keen to join the Muslim League as it was in line with their policy of divide and rule, and in this intention they were supported by the big Khans. This was also the consequence of the war effort boycotted by the Congress but the Muslim League had a more flexible approach which benefited them in terms of the favours and privileges they were able to extract from the government.
Dr Mukulika Banerjee is the first director of the London School of Economics South Asia Centre and is associate professor in the same institution. She has been published widely and her books include Why India Votes and The Sari; she has also edited Muslim Portraits: Everyday lives in India. She studied at Delhi, Oxford and has taught at Oxford and UCL.
Author: Mukulika Banerjee
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 2017 (Second ed.)