Sunday, December 31, 2017

A true Badshah of the people, after all

I have just finished reading a biography of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan by Rajmohan Gandhi. I started by wanting to share some snippets from the first chapter but as I read, I found that I wanted to share almost every page of the book. This is not possible (for copyright reasons). So I'm putting down a little that I've learnt about the man known as the 'Frontier Gandhi'.

As a schoolgirl, I didn't properly understand what the 'Frontier' was and its significance in the geo-politics of the Indian Subcontinent. Reading this book, I realise that we've forgotten just how hard won our freedom and our democracy is. 

All we know about the freedom struggle is the names of some leaders and patterns of political behaviour created in the 1930s and 40s. We are also told very little about the 'struggle' meant for those who do the struggling. 

MK Gandhi and leaders like Nehru, Patel, Ghaffar Khan went to jail. But what does it really mean to go to jail? What was the big deal about being treated like a political prisoner vis a vis being a "seditionist", subjected to worse treatment than thieves and murderers?

Here are some things I've learnt about Ghaffar Khan, also known as Badshah Khan and Bacha Khan: 

Badshah Khan's beloved first wife died after her firstborn son fell gravely ill. The family says that she wept in prayer, and offered her life to the Almighty in exchange for that of her child. And so it was. He remarried but his second wife too died in an accident. He never married after this. 

He was first arrested protesting against the Rowlatt Act. He was arrested, put in fetters and, because he was unyielding and clearly unapologetic when he was produced in court, he was sentenced to remain in fetters. Six months in fetters and he gained life-long scars around his ankles. His 90 year old father, Behram Khan, was also put in prison for three months, although he was not an activist and had shown up at a political meeting only because he was so concerned about his son's anti-British stand.

Before his arrest, and after his release, Badshah Khan's focus was education. He raised the standard of a school he had set up, and also began to tour the region, talking to Pathans. He was arrested once more and this time he spent a significant period in solitary confinement, in a cell where the toilet was overflowing with excrement. He was sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment.

“He was given filthy food, ordered to grind twenty kilos of corn each day by rotating a heavy stone chakki, and abused by lackeys of prison officials. Again and again, he was invited to find relief through petty bribing, an apology or a surety... At the jail in Dera Ismail Khan the superintendent was an Englishman who only knew English, the jailor was an aged and inert Muslim, and the deputy jailor, who was the prison's real boss, a Hindu called Gangaram. Badshah Khan described Gangaram as 'a veritable rogue'. In his autobiography, he would say about Gangaram: 'In order to extract bribes he made the prisoners fight among themselves and supplied young boys to the prisoners'....”

Thanks to his attempts to contain the corruption in jail, Gangaram complained and had him shifted to Lahore jail. This turned out to be good for Ghaffar Khan. He met other political activists and people of all religions. He read the Gita and Guru Granth Sahib along with the Quran.

“At the previous jail, he had lost fifty five pounds, contracted scurvy and lumbago, and damaged his teeth.”

His mother died while he was in jail and his family didn't have the heart to tell him. He found out through a newspaper.

In another section, Gandhi writes about Ghaffar Khan having started a newspaper. Pakhtun, was written in Pakhto or Pushto. Its topics were varied and in one piece of commentary, a woman called 'Nagina, a Pakhtun sister' writes:

“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?”

“Many early issues carried these lines by Badshah Khan's son, Ghani, now fifteen years old, whose name, however, was kept out:

If I a slave lie buried in a grave, under a resplendent tombstone,
Respect it not, spit on it.
When I die, and not lie bathed on martyr's blood,
None should his tongue pollute, offering prayers for me. 

"Impatient for items from the son, his father, Ghani would recall in the future, sometimes sent 'a letter abusing me that I could not write ten lines for my country and that I was a disgrace to the nation and so forth'. The result would be another column entitled “Nonsense”, signed by 'The Mad Philosopher'."

In 1930, after Salt tax defiance and the Qissakhwani Bazaar massacre (like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, unarmed and peaceful Pathan protestors, perhaps as many as 300, were killed by British fire). Badshah Khan was already under arrest. Now Pakhtun was banned... The younger son, Wali, just 14, was almost killed in the ensuing crackdown on Khudai Khidmatgars. The KK office was burnt down.

In 1934, Badshah Khan (as well as his older brother, popularly known as Dr Khan Sahib) was released from jail. But within a few months, he was re-arrested on the charge of sedition. He was sent to Sabamati jail where he was to sleep on the floor, in a solitary cell, and warders were instructed not to talk to him. Then he was sent to Bareilly jail, again in a solitary cell. He was unused to the hot summer of the plains and his body broke out in boils. Finally he was moved to Almora jail where he “completed a garden that Jawarharlal Nehru had begun.”

When Jawaharlal Nehru offered to increase funding to the Peshawar Congress Committee, Badshah Khan responded: “Panditji, we do not need your carry your load, we shall bear ours. If you want to help us, then build a girls' school and a hospital for our women.”

In later chapters, Dr Khan Sahib and the Khudai Khidmatgars come to power through elections in the Frontier (NWFP), despite the best efforts of the British to prevent this, and to prop up the Muslim League instead, hoping to drive a wedge between the KKs and the Congress. However, this unity could not prevent Partition. Despite Badshah Khan's appeals, British India was partitioned and the Pathans were fated to go with Pakistan. The details of how this was achieved are heart-breaking, for this is a tale of not just betrayal, but also a pointer towards how different our joint histories might have been if only the British establishment had not been so meddlesome, so determined to divide South Asians along religious lines rather than regional and linguistic lines. If only they had been a little more humane, genuinely democratic, before their exit from the Subcontinent. Consider the fact that while Dr Khan Sahib and Badshah Khan were prevented from campaigning and travelling in the Frontier province, the Muslim League people were free to do so. That was anti-democratic sabotage by the British, who wanted to curtail a peaceful Pathan who spoke of unity rather than more aggressive Muslim leaders who preferred disunity.

When Badshah Khan tried to speak of the dangers represented by the Muslim League, when he tried to seek autonomy, when he tried to speak of protecting minorities, he was accused of being a Hindu, or a Hindu agent.

Badshah Khan (and his brother and the sons) was jailed again, and again, and again, in independent Pakistan, both by elected and military rulers. His newspaper was banned. His social service center shut down. When he was not in jail, his movements were severely restricted. Ultimately, he was allowed to travel, but not to India or Afghanistan. Yet he never gave up on peace, nor stop speaking truth to power.

When he went to Cairo, he managed to slip into Kabul, where he was treated well by the king. And finally, he visited India too. In 1969, the Indian government made an offer, asking him to stay here. He refused, saying: “Even if I live in India for a hundred years, it will have no impact. No one cares here for the country or the people.”

On another occasion he said, (about Indian politicians) “It seems as if you think that to clap, give or hear speeches and get photographed is work.”

Bless his soul! If he could see India now, what would Badshah Khan say? Well, I suppose he would say the same thing that he said in 1970:

“I am no friend if I offer false praise.”

I cannot recommend this book enough, especially if you have an interest in South Asian history and the freedom movement. It is very lucid, well written too.


Anonymous said...

So eager to read this now. And a happy new year to you, Annie. And more and more writing.

Annie Zaidi said...

Happy new year to you, Batul.

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