Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Badshah Khan: Martin Luther King of the Pathans


      I give seminars on nonviolence and the students often bring me gifts.  Two years ago, a student brought in a book by Eknath Easwearan on Badshah Khan:  Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match his Mountains.  I have worked it into the course syllabus and this year, Setphanie Dybsky made a wonderful presentation about him and my colleague and friend Haider Khan talked about his experiences with Khan – he met him as a child (Badshah Khan was a friend of his father’s) and as a young Bengali fighting Pakistani genocide in 1971.     

       The name Badshah Khan is not a household word like Gandhi or Martin Luther King.  And yet he should be.  Badshah Khan grew up as a Pathan in the mountains of Pakistan/Afghanistan. (“the Northwest Territory”). He stayed in his village; unlike his older brother, he did not study in England.   He knew the ethic of manliness and dignity which is central to the Pathans, making them the famous warriors who defeated the British in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Kipling), who made them fierce fighters against the Soviet Union and more recently, against the American-inspired NATO invasion.  But Badshah Khan learned from Gandhi.  He devoted his manliness to education, to the liberation of women, to nonviolence, to the unity of Moslems and Hindus in greater India.  Initially, he founded schools in his own village and then in wider areas.  He also started a newspaper, the Pashtun.  The British empire found his activities threatening.  They arrested him for the “crime” of teaching children to read and self-respect (he would ultimately spend 30 of his 98 years in prison).  In the British empire and academic fairy tales (even the U.S., which long ago seceded from Britian but whose academics often are ambivalent toward non-white peoples), the Empire was a civilizing force.  The “white man’s burden” extended to stamping out the efforts of Pashtuns to learn to read, just as in the United States, slaveowners prevented their slaves from reading and in Canada and the United States, indigenous children were kidnapped from their families and placed in Catholic and Protestant religious orders to be stripped of their culture, and worked and starved to death (half died by the age of 15) while producing fancy agricultural products for the surrounding neighborhoods. 

       Becoming a follower of Gandhi, Khan organized a huge nonviolent movement in the Northwest territory.  He formed a nonviolent army of 10,000 and once organized a rally of 100,000 against British terror.   Among tribal people in the mountains, one must think of the enormous significance of such a gathering (only Gandhi’s salt march – “march to the sea” – rivals it).   At Qissa Khawani Bazaar,  these nonviolent resisters refused British orders to disperse.  From noon til 5 in the afternoon, the British army opened fire, killing between 2-300 hundred and wounding many more (like the American army in Iraq, the British did not keep track).  When one group was wounded or killed, another came to the fore.  This attack on nonviolence prevented adults from stopping a final murder.  A 7 year old boy went up to one of the soldiers and demanded “shoot me.”  The soldier did   The full depravity of the British empire lies in this scene.  There was a hearing in England after General Dyer’s massacre at Amritsar.  No such hearing followed these events.

     As with all nonviolence, Badshah Khan’s required “being twice born.”  “Hot-blooded” himself, he had to learn the dignity of refusing cooperation with but not killing the adversary.  With enough noncooperation, the enemy can be defeated; stopping him but not threatening his life often forces a change of view even in oppressors.  Khan’s followers, the Khudai Khidmatgar, wore shirts colored brick-red.  In one incident, the British isolated one man, and pulled the shirt off him, humiliating him.  With a tremendous internal struggle, he did not fight back violently.

       The old Moghal (Muslim) rulers of India survived, though with toleration of Hindus, through divide and rule.  Following the Roman empire, the British utilized this policy.  The Gandhian movement, accompanied by Badshah Khan’s (arguably, the largest independent branch of that movement), mobilized Hindus and Muslims together, liberated women (Gandhi’s replacement as the first leader of the Congress Party was   Mrs. Sarojini Naidu), renamed the outcastes “the children of god” (harijans)  and treated them as human.  They sought the independence of a greater Hindu-Muslim India.  But the British fostered divisions (along with collaborators like Nehru, much celebrated in the West).  Ultimately, Partition or the creation of India and Pakistan came at a cost of 13 million people slaughtered along the borders (Hindus killing Moslems and Moslems Hindus).  The resulting two nations have fought four wars, are nuclear powers, and are one of the centers (along with the Middle East) where nuclear war could easily occur in this century.  The stakes were enormous.  It would be good to know about the decent and strong side which lost. 

      Badshah Khan fought for a unified greater India.  He joined Gandhi in fighting for the unity and decent treatment of all Hindus and Moslems.  He traveled widely with Gandhi before Partition, visiting many villages and trying to gain support (Gandhi had suggested that the Moslem leader Ali Jinnah become the first President of India; he was outflanked by Nehru and others who turned the Congress Party to support a mainly Hindu India).  Badshah Khan resisted both the Congress Party’s betrayal and the Muslim League; he mobilized his large following on behalf of a unified India.  This anti-racism is a key part of both Gandhi’s and Badshah Khan’s nonviolence.  Having many problems including enormous poverty, such an India would nonetheless  have prevented the slaughters which marked the British exit, the four wars, the festering of Kashmir,  the looming danger of nuclear exchange and extinction. 

      As Gandhi was murdered by Hindu nationalists for his anti-racism toward Moslems (and those murderers are part of the heritage of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose prime minister Vajpayi, once exploded a nuclear weapon on Buddha’s birthday), so Khan was jailed on June 15, 1948 for his solidarity with Hindus. At the time, Khan was speaking in many villages for a united Pashtunistan (for Pathans on both sides of the Pakistan and Afghanistan divide) and for democratic rights.  At war with India over Kashmir (the ‘k” in Pakistan), the government claimed he was disloyal and in league with India, arrested him for “fomenting open sedition” (hard to square with his activity for Pashtunistan), and sent him to three years in prison, banned the Khudai Kidmatgards and razed their headquarters, jailing more than a thousand of their members.  It closed the Pushtun, Khan’s journal, which would never appear again.  As Easwearan nicely puts the irony: “within less than a year of the night that [British Lord] Montbatten handed over the reins of power to India and Paristan, Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated by a Hindu who feared he was pro-Muslim and Badshah Khan had been jailed by an Islamic government that claimed he was pro-Hindu.”  

           Badshah Khan continued as a great popular leader (without government appointment) for many years. In 1971,  my friend Haider Ali Khan who fought to create Bangla Desh against the genocidal policies of West Pakistan, went to visit Badshah Khan and his son in Jalalabad (West Pakistan/Afghanistan).  The latter were part of a strong anti-government  movement in sympathy with the Bengalis; Badshah Khan, with some sadness, celebrated the justness of a mass, violent movement of succession which created Bangla Desh. 

       Nonviolence and anti-racism are crucial heritages among Pathans and others in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  They were often a majority current in resistance to the British empire, and they exist even now.  The American funding of jihad – the mujahadeen, including Osama Bn Laden under Reagan against the Soviet Union  – which later became the Taliban -  has helped to perpetuate the image of the warrior Pathan, tribally loyal and ready to fight (ironically, as is so often the case, a meddling Empire like the United States finds in its former violent agents or allies like Osama and Saddam, its enemies; it would be better not to be an empire – to withdraw or scale down its worldwide military bases – and not stir so many flames which come back to burn it.  Yet in American academia and mainstream culture and politics, we know something of Gandhi, but almost nothing of Badshah Khan.  Yet Badshah Khan is a different and powerful kind of Moslem – a practioner of the nonviolence of the strong and of anti-racism.  If we wish to have a decent relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as to head off nuclear war on the subcontinent or nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, it would be good if we became at least educated about this heritage and even now, a wider range of democratic possibilities.

      Sadly, the Obama administration appears determined to go in for more war in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  One of the leading military killers and torturers, General  McChrystal, head of Joint Special Operation Command (he apparently shielded his troops from Red Cross inspection, protecting torture)  has now been put in charge of Afghanistan.  No good is likely to come of this for most people there and for most Americans.  The heritage of Badshah Khan – long suppressed here - is relevant to appraising today’s dark news.



1 comment:

kpashmore said...

I was in the class described by Alan and was totally fascinated by the information on Badshah Kahn and also appreciated hearing about the personal experiences meeting him as relayed by DU prof Haider Kahn. I had a dinner party after the class and I told our dinner guests about Badshah Kahn. No one had ever heard of him. Another unsung hero of world peace.

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