Pashtun pacifism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 7 12:05:48 MST 2001

NY Times Op-Ed, December 7, 2001

The Peacemaker of the Pashtun Past
As the Afghan war enters into what may be its final days, and the
international community begins discussing its next steps, Americans will be
learning more about the warrior people known to the British as Pathans, and
more correctly nowadays as Pashtuns. Most of the Taliban were Pashtun — as
is the new interim leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, to whom Mullah
Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, has ceded power. The Pashtuns number
upwards of 20 million, and their squat stony villages straddle the Durand
Line that nominally demarcates Pakistan from Afghanistan, where Pashtuns
form the largest ethnic group. These are the fighters who inspired reams of
fearful and admiring verse from Rudyard Kipling, the sharpshooters blessed
with perfect sight who picked off the soldiers of the British Raj. But the
Pashtuns also produced one of the most remarkable pacifist movements of the
20th century. 

British officers were so impressed by Pashtun valor that in 1847 they
created a Pashtun force, the Corps of Guides — its emblem was crossed
sabers over the slogan "Rough and Ready" — that was soon celebrated in the
Indian Army. They led the way in adopting uniforms in a new color, khaki,
and became the prototype for today's special forces.

The fascination with Pashtuns endured until the Raj's demise. Sir Olaf
Caroe, the last British governor of the North-West Frontier, left a
systematic account, "The Pathans" (1958), complete with pullout maps and
translations of love poems by the great Pashtun bard, Khushal Khan, who
died in the 17th century. Caroe favored the partition of India and believed
that a Muslim state and its frontier warriors would form a firewall
blocking a Soviet advance toward the Persian Gulf. The success of this
policy depended on Pashtun military prowess — and Caroe's greatest problem
was a Pashtun pacifist, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who confounded every cliché
about Caroe's favored martial race. 

Ghaffar was renowned as "the frontier Gandhi." His followers, the Servants
of God, were nicknamed Red Shirts because of their brick-colored garb. All
had to swear: "I shall never use violence. I shall not retaliate or take
revenge, and shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses
against me."

For two decades, Ghaffar and his Red Shirts dominated the North-West
Frontier without resort to violence, enduring prison and torture. Ghaffar's
friend and mentor, Mohandas Gandhi, called his feat "a miracle."
Nevertheless, the most remarkable Pashtun of his era is forgotten, not only
because his cause was lost — he sought self- rule for his people within a
united, secular India — but because it was an embarrassment to Britain,
India and Pakistan alike. 

A new biography, "The Pathan Unarmed" by Mukulika Banerjee, adds fresh
light. The author began her study as a graduate student in the 1990's, and
after learning Pashto managed to interview 70 surviving Red Shirts. She
found that Ghaffar's pacifism grew out of his concept of jihad, or holy
war, because nonviolent resistance "offered the chance of martyrdom in its
purest form, since putting one's life conspicuously in one's enemy's hands
was itself the key act."

Using this strategy, the Red Shirts in 1930 shut down Peshawar for five
days protesting colonial rule, becoming valued Muslim allies of Gandhi's
predominantly Hindu Congress Party. The movement flourished, and each wave
of arrests confirmed Ghaffar Khan's status as the liberating champion of
his people, who now called him Badshah Khan, or the Khan of Khans.

In 1947, in final negotiations for independence, Gandhi acceded to
partition and the establishment of Pakistan. A distraught Ghaffar Khan,
feeling abandoned by his Hindu allies and angrily aware that Caroe favored
a Muslim state, asked his followers to boycott the referendum on joining
Pakistan, whose founding he opposed because he wanted a united, secular
India. Now derided as a lackey of "the Hindu Raj," Ghaffar Khan was
imprisoned and charged with sedition by Islamabad's new masters. When the
great rebel insisted that he wanted only autonomy within Pakistan, it was
rejected as a ruse, since Afghanistan seized on this moment to revive
territorial claims to Peshawar and other areas once held by Kabul.

The sequel was a martial crackdown by Pakistani authorities, echoing the
British line about the incorrigible violence and suspect loyalties of
Pashtuns. Ghaffar was eventually released from jail but banished from the
frontier. In his last years he was allowed to revisit Peshawar, where in
1988 he died at the age of 98. According to an earlier biography by M. S.
Korejo, a Pakistani diplomat, a funeral procession stretching for miles
carried Badshah Kahn's body across the border to Jalalabad, the summer home
of Afghan kings. It was, the author writes, "a caravan of peace, carrying a
message of love" from Pashtuns east of the Khyber to those on the west.

This forgotten chapter suggests that Islam is more mutable than either its
radical adherents or its Western detractors allow — and that Pashtun
history offers an extraordinary precedent for peace as well as a legacy of

Karl E. Meyer is editor of the World Policy Journal and co-author, with
Shareen Brysac, of "Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for
Empire in Central Asia."

Louis Proyect
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