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February 6, 2017

Bacha Khan’s resistance


February 6, 2017

I have been writing in my column for these pages about different modes of resistance to the British Raj in India. Among these was a unique movement launched by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, fondly known as Bacha Khan.

Bacha Khan was born on February 6, 1890 to a wealthy family in Utmanzai, Charsadda. His father Bahram Khan was conscious of the importance of education and tried his best to expose Bacha Khan and his elder brother Abdul Jabbar Khan (Dr Khan Sahib) to the best possible education available in those times. Bacha Khan attended a madressah as well as a missionary school. He studied in Aligarh and was also in touch with the Darul Uloom Deoband. These diverse and competing experiences were responsible for the poise, tolerance, and understanding that were part of his personality.

Bacha Khan was born at a time when NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) was discriminated against by the British. There were not many government schools available there for children. The local culture was steeped in family feuds, intolerance, and social extravagance. From a young age, Bacha Khan was sensitive to the social practices in the region but his overwhelming concern was the British Raj in India. He was impressed by Haji Sahib of Turangzai who challenged the Raj upfront. As a young volunteer, Bacha Khan worked with Haji Turangzai in setting up madressahs in different parts of NWFP. This collaboration remained active from 1910 to 1915.

In 1915, Haji Sahib shifted to the tribal areas and started an armed resistance against the British. It was at this point that Bacha Khan decided to carve his own line of action. He was a staunch Muslim and knew that Islam emphasised non-violence. Bacha Khan was convinced that non-violence could be used as a potent tool to combat any force. It is important to understand that his idea of non-violence emanated from his deep association with religion. It is therefore simplistic to consider that he borrowed the non-violence philosophy from Gandhi, though Bacha Khan enjoyed a good relationship and mutual respect with him.

1919 was an eventful year.

The post-WWI scenario saw a sudden surge in the resistance movements in India followed by the Rowlatt Act which was introduced by the British to curb the voices of dissent. A sudden and sharp wave of protests erupted against the Rowlatt Act from all walks of society in different parts of India. A strike against the legislation was announced on April 6, 1919 in India and a large gathering was organised and addressed by Bacha Khan in Utmanzai, Charsadda. He was arrested and then released after six months.

Bacha Khan was in touch with nationalists who were desperately struggling for the freedom of India. He was in constant touch with the Darul Uloom Deoband and its radical leaders. He also had a deep association with Gandhi who was struggling for freedom. He was also in touch with the Johar brothers who were spearheading the Khilafat Movement. Bacha Khan was president of the Khilafat Committee in NWFP. At one point, India was declared Darul Harb and all Indian Muslims were asked to migrate.

Showing solidarity with this movement, Bacha Khan also migrated to Afghanistan but soon realised that the struggle for independence could not be waged living away from India. He came back to India and decided to take on the challenge of social reformation, which was a precursor to the struggle for independence. Bacha Khan consulted his followers and friends and decided to establish Anjuman-e-Islah-ul-Aghana on April 1, 1921. The major objectives of this initiative were to unite the Pakhtuns, inculcate love for Islam, and avoid extravagance in social events. Bacha Khan chose the tool of education to give effect to these objectives. He had assisted Haji Turangzai to set up schools which were closed down by the British in 1915 after Haji Sahib moved to the tribal areas.

It was now time to go back to the strategy of establishing schools in different areas of NWFP to empower the youth with awareness and skills. It was decided that a chain of schools would be established with the name of Azad Islamia Madressah. The first madressah of this chain was established on April 10, 1921. These schools would be independent, not receive any grants from the government and follow an independent policy. Bacha Khan sent his own children and the children of his brother Dr Khan Sahib to this madressah, setting an example for his followers who also followed suit and enrolled their children in this madressah.

These schools taught a blend of orthodox and modern subjects. Besides Pashto and Arabic, English was also taught at these schools. Apart from academic subjects, the schools also offered vocational education. In 1923, the madressah was affiliated with Jamia Millia Islamia. It is important to note that Jamia Millia Islamia was a centre of freedom-lovers in those times and its foundation stone was laid by Shaikhul Hind Mahmud al-Hasan of Deoband. Gandhi was among those who gave donations for Jamia and the Johar brothers and Hakeem Ajmal spearheaded it. According to a conservative estimate, around 70 such madressahs were established in different parts of NWFP as part of Azad Islamia Madressah chain. In December 1921, Bacha Khan was again put behind bars for three years and was released in 1924.

Bacha Khan also realised the need for a journal to highlight sociopolitical issues effectively. In 1928, Pakhtun, a Pashto monthly journal, was launched; it carried articles on politics, religion, and social issues. This initiative, coupled with the large chain of madressahs, played a vital role in spreading the message of change and emancipation through non-violence.

In 1929, Bacha Khan established the Khudai Khidmatgar to provide an active forum to people to bring sociopolitical change in an organised way. He launched a multipronged movement for the social reformation of Pakhtuns and the independence of India. His weapon of resistance was non-violence that was supported by his love for humanity, commitment to peace, and a deep passion for educating the public. He was put behind bars and his followers were massacred by the British forces in Peshawar and Bannu. But he did not waver and stuck to his chosen principle of non-violence.

In the history of resistance against the Raj, Bacha Khan will always be remembered as a unique leader who resisted the British through education and prepared a large force of non-violent workers who paved the way for Independence.


The writer is an educationist.

Email: [email protected]


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