An unbowed cleric

Mullah Powanda is remembered by the people of Waziristan for his unwavering opposition to the British Raj

An unbowed cleric

The people of the erstwhile FATA and NWFP (now KPK) have played a remarkable role in the subcontinent’s history. Bacha Khan and communist leaders like Kakaji Sanober Hussain were not alone in defying the Raj; mosques and seminaries also played a vital role in securing independence.

Mullah Powanda, an unbowed Islamists resisted with might against the colonial power till his last breath. He waged a long armed struggle against the British when they started founding military settlements in Tribal Areas in the second half of the 19th Century.

His real name is believed to have been Muhyeddin. However, he was widely known as Mullah Powanda (the one who lives a nomadic life).

Born in 1863 in a poor Mehsud family of South Waziristan, Powanda was a traditional cleric in Waziristan.

He became a ‘wanted’ warrior to the British government when his two associates killed a Bannu jail warden in 1886-87. The government accused him of having masterminded the attack and issued warrants for his arrest. Powanda fled to Lower Dir and stayed with his teacher Mullah Hamzullah. Upon his return to Waziristan, he launched a guerrilla war from across the length and breadth of the Tribal Areas against the colonial troops. In early 1893, the British lost at least seven soldiers and a PWD overseer, Mr Kelly, in attacks carried out by five tribal men belonging to the Mehsud tribe in Ghoyelari, Gomal Zam valley and Fort Sandeman (now Zhob). In this connection, the government arrested dozens of innocent people from the Mehsud clan and seized their livestock and large quantities of seeds. Moreover, tribal elders (Maliks) were urged to call a jirga to decide the fate of the perpetrators as soon as possible. The jirga called by the Malaks sentenced two murderers to seven years and three to two years in prison.

Mullah Powanda tried to forcibly free the convicts while they were being taken to Peshawar but failed. He later assembled the people of the area and lay siege to the homes of the tribal elders who had facilitated the British. Some of the elders were killed. The remaining had to leave Waziristan. In those days, Powanda came into prominence and acquired utmost popularity in the region. Major Bross, who was appointed commissioner for Waziristan-Afghanistan boundaries, was also tasked with establishing a military camp in Wana.

In October 1894, Mullah Powanda wrote a letter to Major Bross warning him to give up the plan to set up a camp in Wana or else prepare to face the wrath of the mujahideen. Bross received this letter while travelling from Dera Ismail Khan to Tank. Instead of giving a formal reply he insulted Powanda. This aggravated the situation.

On November 3, 1894, the colonial forces suffered major losses when around 2,000 tribesmen led by Mullah Powanda attacked a camp at Wana in the early hours. Layeq Shah Darpakhel claims in his book Waziristan, “about 23 key colonial officers including Lieutenant Mekaly, Lieutenant Anjele and hundreds of soldiers were injured in this pre-dawn attack. The warriors also took away 150 horses, Rs 3,000 in cash and 137 guns. Powanda then shifted his base to Shakai, the village of his teacher Mullah Hamzullah Wazir, where he continued his activities. In the aftermath of the attack, the government called a grand jirga of the Malaks of Mehsud clan and demanded that

The jirga must deport Mullah Powanda from Waziristan.

The jirga should hand over three influential people, identified as Jagarh, Pashkai and Shaheer to the government.

The jirga should accept responsibility for ensuring the recovery of the stolen horses, camels, mules and guns taken in the November 3 attack on Wana camp.”

Participants of the jirga were warned to meet these demands by December 1.

In October 1895, the British occupied the valley of Tochi. Kesan was appointed its first political agent. The new agent was killed by some youngsters of the Dawar clan while visiting the shrine of Haji Sarmast in Hasukhel in March 1896. The Mullah now began collecting donations to escalate his jihadi activities.

Mullah Powanda vehemently opposed the historical accord on the Durand Line signed in November 1893 between British India and Amir Abdur Rehman Khan of Afghanistan. To provoke Amir Abdur Rehman Khan against the British, Powanda scheduled a mammoth tribal delegation comprising about 4,000 delegates, including women and children, to visit Kabul. On August 8, 1896, the delegation left for Kabul via Barmal. Upon their arrival in Kabul, they stayed in Bala Hisar in tents under strict security provided by the Afghan government.

Their representatives, led by Mullah Powanda, called on the king. During this key meeting, Mullah Powanda told the Amir, “if you are interested in waging war against the British, we will back you “. The Amir replied, “I have friendly relations with the British, but you call them infidels and want to wage jihad against them. I believe, next you will oppose me for having ties with the British. I do not trust the clerics’ advice“.

Mullah Powanda reportedly answered, “Allah Almighty has blessed you with the kingship of Muslims. How can we start an unjustified war against you?” The Amir said, “I had invited you, but you would not come. Now that you need help in fighting the Raj, you have come visiting me”. The Amir then asked the delegation to stay for a few days while he considered their suggestions.

During his seven-week stay in Kabul, Mullah Pownada was unable convince Amir Abdur Rehman Khan. The delegation returned to Waziristan on September 28.

In February 1895, the British government began taking dozens of Malaks loyal to them into confidence to create a line in Waziristan. There is no denying that Waziristan has not only been an abode of freedom fighters like Powanda, the Mad Mullah, Haji Sahib Tarangzai and Faqir of Epi, but the land has also produced a large number of British loyalists.

During his long campaign, Mullah Powanda wrote many letters to the British, including Mr Grant, the political agent of Wana, the lieutenant governor of the Punjab and Ghulam Mohammad (the police assistant superintendent in Wana), requesting them to stop their anti-Muslim activities. He also warned them of repercussions of their actions.

Mullah Powanda gave a tough time to the British in his three decades of resistance in Yaghistan or Tribal Areas. Many British writers have acknowledged his courage and commitment. Evelyn Howel writes in his book how Powanda’s charismatic personality influenced every British officer who met him. Howel writes, “although he was an illiterate and poor Pashtun, he secured a remarkable position in the history of NWFP. If he had been born in this era he would have been considered one of the most dynamic leaders of the region.” Sir Olaf Cairo accounts in his book The Pathans, “if Mehsuds were as talented as Yousafzais, they would have established such a state in the leadership of Mullah Powanda as the state of Swat”. In military reports on Waziristan, he has been called the prince of Waziristan and the self-styled king of the Tribal Areas.

Mullah Powanda breathed his last on November 2, 1913, at the age of 50. Foul play was suspected. Some believed that he had been poisoned by his son, Sahib Din, at the behest of the British government. In exchange, he was alleged to have received a hefty amount in Kabuli rupees and a bungalow in the Punjab.

Later, it was found that he had died of natural causes. A few days prior to his passing, Powanda had written a note that is now engraved on his tombstone, “you must maintain your pride and stance and not allow the colonialists to rule over your soil. You should refrain from internal and tribal rivalries because discord can lead to British dominance”. Mullah Powanda was survived by four wives and seven sons. He had nominated his son, Sahib, his successor.

The writer is a lecturer at Degree College Zhob, Balochistan, and a columnist. He can be reached at

An unbowed cleric