A leftist maulana

Mufti Abdur Rahim Popalzai is remembered for his anti-colonial stance

A leftist maulana


aulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai was well-liked and respected by people, indiscriminately due to his magnetic personality and leftist ideology. Members of the Hindu shudra caste and others with left-leaning views considered him their advocate.

Mufti Popalzai struggled for the freedom of the subcontinent and its people. He was born in a Peshawar based eminent Durrani (Popalzai) family in 1890. Members of the family have traditionally provided the khatib at Masjid Qasim Ali Khan in Peshawar.

Mufti Abdur Rahim Popalzai II was named after his grandfather, Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai, who served as a chief judge of Peshawar under Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th Century. Before being sent to various religious seminaries in India, including Rampur, Delhi and Darul Uloom Deoband, Mufti Poplazai acquired early education at home. In Deoband, he specialised in fiqh and hadith and was among Sheikhul Hind Mehmoodul Hassan’s favourite students.

In the aftermath of World War I, when the British imperialists planned to topple the Othmani Caliphate, he eagerly joined the Khilafat Movement, the agitation launched by Indian Muslims in 1919 for the survival of the Turkish Caliphate.

Mufti Poplazai’s leftist leanings led him to join Naujawan Bharat Sabha, one of the staunch revolutionary wings of occupied India founded by Bhagat Singh in March 1926. He later assumed the charge of Naujawan Bharat Sabha as president of the NWFP chapter at the request of Kakajee Sanober Hussain Mohmand.

As an unswerving anti-imperialist, Mufti Rahim extended moral support to the then Afghan king, Ghazi Amanullah Khan, when he became a target of British conspiracies in the mid-1930s. Several British-installed clerics accused Amanullah Khan of being an anti-Islam emperor. However, Mufti Popalzai and his comrades issued a fatwa (edict) favouring the king.

He played a leading role in putting an end to the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCRs). The British-imposed FCRs, were a set of notorious laws that upset the people of the NWFP. In his December 27, 1929, address on the occasion of Karti Kisan Conference, Mufti Popalzai vehemently criticised the FCRs. In this connection, Naujawan Bharat Sabha launched a movement across the province.

The Indian National Congress too then named a three member-committee called Frontier Inquiry Committee to visit the NWFP on April 21 to investigate the British government’s policies and wrongdoings in the province. Though the inquiry committee members left for the NWFP on the due date, they could not visit the province because the police forced them off the train in Attock on April 20.

On the other hand, the British government arrested Bacha Khan, Mufti Popalzai and many other Congress and Naujawan Bharat Sabha leaders on April 23. On the same day police arrested Allah Bakhsh Barqi, secretary of the Congress Committee from his office. In his autobiography Zama Zhwan au Jadojahd (My Life and Struggles), Bacha Khan writes, “on that day, police arrested Mr Barqi from Congress office and rushed him on foot to the police station because Khudai Khidmatgar stalwarts didn’t let the police drive its motorcade”.

Mufti Poplazai’s leftist leanings led him to join Naujawan Bharat Sabha, one of the staunch revolutionary wings of occupied India founded by Bhagat Singh in March 1926. He later assumed the charge of Naujawan Bharat Sabha as president of the NWFP chapter at the request of Kakajee Sanober Hussain Mohmand. 

On the same day, colonial troops opened indiscriminate fire on hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters who had surrounded the police station in Qissa Khwani Bazaar, Peshawar. According to official accounts 179 people were killed that day. However, eyewitnesses put the death toll at around 400.

Mufti Popalzai and ten other people were put in detention in Peshawar Central Jail. The next day they were shifted to Bala Hisar Fort and then transferred to Gujrat Jail.

Liberal and broad-minded, Mufti Popalzai did not support religious and ethnic biases. He had established close relations with many non-Muslim freedom fighters including Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Ram Sirn Nagina. In his book, Attock Par ki Yadain (Memories from across Attock), freedom fighter Ram Sirn Nagina says that he travelled with Mufti Popalzai from Peshawar to Nowshehra when he was to leave for Mecca to perform Hajj in February 1935.

Mufti Poplazai stood with the community’s voiceless segments, including peasants, labourers and sweepers to secure their rights. In those days, peasants were being exploited by land owners. After an untoward incident occurred with the peasants in Ghala Dhair village on the outskirts of Mardan, Mufti Poplazai and his companions took notice of the incident and supported them. He was imprisoned for two years for advocating the peasants’ rights. This struggle for peasants’ rights was called Ghala Dhair Tehreek (The Grain Stack movement). The movement found roots in Charsadda, too. Khan Obaidullah Khan, a son of the then chief minister, Dr Khan Sahib, was one of the people who joined the movement. For this, he was arrested by his own father’s government.

Sweepers were one of most marginalised communities. Mufti Popalzai raised a voice for their demands. He not only held conferences and conventions in their support but also headed a sweepers’ rally in Peshawar in 1938 along with his close associates, Abdul Ghafoor Aatish and Mohammad Younas Quraishi. This was the first rally of its kind in the history of the NWFP. It concluded at the Polo Ground after marching through the city. It is said that poet Raza Hamdani was a witness to the rally and was awed to see such grand people walking shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of sweepers protesting for their rights.

Besides being a visionary politician, Islamic scholar and a formidable freedom fighter, Mufti Popalzai edited Sirfarosh, an Urdu newspaper, from Peshawar, in 1927. He wrote poetry in both Urdu and Pashto. The British government later banned his newspaper and one of his books.

Mufti Poplazai also fought for the people of Bannu who waged a jihad against the Raj after he received an open letter from Faqir of Ipi seeking his support against the British army in 1940.

It is said that a young Hindu girl, Ram Kori, had embraced Islam and married Syed Amir Noor Ali Shah, a Bannu-based youth, in 1936. The girl’s mother complained that her juvenile daughter had been kidnapped. The government then imprisoned Noor Ali and handed the girl over to her parents following a court order.

This angered the local tribes and led by Mirza Ali Khan (the Faqir of Ipi) they waged armed resistance against the Raj. Mufti Poplazai travelled to Bannu and addressed several rallies. He was arrested and accused of challenging the government’s writ in his April 10, 1940 speech at Masjid-i-Qasaban, Bannu.

He was then jailed for five years in a verdict condemned across the subcontinent. From Bannu, he was shifted to DI Khan Jail and then Peshawar. Mufti Popalzai was later transferred to Haripur Jail and freed on January 17, 1943, owing to his deteriorating health. He died on May 31, 1944, and was laid to rest at the graveyard adjacent to Masjid Qasim Ali Khan in Peshawar.

The writer is a lecturer at Government Degree College, Zhob, and a freelance columnist. He can be reached at hussainhunarmal@gmail.com

A leftist maulana