Qissa Khawani Bazaar massacre: Standing tall before a hail of gunfire

Published: April 24, 2011

Archive photos showing troops advancing on the protesters (top), a sepoy takes aim early in the day (left), a military vehicle burns in the empty streets (right). PHOTOS: INP

Archive photos showing troops advancing on the protesters (top), a sepoy takes aim early in the day (left), a military vehicle burns in the empty streets (right). PHOTOS: INP Archive photos showing troops advancing on the protesters (top), a sepoy takes aim early in the day (left), a military vehicle burns in the empty streets (right). PHOTOS: INP
Archive photos showing troops advancing on the protesters (top), a sepoy takes aim early in the day (left), a military vehicle burns in the empty streets (right). PHOTOS: INP
ISLAMABAD: 

I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

Qissa Khawani Bazaar is one of Peshawar’s well-established market areas, a place named for its long association with publishing, and these days, sweets. Unfortunately, the bazaar is also the site of one of the most violent attempts by the British Raj to suppress the Indian independence movement.

By 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) had transformed from a movement to unify the Pakhtun tribes under one umbrella into a legitimate non-violent independence movement, drawing inspiration from Gandhi’s Satyagraha philosophy. However, it was the events of April 23 that year which thrust the movement into the limelight.

Following the arrest of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Baacha Khan) for a speech urging resistance to the British occupation, a number of his followers were rounded up by the police on frivolous charges. When two prominent workers surrendered, they were escorted to the Kabuli Police Station, where they were warmly welcomed by a large crowed assembled around the station.

The size of the crowd – which though noisy, had made no threat of violence – panicked the escorts, and they used force to disperse the assembly. The crowd reacted to the gunshots by slashing the tyres of the vehicles and attempting to free the two political workers.

As the British lost control of the situation, the military was brought in to restore order, while civilians from nearby collected at the scene to aid the injured. Upon reaching the scene, the famed indigenous Royal Garhwal Rifles was ordered to move forward and fire.

They refused.

The egg-faced leadership withdrew the Rifles and sent in the City Disturbance Column, who killed and injured members of the crowd while driving in. When the crowd demanded access to the dead and wounded, the Column was ordered to open fire.

The Market of Storytellers ran red with blood as bullets flew around for hours. However, the survivors stood their ground and faced the hail of gunfire with God’s name on their lips. After hours of firing, over 400 people had lost their live, with some estimates going as high as 700.

Gene Sharp, Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, wrote, “When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their chests bared and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as twenty-one bullet wounds in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic…. This continued from 11 till 5 o’clock in the evening. When the number of corpses became too many, the ambulance cars of the government took them away.”

Ghaffar Khan later wrote that this and subsequent aggression towards his non-violent movement were because the British thought a non-violent Pashtun was more dangerous than a violent one.

Though King George VI ordered an investigation into the event, historical records in the Peshawar Archives indicate that like many previous incidents, the British Government tried to covered up the Qissa Khawani Bazaar Massacre by bribing Judge Naimatullah Chaudhry.

However, Naimatullah published a 200-page report criticizing the British and passed a resolution in favour of the local people.

Senator Haji Adeel, Senior Vice President of Awami National Party, told The Express Tribune, “This was a movement that started in the name of democracy and human rights, and this incident triggered life into the people of this part of the world for non-conformism, which later led to the independence movement.”

In the aftermath, the Khudai Khidmatgar became widely known for their resistance work while their leader was propelled to national stature and soon earned himself the nickname Frontier Gandhi for his devotion to non-violent resistance.

As Khan said, “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2011.

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