In 1936, a man named Mirza Ali Khan launched what may have been the most successful armed anti-colonial rebellion in British India. Khan, better known as the Faqir of Ipi, had a reputation for saintliness but that was soon overshadowed by his exploits as an insurgent. That year, a 15-year-old Hindu girl married a considerably older Pakhtun man in a tempestuous love affair. Since the girl, who had the moniker Islam Bibi bestowed on her was a minor, her wishes bore little truck with the British and she was returned to her family. Khan, who was from Waziristan, took this as an incitement against the Pakhtun tribes and launched a revolt that was able to withstand British military expeditions thanks to unorthodox guerrilla tactics.
At the time, Khan was a legend for his military exploits; now he barely exists in the general consciousness. This may be because, unlike the radical Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgar, Khan is a figure less attuned to modern sensibilities. Sure, he was an anti-colonial figure on a par with any other, but his movement was spurred by a marriage that would now be seen as illegitimate. He preached a version of Islam that would be disdained as distinctly Taliban-ian and had no compunctions in allying with the Afghan government or the Axis powers during the Second World War. Khan never reconciled himself to the idea of Pakistan and even declared himself president of the territory he inhabited after Partition. Simply put, being right on the central question of his time — the presence of the colonial British in the subcontinent — was not enough to make him an undisputed hero.
This brings us to the various militant factions fighting under the Taliban rubric. Stipulating from the start that the inhuman tactics of the Taliban are not to be condoned, it is instructive to compare it with the Faqir of Ipi for the way it fuses anti-imperial ideology with its depiction of itself as a religious vanguard.
Our need to instantly label the Taliban as a uniquely reactionary force that has no roots in history is undercut by the existence of past Pakhtun movements, like that of Mirza Ali Khan. Just as the Taliban use suicide bombings as a weapon, Khan’s men were accused of castrating those they fought; both saw themselves as the last, best hope of saving Islam; and the British colonisers have been replaced by the imperialistic Americans and their predator drones.
We need to acknowledge the strain of religious nationalism that exists in both and realise that while we may look upon that of Khan’s with detached understanding, we would never extend the same courtesy to the Taliban.
But to do so is important — remembering once again that this in no way implies support for the Taliban’s tactics — to dispel the ahistorical impression that the Taliban are an unprecedented evil. The natural human tendency to egotistically believe that what is happening right now is so very unique as to render history as a mere prologue leads to support measures, like military operations and US drone strikes that we would not consider otherwise.
As for the Faqir of Ipi, after Partition, he gradually faded into irrelevance although not before the Pakistan Army fought his men in Razmak (in one of those ironies history loves so much, the army brigade was led by one Ayub Khan). His pose as the saviour of Islam lost its sheen once Pakistan actually came into existence. Such is history. When a group — no matter how menacing it seems — loses its reason for existence, it tends to slowly disappear.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2012.