On April 23, 1930, British soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters killing hundreds in Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar.
Few, however, are aware of the violent history witnessed by the bazaar’s chipped marble arches, at the opening of Dhaki Nalbandi Street. Now, the walls, which have long lost their lustre, are covered with another form of protest – religious political parties’ posters, each with its own outburst against America.
The sacrifices made by the non-violent demonstrators remain largely confined to the footnotes of history, unlike the well-known, well-documented Jalianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar.
It was barely a month after Gandhi’s Salt March that Qissa Khwani witnessed bloodshed, when Abdul Ghaffar Khan (popularly known as Bacha Khan)’s Khudai Khidmatgar movement was making its own mark on the western frontier.
The anti-colonial movement at the time was sparked by a number of factors – on one hand, the more religious elements were resisting British attempts to change Muslim personal laws, as per one author. Other writers note resentment to draconian laws (still in place today) like the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).
Ziauddin, a local researcher who is about to publish a book on the massacre, said that the tragedy remains one of the most neglected chapters of subcontinental history. “It is not mentioned in textbooks, nor do any dramas, books or novels credit those martyrs,” he said.
In fact, the only entity that commemorates the day annually and remembers those who laid down their lives is the Gandhara Hindko Board, an organisation that aims to preserve the native language.
Even at the time, the protest was hijacked by those with their own political agenda. “There was no political party involved (in the protests), but they all tried to take credit for the sacrifices of the locals,” Ziauddin told The Express Tribune.
The incident itself occurred when protests by the Khilafat Committee and local religious clerics snowballed into something much bigger than had been anticipated. Mukulika Banerjee writes in her book ‘Pathan Unarmed’: “A Congress committee of enquiry was due to arrive to begin an investigation into the grievances of NWFP, in particular the FCR and other regressive measures.”
Banerjee outlines how hundreds of Bacha Khan’s Red Shirts were waiting to receive the committee at the Peshawar railway station when they were told that the committee had been stopped in Punjab. Ensuing protests led to Bacha Khan being placed under house arrest on charges of sedition.
It was then that people took to the streets, in hundreds, under the marble arches of the Qissa Khwani Bazaar. After local police refused to open fire on the peaceful protesters, the government called in the army.
The British acknowledged around 179 casualties. The Khilafat Committee claimed that there were around 700 fatalities, Ziauddin said, adding that the committee maintained that the British threw most of the bodies in Attock River to cover up the facts.
After the massacre, a Qissa Khwani trader, named Ashiq Hussain, constructed a monument to commemorate the victims at his own expense. The British, however, demolished the reminder.
“After the creation of Pakistan, leaguers and nationalists tried to turn this place green and red, to claim legacy for this event. This finally came to an end in the 1980s, after which (another) monument was set up to remember the martyrs of Qissa Khwani,” Ziauddin said.
While few remember the tragedy 82 years after it took place, and although it has been largely ignored in the annals of history, in 1930, the Qissa Khwani massacre was at the forefront of the nationalist consciousness: Banerjee concludes aptly: “From being a minor sideshow, the Pathans became nationalist heroes overnight.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2012.