The Phoenix: Bacha Khan

Bacha Khan was both a politician but more than that he was a social reformer

Sahibzada Riaz Noor February 07, 2023
The writer has served as Chief Secretary, K-P. He has an MA Hons from Oxford University and is the author of two books of English poetry 'The Dragonfly & Other Poems' and 'Bibi Mubarika and Babur’

Symbolism plays no less a role than actual historical events even though such allegorical events may occur after history has given its verdict and injunctions. Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his son Abdul Wali Khan, came to Islamabad in January 2023, not virtually but in the proverbial sense, to accolades of the nation for their contribution, to whatever extent was possible given their circumstances, to a cohesive, plural, liberal and welfare-based country.

Whether one calls it poetic justice or historical nemesis it was no less emblematic that the Bacha Khan Conference on 28-29th January 2023 was being celebrated at a time when there couldn’t be a greater need for abjuring of intolerance and violence in politics and furthering the cause of inclusive national pluralism and acceptance of regional realities of our polity, aspirations and goals that were central to the beliefs of the father and son. But more symbolic perhaps was the fact that Bacha Khan, at last, was being hailed, albeit too late, as the champion of unity, peace and progress in a convention centre named after the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Quaid, a pragmatic constitutionalist believing in the worth of negotiations, had his heart in the right place when he met Ghaffar Khan. The subsequent follow-up couldn’t materialize due to self-centered spoilers.

On his 35th anniversary and on the 17th of his son, Wali Khan, who most of their living lives suffered for being suspected of loyalty, were at last allowed to be acclaimed in no other place than Jinnah Convention Center, Islamabad, a centre named after a person during whose period, perhaps on other’s persuasion, the provincial government of NWFP, led by Dr Khan Sahib, brother of Bacha Khan was dismissed on 26th Aug, 1947 on grounds of suspected allegiance.

Bacha Khan had taken an oath of fealty as a member of the constituent assembly but those who wanted to impose their own exclusively myopic concept of nationhood on Pakistan could not do without constructing and devising ideologies and personalities that did not pose a threat to their own ephemeral supremacy. An enemy had to be created.

Of the 35 years or so during which he survived in a free Pakistan, twenty of those were spent by Ghaffar Khan in prison. Despite his oath of fidelity to the new country, notwithstanding the Afghan irredentist claims over territories that formed part of Afghanistan upto the early 19th century, extending upto river Indus, he was not allowed to breathe in free air and found a burial in the unrestrained atmosphere of Jalalabad, a Pashtoon territory, a better option than opting for a grave in a country that recompensed his vow of loyalty with the heavy hand of colonial masters. Liaqat Ali Khan, during Bacha Khan’s 1948 speech in the constituent assembly, asked him about his position on Pashtunistan. His categorical reply was that it was a demand to give ethnic identity to the land of the Pashtoons like Punjab, Sindh or Baluchistan, inhabited predominantly by those people.

He had once before refused to join the British Guides Cavalry saying his treatment as a second-class citizen in his own land would not permit an equanimous conscience.

There can be no stronger ground of loyalty than his progenies, particularly Wali Khan playing a yeomen role in devising an agreed consensual Constitution for Pakistan after the country’s breakup. It goes without saying that only a civilian-elected government could essay such a Constitution that has braved the vicissitudes of politics and martial laws and in fact is the lasting tether that binds the four provinces and cultural entities of the country together.

No wonder ever since 1973 all martial laws have sought their legitimacy by claiming that they had intervened in the name of the Constitution. About the foreboding present sounds for undoing the basics of the Constitution, including the 18th amendment, the NFC award and the parliamentary system, one may harken to the remark that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Bacha Khan who all his life advocated non-violence, accommodation, consensus and peaceful means of realising the struggle and goals of freedom and welfare of a people, if ever there was an occasion in which his message was more relevant and meaningful, it couldn’t have been any other than the present time. Bacha Khan was both a politician but more than that he was a social reformer committed to adorning Pashtoon children with schoolbooks rather than rifles in their hands, accommodation than a vendetta.

Great men live hundreds of years before their times and age. Besides the philosophy of non-violence, Bacha Khan was presciently ahead of his times: he knew the worth of education and started convincing the landed classes to open village schools not only for boys but was an avid promoter of female education in co-education schools. His own sons started their learning in such village schools for he knew the power and influence of personal example. What would’ve been the shape of the Pashtoon lands or for that matter the whole country if Bacha Khan’s quest for education, and in times technical education, had spread throughout the length and breadth of the then NWFP and Pakistan? A highly educated and productive workforce, which was one of the secrets of the massive growth that the East Asian tigers and China witnessed during their formative stages of development, would not have eluded us.

But that was not to be. We opted for the security-cum religious state paradigm forsaking making Pakistan a productive rather than a rentier state with a rent-seeking economy. Yes, we came of age in a hostile environment but there have been cases of countries that faced existential threats yet kept a fair modicum of balance between transparent security, democracy and economic development. Most of the difficulties we face today could have been resolved had investments in education and health proceeded hand in hand with productivity growth and manageable and affordable but firm security. The phoenix rises only to remind. The rest lies in our own hands.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2023.

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