A deadly extremist attack on northwest Pakistan’s Bacha Khan University contrasts starkly with the nonviolent methods employed by the Pashtun activist for whom the university is named.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
January 20, 2016
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, better known as Bacha Khan, advocated for the rights of his fellow Pashtuns in the British Raj in the early 20th century. Focusing on frontier regions of what is today northwest Pakistan, he eschewed violence and advocated peaceful means of protest against British rule. The Muslim activist’s work earned him the moniker “Frontier Gandhi” — a nod to his Hindu counterpart and close friend Mahatma Gandhi.
But while Gandhi’s peaceful protests against the British garnered him global fame as a pioneer of nonviolent resistance, few outside the region have likely ever heard of Bacha Khan, or “King of Chiefs” in Pashto.
“I was shocked at how we in the West know nothing about Bacha Khan,” says Human Rights Watch’s Peter Bouckaert. “We learned about Gandhi in school. Almost everybody in the United States and Europe has seen the movies about Gandhi and the role he played in the nonviolence movement and then as an inspiration for Martin Luther King and others.”
Bouckaert told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal in 2011 that he first learned about Bacha Khan in 2001, when, while sifting through some pictures at the home of a friend, he saw a photo of Gandhi standing next to a bearded man. His host then told him the story of the independence activist and his importance in the Pashtun community.
“As I learned more about Bacha Khan, I realized he was as important and as courageous a figure as Gandhi was,” Bouckaert says. “He played an important role not only in the struggle for nonviolence, but also in the struggle against extremism.”
Bacha Khan was born on February 6, 1890, in the Peshawar Valley of British India. The son of a feudal lord, Bacha Khan advocated for social justice, including land reforms, from an early age.
In 1929, he founded his seminal Khudai Khidmatgar, or Servants of God movement, to push for Pashtun rights and against British rule. It attracted not only many followers but soon the attention of British authorities, who cracked down on the organization and its members.
After the partition of British India in 1947, Bacha Khan pledged his allegiance to the newly formed Dominion of Pakistan. His demand for an autonomous “Pashtunistan” got him into trouble with local authorities, and he faced arrest several times between 1948 and 1956.
He died on January 20, 1988, under house arrest in Peshawar, Pakistan. He was buried at his home in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Thousands traveled through the Khyber Pass from Peshawar to Jalalabad to attend the ceremony, which was marred by two bomb explosions, killing 15 people.
Those who remember Bacha Khan speak only in superlatives of his impact on Pashtun society.
B.R. Singh, a former senior Indian civil servant, told RFE/RL in 2011 of a visit by Gandhi to the frontier regions, where he met with the leaders of Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar movement.
“Gandhi asked them: ‘What would you do if tomorrow Bacha Khan turns violent?’ Now, such was the impact that Bacha Khan had created that they replied, ‘We would remain nonviolent.'”
“Certainly the Pashtuns had a reputation for violence, yet it is remarkable that Bacha Khan was able to bring about a peaceful transformation, and the Pashtun people followed him. He made them commit themselves to nonviolence,” Singh recalls.