PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Badshah Khan: Pakistan’s Nonviolent Warrior by peaceprobe
November 11, 2007, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nonviolent defence

 “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.”      – Badshah Khan, Muslim leader of Pashtun nonviolent army that worked against British rule in the 1920s and following years. 


In late 2001 and early 2002 I had occasion to be in Pakistan as part of a larger trip to Afghanistan. The people I met in the northwest frontier city of Peshawar and surrounding areas where millions of Pashtun Afghans still live, are much on my mind these days as Pakistan continues its 60 year long rhythm of military rule that alternates with constitutional government. I have always said that if I had ten lives, one of them would be in India as an Indian. In early 2002 I added to the list of nations for one of my ten lives, Pakistan. My curiosity and engagement with Pakistani secular society and unfolding Muslim culture grew deeper every day. When I departed my personal journey of companionship with the peoples building on the work of Badshah Khan had only begun. 

In recent days I listened to the political commentaries on the recent emergency that suspended constitutional rule. I watched the clashes between lawyers and police. Thousands struggling for constitutional rule are now in jail or under house arrest. Unity within the military is holding supported by 10 billion dollars of US Aid, mostly for the military that went to Pakistan since 9/11 under the subtext of defeating terrorism. 

Even as we watch the unfolding story of emergency military rule now, the fourth such military take over in Pakistan’s 60 year history, US military trainers and equippers are finalizing plans for an even greater push to help the half million strong Pakistan army to force its will on the Pashtun border peoples. “The train has already left the station”, a Pentagon spokesperson told the Washington Post when he described these new efforts.

For thousands of years Pakistan’s dense mountainous western border region with Afghanistan where Pashtun people live has escaped the grip of nations and empires to the west and east. Today the rebellious and independent threads running through those mountains have been temporarily renamed “Al Queda supporters” or “Taliban protectors”.   More than two millennia ago Alexander the Great reached the edge of the Indus Valley by leading his army through these mountains into the heartland of Pakistan before turning around to head back home. In ancient times some of our common ancestors the Aryan peoples from Central Asia, also reached Pakistan’s Indus Valley and the land of India beyond, where principalities, empires and nations grew over the foundations of still more ancient civilizations. Since Alexander the Great, foreign forces from the west and from the east  have met successive defeats in Afghanistan often led by the Pashtun people. 

As early converts to Islam the Pashtun tribes embraced and integrated Islam into their more ancient cultural framework of tough independence. When their life was threatened by the Soviets their fighters welcomed the generous outpouring of US support during the 1980s largely channelled through Pakistan’s military.  

Until this century these areas were loosely administered by a system of political officers begun by the British and continued in the period of independent Pakistan. The British never really controlled the area.  Until Pakistan was enlisted as a major player in the war on Soviet intervention in Afghanistan those policies were continued by Pakistan. Now the US Special Forces building on the often failed experience of the last 25 years, plan to work with the Pakistani military to bring the area under disciplined order and rid it of terrorist intent. 

A major legacy of the US supported defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan has been the refinement and increase of modern military competence and the embrace of militant Islam.  Specialized schools called Madrases, selected military and intelligence units, Pakistani military personnel and civilians find meaning for their lives in more activist and often militarized pursuits.  

British and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan were turned back in defeat by the crafty tactics of Pashtun people. Eventually the British and their successors, the Soviets gave up.  Few lessons have been learned.  The interjection of even wider military support to Pakistan will further destabilizes the situation. Today the generals in Pakistan know that trying to quell Pashtun descent may be an unrealistic goal.  But they are willing to carry on counterinsurgency in a perfunctory way in order to keep generous US military aid flowing.  The Pakistan military sees itself as the single unifying institution in the nation, the only body that is able to balance the secular and constitutional peoples of the Pakistan’s heartland with the nation’s Islamic vision. 

But resistance to emergency measures and military rule is not the sole prerogative of lawyers. Pakistan has a civil society that is a living active memory of the historical thread of nonviolent struggle leading to independence of India and Pakistan 60 years ago.   Badshah Khan quoted at the beginning of this article was a Pashtun leader of one part of that effort.   A committed Muslim, he worked with Gandhi in the struggle against British rule. To achieve this end Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) known as the Red Shirts. The group was developed around the notion of Satyagraha, active nonviolence. 100,000 participants were recruited into one of the largest nonviolent armies in history. The organization’s soldiers became legendary for dying at the hands of the police and military of the British Empire.

When I visited Peshawar in 2001, I found threads of curiosity, and interest in the nonviolent struggle made visible 85 years ago, weaving its way through Pakistan’s world. Little reported because of the world,s fascination with terrorism and entertainment violence, the legacy of Badshah Khan survives in people’s minds although the man and his nonviolent army is long forgotten. This legacy is a restraining influence on unbridled military rule, and gives legitimacy to lawyers now manning the barricades and advocating the rule of law rather the rule of the gun.

One day when I was in Peshawar, the Pashtun city of northwest Pakistan I went to visit a private organization that provided educational programs to remote villages in Afghanistan during the long night of Taliban rule. My colleague, Doug Pritchard and I drank cups of tea and waited  for the agency’s director in the entry hall.  Finally our host arrived. His first words to us were, “Peacemaker Teams, where have you been all these years?” We felt those words coming from the deepest chambers of his heart. He described his work and his vision. He also described the enormous levels of violence that people were going through and invited us to think together about peacemaking and building a culture of peace. A Pashtun, he remembered his growing up years in villages where blood feuds led to killings long after the initial incident or insult. 

Now as the violence in Afghanistan increases, and the military gains even more prominence in Pakistan I remember my Pashtun friends in Peshawar and Kabul. I remember their invitation for us to join them in brainstorming for peace and peacemaking. I remember their invitation for us to come and work with them. I remember their urgent words. And I remember our inability to respond then with teams of trained and committed people. The absence of sustained support for grass roots peacemaking is one part of a puzzle that led to conditions for emergency military rule and new initiatives to send special forces trainers. Oh Lord how long?


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