Mukulika Banerjee, 'The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier'

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Review by Peter Brock

The wild and warlike - and mostly illiterate - Muslim tribesmen known usually as Pathans, who straddled the barren mountains between Afghanistan and British India, were an unlikely source for a nonviolent movement. The story of the movement's intrepid leader, six-foot-three Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) and his redshirted Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) has been told a number of times.

Unlike previous writers Mukulika Banerjee, while recognising the contribution of it charismatic leader to the movement's development, gives the story a new dimension by interviewing some 75 surviving KK members. Her book, a blend of historical ethnography and oral history, also makes an important contribution to the history of pacifism and nonviolence.

The young Bengali scholar's fieldwork in a still male-dominated society was not without its dramatic moments! And for the veterans, her passionate interest in their past opened floodgates of memory blocked for so many years by the Pakistani state's attempt to obliterate from the official record their nonviolent struggle against the British for Pathan identity.

The author begins by tracing the origins of the KK movement within the framework of the North-West Frontier Province where Pathans lived both in “tribal areas”, indirectly administered by the British, and in “settled areas” under direct British rule. Then she shows how Badshah Khan, a devout Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, succeeded in transmuting the traditional Pathan ethical code known as pakhtunwali, which sanctified clan vendettas and the blood feud along with hospitality and sanctuary, into a basis for uncompromising nonviolence and how, too, he identified the practice of nonviolence as a principle of Islam as taught by the Prophet Mohammed in the Koran.

Without Gandhi's influence, played down throughout by Banerjee, Badshah Khan and his followers would probably never have reached a position of unconditional nonviolence. On the other hand, without the aid of the “Frontier Gandhi” nonviolence could never have made much headway with the Pathans. For Badshah Khan the Gandhian Constructive Programme became a call to Pathan renewal on both sides of the political frontier. The Pathans, wrote Badshah Khan in his paper Pushtun, “form one nation including those in Afghanistan.” Thus nonviolence was not only a weapon for gaining independence from the British; it was also an instrument to achieve internal unity and a just society through such indigenous social institutions as the jirga (tribal council).Banerjee emphasises that, not only for Badshah Khan himself or for Gandhi, but also “for many KKs nonviolence acquired a moral and religious significance which far exceeded its tactical utility and which remains valid irrespective of the precise outcome of the political struggle”. This fact acquires contemporary interest when we consider that the Taliban gained their chief support in Afghanistan from the Pashtuns (Pathans), the country's largest ethnic group which feels itself increasingly marginalised today.

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