Abdul Ghafar Khan as a social reformer

Written by Ahmadullah Archiwal

The Frontier Gandhi, Abdul Ghafar Khan, Bacha Khan, as a Social Reformer

It is uncommon for politicians to strive for social reforms in their nations’ life; rather they utilize social gaps of their people for their own interest. Very rarely, politicians pay attention to social issues of the people they represent or claim representing them. Only leaders with long lasting vision for their people, try social reforms in their people’s life.

The work of Bacha Khan proves that he was deeply concerned not only with the political but also social and economic lives of his people. He fought against social differences, unwanted customs, illiteracy, and poverty. He waged a multifaceted campaign for educating his people, alleviating their economic situation, giving them identity and connecting them with the rest of the world. He used not only traditional media for spreading his message and organizing his followers but also introduced the modern means of communication such as newspaper in his society and used it effectively. He struggled for a classless society and for the equal rights of both, men and women.

Pashtoons’ habit of fighting with each other for decades over minor differences was one of the issues that alarmed Bacha Khan. Bacha Khan continued spreading his message everywhere. Even in jail he spread his message of brotherhood and love. Narrating his time in Dera Ghazi Khan Jail, Bacha Khan has said that he could not see the Pashton prisoners insulted by jailers. However, he would remained the Pashton interns that if they had not fought with their cousins over minor issues they would not have ended up being in the jail and facing insults by strangers. Bacha Khan would try to convince the Pashton interns for changing their way of life. It was the force of his message that majority of the people who had spent time with him in the jail became his followers.

In the gatherings and meetings with Pashtoons, Bacha Khan would always advocate for solving their differences with each other and not bribing the government. He knew that Pashtoon’s lust for vengeance is one of the major problems that have pushed them to the darkness of backwardness and slavery in India. He not only preached against taking revenge and in favor of forgiveness but also practiced forgiveness in his own life. Bacha Khan has termed the internal rivalry and the thirst for vengeance of Pashtoons as a means of their exploitation by Mughals and British, who would not have been able to rule strategically important and topographically hard areas of Pashtoons otherwise.

Since his early childhood Bacha Khan was in favor of equality and justice, he loathed social divisions in the society. While studying in the Mission School in Peshawar Bacha Khan had friends among cleaners and sweepers, who were considered untouchables and low class. Such an act was considered disrespectful for people from noble families such as his. He always preached equality among all the people regardless of their religious affiliation or economic status.

Pashtoons, at that time looked down at trading. The ones who were businessmen were not considered Pashtoons, according to the main stream Pashtoons, and thus Pashtoons were relied on agriculture and other low income professions. Bacha Khan advised Pashtoons to engage in trade and establish markets in their areas to improve their lives. To set an example for others, he himself established a huge market where he used to sell local products. Other Pashtoons also changed their behavior and began to adopt trade as a profession. With this change, the local market was not only connected to national market but Pashtoons also earned a lot of money and got the opportunity to play on the national stage economically.

Some religious scholars, though being sufficiently well up, would get donations from ordinary Pashtoons in the name of religion. Bacha Khan not only preached against this practice but also gave practical opposed such practices. A number of rituals that were considered a part of culture, which were against the religion, but had been sold to Pashtoons for religion were so deep rooted that everyone had to practice them even in difficult and impossible circumstances. Such practices would only serve interests of not only Khans, land lords, but of some selfish and half educated religious leaders too. They were power centers in the society and their authority could not be questioned. However, Bacha Khan risked the opposition of Khans and religious scholars and preached against such rituals. Opposing such rituals meant opposing authority of Khans and nominal religious scholars in the society, which was not an easy thing to do. But he knew that getting rid of the slavery of Khans and Maliks was the only way forward to better life of his people. He believed in democracy and equality and for that he had to oppose local feudalism.

Women were considered second class members in every Pashtoon family, at least in areas where Bacha Khan and his fellows were struggling, at that time. Women had to feed their male family members and guests first and then eat afterwards. At times; women would have to stay hungry when there was no food left for them. Women would not get shares in the inheritance of their fathers and husbands. He advocated for the women’s rights and started this reform from his own family. Bacha Khan set up an example of eating with his female members of the family at the same time and setting up educational centers for girls and advocated for the women’s’ rights. His example was followed by his close followers and thus he paved way for changing the practice on larger scale.

Spying on each other, bribing officials to put fellow Pashtoons down and getting attention from the British Raj was another social problem at least among the elite and feudal classes of that time. Bacha Khan struggled against this practice and tried to convince his compatriots to shun it. Bacha Khan would warn Pashtoons against divisions and tell his followers that they can get respect from others only when they are united and are strongly bounded. Bacha Khan challenged the British Raj -Khan alliance by empowering ordinary people. Once people got empowered they get rid of the yoke of Khans to greater extent.

Bacha Khan always advocated for simplicity in life. He always opposed spending huge amounts of money in weddings and other important rituals that are part of the Pashtons’ daily lives. Though Bacha Khan had inherited a huge piece of land from his father and was laterally considered a Khan(landlord) he still worked in his fields with his farmers shoulder to shoulder and did not consider it as an insult for himself.

Asadullah Ghazanfar, Afghan writer and journalist, says that his father has hosted Bacha Khan a number of times in his house in Kunduz(Afghanistan)  when Khan visited Kunduz in 1970s.Though Ghazanfar was very young at that time but he remembers Khan very well “ He would wear the simplest and cheapest hand woven clothes and would always ask for  the simplest food.” “My father was in a position to provide lavish food to Khan but Khan would forbid my father to do so.”Ghazanfar added.

Bacha Khan believed that illiteracy was another biggest challenge for Pashtoons. He, therefore, established a web of independent schools to educate Pashtoons. Bacha Khan went from door to door and from village to village and garnered support for his mission and did not let his efforts to sink. He called upon Pashtoons to compete positively with other people in the sub -continent to get their due rights and live happily. He thought that education was the most effective way to get that end. Despite strong opposition from the British Raj and internal nominal religious leaders he did not give up his efforts. British Raj, knowing the importance of religion in the life of Pashtoons, skillfully employed some nominal Pashtoon religious scholars to foil Bacha Khan’s efforts of educating Pashtoons. They would recite poems such as;

They go to school                                               to earn money

They would have no place in Paradise                 and would be diving in hell

However, Bacha Khan skillfully compete the British and established a number of independent schools for educating Pashtoon children in his area.Khan, well aware of the importance of a language in the life of nations and its effectiveness in educational system, made Pashto language of education in his independent schools. He helped Pashtoons not only learn easily what they were taught but also gave an identity to Pashtoons, which saved them from a complete destruction. He maligned British Raj for not giving Pashtoo education to Pashtoon children in schools. Bacha Khan struggled for the teaching of Pashtoo when Pashtoon were laterally forgetting Pashto.

Bacha Khan was not only well versed in Islam himself he also got support from other famous religious scholars, and made them partner in his struggle. He made an important religious scholar, Haji Turangzo, head of his first independent school to thwart British propaganda against his independent schools. He would visit Dewband, the biggest Islamic School in India, in disguise to avoid arrest, to meet important religious scholars and seek their advice from time to time.

As a step forward to introducing reforms in the lives of Pashtoons Bacha khan had founded, Anjuman-e- Islah Afaghina, association for the reforms of Pashtoons. The aim of the association is said to have been introducing reforms in social life of Pashtoons and uniting them. When asked by a jirga sent by the British Raj about his mission, Bacha Khan replied that his mission was to introduce reforms in his people’s lives, which should have been done by the government.

Bacha Khan had a multi-track approach for reforming the society .Aside from utilizing the teachings of Islam and formal education he also used media and established the first Pashtoo newspaper, the Pashtoon, in the sub-continent in 1928. The newspaper was aimed to increase awareness among Pashtoons on all relevant issues, transform them socially and educate them. Talking about the conditions of Pashtoons at the time of founding the newspaper, Khan has said that Pashtoons were so backward that they could not read and write Pashto and laterally looked down at their own mother tongue.

While commenting on the importance of the newspaper Khan has said that it not only increased awareness among Pashtoons of the subcontinent and Afghanistan on important political, social and economic issues but also found readership in Australia, US and Europe, from where the readers would send donations for the newspaper. The newspaper globalized the mission of Bacha Khan, and also connected Pashtoons to the rest of the world.

The newspaper helped Pashtoons not only to update themselves in the developments in the rest of India but also educated them in important political, social, cultural and economic issues. The King of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan, was impressed to the extent with the newspaper that he promised to give Pashto status of official language in Afghanistan within three years, which of course did not happen because the king was forced to leave Afghanistan and live in Rome for the rest of his life.

Moreover, the newspaper also changed the behavior of Pashtoons, who would not spend money on newspapers and books. But when the Pashtoon was founded Pashtoons would buy the newspaper and read it regularly. It was after a struggle for social reforms of a few decades when Bacha Khan stepped forward to founding Khudai Khidmatgar, the servants of God, in 1929, to begin his political struggle.