PRASHANTO BANERJI | Issue Dated: March 4, 2012, New Delhi
It would be nice to win an award, don’t you think? Which one, you ask? Well, how about that one that they give to all those famous people like return gifts at a party… Ah yes, the Nobel Peace Prize, is it? Lets ask for that one… After all, they gave it to Obama for just saying ‘he could’; they gave it to Arafat for blowing up people with the same casual candor as a kid blowing up bubbles at a fair ground; and then they must have been kissing a donkey when they decided to give it to Henry Kissinger for napalming children in Cambodia-Vietnam, and for being a sore loser and calling Indira Gandhi names that rhyme during the Bangladesh war. So with peace efforts like those to match, how much more might we need to do anyway…
Speaking of doing enough to get a nod from those rather generous souls that make up the Nobel Committee, here’s a notable gent who didn’t quite make the cut… A certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Maybe he didn’t do enough or perhaps he did too much. It’s too late now to ponder and perhaps we will never know. But here’s a story of betrayal which, if noticed then, might have made Gandhi’s resume colourful enough to merit consideration for a Nobel nomination.
Before I tell you the story, you must understand that I believe Gandhi was a very good man, and a very capable leader. But he was only human and therefore subject to the same manipulations of fate and man that the rest of us lesser mortals might be vulnerable to…
Agreed, Gandhi wasn’t keen on the partition of India, but at the same time, neither did he adamantly sit on a fast unto death to make his point. As independence loomed, his minders took over and he went from being the man in the picture to being a mute witness to a picture being painted in blood. Did he do enough? Sure, much more than many heroes could ever claim to… Could he have done more? History would have us believe, sure… much, much more.
So what’s my point? My point is a lot of good that Gandhi did is remembered and a bit of good that he didn’t do is also exhumed quite often by party poopers. But somehow this ‘betrayal’, is lost in the mist beyond the border. Last week, while exploring the legend of Kissa Qhwani Bazaar, I found out about his ‘let down’ if not betrayal, that led to the death of an idea, of a legacy, and a friendship. Today there is blood on the hand, and it is the blood of a friend…
In the year 1946, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, leader of the Pakhtuns and talismanic flag-bearer of the non-violent movement in the North-West Frontier Province was an anxious man. The winds that were blowing west from Delhi were bringing bad news. Khan had dedicated his life and urged his hundred thousand plus followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars, to dedicate theirs to the cause of a free, secular and undivided India – a cause pursued through the principles of non-violence and moral courage. But his friends and revered colleagues, Gandhi and members of the Indian National Congress, who had assured him that they were brothers in arms till the bitter end or glory be theirs, had shifted ideals.
Khan had fought an uphill battle with the beliefs of his Pathan brothers, and convinced them that a non-violent path and the goal of an undivided India was the way of humanity, the way of the faith. Singed by the fires fanned by the Muslim League, there was resentment and distrust brewing amongst predominantly Muslim masses that stretched from the Punjab to the Khyber about having to live as minorities under a predominantly Hindu leadership. The Khan, seen as a symbol peace was also being painted by some in the League as an anti-Muslim vassal of the Congress. The British too indulged in their treacherous trifles and set alight the tinderbox that exploded, culminating in riots and massacres across the Indian union. Though a gentler giant there never was, Khan was assaulted and injured by those who thought him a traitor to the faith. While recuperating in hospital, Khan shuddered at the thought of what might happen if the country did actually get rent in two.
As the heat and dust of 1947 came to pass, Khan realised that the idea of an undivided India was no longer the cherished goal for the Indian National Congress. The once abhorred idea of partition had now become a convenient solution for every dancer at this party.
Ghaffar Khan’s faith had been betrayed. He and his supporters had been left to fend for themselves in a new country carved out of an old dream. The very idea of Pakistan – a nation built on the idea of religious division – was an idea that Khan and his people had been fighting, zealously guarding the ideal of an undivided India. Khan believed, and had surely been led to believe that the Congress, and most all his beloved Bapu, would never let the idea of Partition take root. But when Jinnah cracked the whip, the Congress changed tunes and washed its hands off the idea of a united India and Khan and his supporters were the only ones left holding umbrellas at a rain-dance. “You’ve thrown us to the wolves!”, Khan had said to Gandhi when they last met while the nation was tearing itself into two.
By virtue of opposing the partition on communal lines, Khan and the Khidmatgars had opposed the creation of Pakistan. Thus Pakistan’s founding fathers were deeply suspicious of Khan and his supporters. Ghaffar Khan spent most of the rest of his years in Pakistan’s jails.
But the nadir in this relationship was the Babra Sharif massacre. Reading about this incident reminded me of the Jallianwala bagh massacre. But to think that this barbaric crime committed on an unarmed group was not by an oppressive colonial power but by their own representative government from the very same community reveals the intensity of hate insecurity can breed.
In 1948, the Chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Abdul Qayyum Khan, a former INC member and an ally of the Khidmatgars, following orders from Jinnah, had started a crackdown on the Khidmatgars. The men were stripped and their beards were shaved (a grave and serious insult for a pathan), and yet the Khidmatgars remained non violent.
On 12th August, 1948, the khidmatgars gathered for a peaceful protest march from Charsadda to Babra Sharif. But once the protestors marched to Babra, they were surrounded by armed policemen, armoured cars and even, it is rumoured, tanks. Yet again, these unarmed Khidmatgars were fired upon, relentlessly and ruthlessly until not a single round of ammunition remained. Men, women and children had been riddled with bullets and some say 300, and some say more than 1200, had been massacred that day. Bodies were thrown into rivers and canals and the injured were refused treatment. Hospitals and doctors were threatened with dire consequences if they offered treatment to injured Khidmatgars. Such was the nature of the devil that had risen in the dark heart of an insecure government that forgotten day in August.
The pall-bearers who carried those Khidmatgars who managed to get a burial were not carrying the mere corpse of a Khidmatgar but the corpse of a dream and a world of possibilities that will now never come to be. The ideals of spiritual non-violence and moral courage have been replaced by gun toting religious bigotry in the region. A land and a people that had once been a fountain of hope and inspiration has now become a cesspool of violence, oppression and despair.
But the dream that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan saw for ‘his country’ and his people died long before the first bullet was fired at Babra Sharif, when the INC turned away from the Khidmatgars and their shared ideals. That was the unkindest cut of all.
Today, the Khidmatgars, their sacrifices, their heroics, they all lie forgotten… an inconvenient memory for all of us, here and there. And the world’s an unhappier place because of it. So who gets the award for this one…?