Bacha Khan And The Remaking Of The Pashtun
Hurmat Ali Shah believes that a rising Pashtun consciousness, reflected in the PTM, has challenged the “common-sense” assumptions of the post-colonial Pakistani state
Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Bacha Khan, who shaped the Pashtun national consciousness through his political struggle against the British Empire, used to say that non-violence is a moral weapon. It disarms the oppressors. It renders tanks and jets useless.
In the course of the anti-colonial struggle, Bacha Khan’s great insight was that you cannot fight an oppressor through his weapons – which he has in abundance. And if you resort to counter-violence, it will provide moral grounds to the oppressor to exercise more violence. When you rise for your rights and present your bare body as the only form of resistance, the oppressor has lost the battle already.
It can be argued that violence can be therapeutic in certain political situations and a viable strategy for those seeking justice in the ultimate periphery. It might be resorted to in zones where hunger is the order of the day and where the essential element of a non-violent strategy – i.e. staging a spectacle by bearing all the violence steadfastly – doesn’t register in mainstream consciousness or is totally absent. And so for that great theorist of anti-colonial movements, Franz Fanon, violence for the oppressed people of Africa was a tool through which they could reclaim their humanity. By demonstrating their capacity to inflict pain they could tell the colonizers that they were as humans as them, and that the colonizers were as vulnerable as the oppressed. In such a context, violent rebellion became a tool, a psychological reaction to undo the colonial logic which depicted them as gentle to the point of slavish docility.
But colonialism comes in all shapes and forms.
In India, the British produced Pashtuns as noble savages who had known one thing for the entirety of their existence: unencumbered violence. We can say that the British produced Pashtuns as a political and epistemological category, as a group of people whose moral arc revolved around the logic of violence and thus, a people who can be dealt with only in the currency of violence.
The self-image and self-conception that the colonizers gave Pashtuns to imagine themselves through was that of a resigned violence – one where violence was the end in itself. Violence dehumanized Pashtuns. If nations as we know them today are a result of modernity and, in our part of the world more specifically, constructions of colonial modernity, then Pashtuns as a modern nation were born in the womb of violence.
But then came along Bacha Khan.
Bacha Khan made non-violence not only a tool for political mobilization but also as a philosophical approach to life. The body-politic and socio-political self-imagination of Pashtuns was rewritten through education and non-violent political mobilization. This was something that the deeply tribal Pashtun society hadn’t known for much of the past few centuries as they were caught in a series of imperial conquests – perched as they were at strategic locations.
And so, through Bacha Khan’s non-violent challenge to colonialism, there was born a national consciousness which was acutely aware of the toll that violence had exacted from Pashtuns as a people overall.
But with independence in 1947, the project of building a national consciousness was far from complete. Over years and decades both the British colonial and Pakistani post-colonial authorities stuck with the logic of violence. They were adamant in inculcating through their policies a violent self-image in the Pashtuns – so as to make them cannon-fodder for strategic games. As a result the Pashtun national consciousness submerged every act of violence into a vortex of memory and resistance. That national consciousness now has crystallized every trauma and pain into a memory which is meant to sustain the today and now. In fact, for over a century, non-violence has been used as a therapeutic elixir by Pashtun thinkers and activists to free bodies, minds and souls from the clutches of violence. There is continuity with the past. In this moment lies the kaleidoscope of all memory: i.e. the memory of resistance.
This moment of the here and now belongs to an evolved stage of Pashtun consciousness. More specifically, this moment belongs to the Pashtun Tahuffuz Movement (PTM). The PTM is another stage in development of a consciousness that was born in opposition to the British Empire. In the alluvium of the last two decades of war, suffering and pain, the PTM emerged as the most radical non-violent movement to continue the collective project of building a national consciousness – and thus of claiming the right to life and dignity. The PTM is using bare bodies as their only weapon and they are calling out their own names. No road-blockade, no burning, no vandalism, no forcing anyone to listen to stories of pain. It is just the voice, stories and bodies of the oppressed. The struggle is intimate. The struggle gives visceral shape to pain. Pashtuns are there in pain. And they are suffering more pain so as to demand answers for the pain that was imposed on their bodies and on their soul. The only weapon is the moral uprightness and the tactic is laying bare into the open the tension that the violent selves of the oppressors are in.
On the other hand, there is the moment of the state. Right now, it is a moment of a most vulgar orgasm – the worship of a fragile and inhuman logic of violence. Their moment is a rootless, illegitimate vacuum where the past didn’t happen and where the future will be born out of more violence. By contrast, the moment of the PTM is one of reliving the entire past trauma, coming to terms with inter-generational pain and awakening the memories of past resistance to carve out a new future. For those in power, the past is merely squalid, a horror to be forgotten. For the PTM, it is a memory of dreams which the present will fulfill.
Bacha Khan imbibed in the Pashtun national consciousness how to neutralize their arrogance around the possession of violence. This memory has empowered non-violent political activists to bear all sorts of violence. The paucity of imagination and the vulgarity of the souls of those today in power can be seen by their insistence on using the most profane means of violence.
But for all those who dream of another Pakistan, the present has a temporal breadth – such that the past lives in the present.
Today, our present, past and future all tell the same story of oppression and violence. Their present is a grand ode to the tyranny of violence. But it is dying. The present of the PTM is a glorious defiance, full of pain. But its march is with the progress of history. Their moment represents their experience of Pakistan – one that is born out of pain.
And so, the moment of the PTM audaciously presents a future where humans will be equal and where humans will live with dignity.
There is a revolutionary anger. Not regret, not remorse. But there is a sense of a great violation of the sanctity of Pashtuns’ lives and their valid struggle.
It is not as if recently the authorities resorted to some especially repressive method which had never been applied before. After all, just three years ago in Bakakhel camp, the authorities saw fit to open fire on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the holy month of Ramazan when they were demanding drinking water at the food distribution point. That moment was forced to be forgotten. So were many others. But not this moment when Khar Qamar happened. In this one moment all time has collapsed.
The debris and ruins of Pashtuns’ memory of excesses and oppression from the last two decades in particular have all come to life. This moment of massacre has converted the memories of time into space. And the image of Khar Qamar has come to embed in itself images of all previous massacres, indignities and violations of souls and bodies.
The important point here is not about the particulars of this one event per se (the event being the singular repression that the PTM is facing after the Khar Qamar violence), but how this one moment has condensed the spaces where such moments happened into a singular image of authorities opening fire on protesters. The past has come to live in the present. The present has ruptured its relation with time and has become a space where fragments of the past live. Thus, in insisting on surviving and winning this moment, the whole struggle has come to represent the dream of the epoch. It is a dream of emancipation from daily, even “common-sense” humiliation that the Pashtuns had been subjected to.
But for those in power in Pakistan the present, as well as the past, is one of hegemony. This is a hegemony which is sustained either through tools and instruments of violence or imposed through the threat of that violence. That hegemony not only encapsulates the state’s actual policies but also its basic narrative. And so it is about an undisputed prerogative for unelected power-centres of the state – when it comes to fashioning the minds, bodies and souls of the citizens through arbitrary and whimsical dictates. That hegemony is so firmly established that it has become the “common sense” politics of the state and “common sense” existence of the people when it comes to their bond and arrangement with the state.
Both the ideological and secular raison d’etre of the state places the supremacy of the security state on a survivalist argument. There has to be an ideological core which blesses the security-driven state as a prophecy to safeguard the Muslim ummah. A secular variant of that argument focuses on exterior and interior threats to the country’s security to argue for the de facto existence of a police state.
The de jure structure of the state, the promise of democracy, justice, due human dignity and rights can always be sacrificed at the altar of survivalist imperative. And so, the de jure Pakistani state promises citizens’ rights, while the de facto state makes it “common sense” that those rights can be disposed of without any complaints possible. The de jure state promises a federation; the de facto state makes it “common sense” politics to divide the territory into a strategic core and periphery. The de jure state commits itself to equality; the de facto makes it “common sense” that the lives of some people have inherently less value than those of others.
And in here lies the challenge of Pashtun historical consciousness – and of the collective memory of other small national groups in Pakistan. They are not willing to forego their collective memory of existence and subsume their identities in that of Official Pakistan.
The status quo is particularly threatened by Pashtun consciousness because it is the most potent challenge to the established narrative. Pashtuns enjoy the advantage of numerical strength combined with being geographically spread over multiple federating units of the country. The dispersion of Pashtuns throughout the country as economic migrants, especially over recent years as they have been leaving their homes behind due to war. Even at the best of times, the asymmetric development policies of the state see Pashtun lands as merely a hinterland for strategic games.
The emergence of this movement was spontaneous but it was able to readily translate the unsayable grievances and anger towards the legal and constitutional articulation of a political program.
What unsettles the masters of the status quo most about the PTM is the depth of the challenge posed by its lawful and constitutional demands. In the course of only a year, the movement has propelled into the mainstream the duality of our existence under the state – what the law says and what actually happens.
It was war-weary activists and youth who put it out there in the open: that there are two states here. One is formal and the other real; one de jure and the other de facto. By demanding equal treatment before the law and constitutional guarantees for all citizens, the movement has demanded that the de-jure become the de facto and the formal be wrestled out from the reality.
So in short, why are the Powers That Be so nervous about this latest stage of Pashtun consciousness? It is not the demands per se but the historic shift and democratization that the movement demands. No wonder the de facto powerbrokers tremble at the sight of the PTM!
The promise of the PTM for Pashtuns threatens the de facto holders of power because their whole project of narrative- and image-building comes into question. A security-obsessed state apparatus had mastered the art of controlling the narrative in the last decade or two, by making every blunder and human tragedy work for it. Think about it: suicide attacks all around, shootings all around, what will people do? Naturally they will turn around to the people who can save them from the horror and terror. When you are confronted by existential dread and the very real possibility of annihilation, you do not ask inconvenient questions of your saviours. Yes, there were voices pointing out to the complicity of the state apparatus in the project of armed religious extremism.
But it was a general “calm” and all was “well” – until along came the PTM.
PTM said “We are the most affected by this existential annihilation and we are firsthand witnesses of how the saviours have been complicit in the religious extremist violence that engulfed our land. And we demand accountability.”
Most certainly, the problem was not that PTM was the first one to call into question the saviours’ story. But the PTM was saying it in the open with tens of thousands of people listening – all over the country. What to do with such a small organization amassing this much attention and galvanizing popular support? Panic set in at the first sight but then the hope was that the carrot of engagement/dialogue and the stick of arrests and intimidation would stop it. But the PTM refused to just go away. It was the product of too much pain.
And from here, the Powers That Be began to oscillate between polar positions – all in an effort to make sense of and rein in these audacious upstarts!
They alternated between carrot and stick, “misguided young people” and “foreign agents”, “aggrieved youth with genuine complaints” and “agents of fifth generation warfare”, negotiations and arbitrary violence, cajoling and weaponizing every legal instrument.
Eventually, the latter option has prevailed. The stick, violence and hyperbolic accusations of treason have become the final strategy for the state to reclaim its politics of common sense and to erase the Pashtun consciousness once and for all.
The new dream of finally making Pakistan a totalitarian reality where one narrative, one image, one party and one wish will rule all, simply can’t stand any form of national consciousness which is not that of artificially constructed, ahistorical, rootless official Pakistaniat.
Pashtun consciousness born out of non-violence, memory and the dream of a future is a total antithesis to the colonial and post-colonial production of Pashtuns as a violent people for whom only the dictates of political violence can be prescribed.
And as the PTM had contested the rulers’ “common sense” in the periphery and – through solidarity – the mainland, other critical and democratic voices in the mainstream have found the vocabulary (and the courage) to say the unsayable.
State authorities, as always, have inexhaustible resources of violence and immense resources to generate a narrative and maintain. But when a national consciousness is steeped in a tradition of resistance and when a political program is articulated by referring to generational trauma then the only dream that the conscience can dream is that of a resistance sustaining itself and winning.
Today’s moment is a continuity of the British colonial massacre at Qissa-Khwani Bazaar and of early Pakistan’s massacre at Babarra. In that history Khar Qamar becomes a memory born in the today which provides a dialectical unity of yesterday with today.
A tomorrow has to be born where the images of Qissa Khwani, Babarra and Khar Qamar can be laid to rest. And when that tomorrow comes, there will be a new future, which we only can dream of in the today.