Friday, 26 July 2013

On doing Pakhtunwali

by Aneela Z Babar

Magnus Marsden is not alone in critiquing how the North West Frontier Province has long been represented as ‘home to a distinctive kind of violence, not so much ‘communal’ as well as ‘tribal’…with ‘revenge’, the ‘feud’ and tests of prowess and masculinity are supposedly central to Pakhtun life (Read Marden’s Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province published by Cambridge University Press). As Benedict Anderson (in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, London 1984) reflects ‘communities are distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. In an earlier column I had touched on re-imagining the Pathan community in modern day Pakistan by exploring the Khudai Khidmatgars of North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) in pre-partition Pakistan. The movement had during the Indian nationalist movement’ ‘grappled’ with Orientalist imagination of the Pathans as ‘the martial, hyper masculine race’. They did this by going beyond a simple engagement with the Gandhian principle of non violence and managing to execute an ideal of ‘positive masculinity’ through formulating and adopting an indigenous code of what constituted as ghairat (honour) and sareetop (being a complete man) from a framework of Pakhtunwali /doing Pakhto (the code of conduct for ‘being’ Pathan) and Islam that was familiar to their region. Others have called for an ‘alternative memory’ of partition in the North Western Frontier Province by studying how the adoption of non-violence by this movement did not see the scale of communal violence in the North Western Frontier Province that the rest of South Asia did at the time of partition. Incidences where riots were instigated, the Khudai Khidmatgars personally intervened and ensured protection to Hindus and Sikhs living in the region.

The Khudai Khidmatgars , though inspired by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan involved a conscientious analysis by even the ‘average subaltern of this non-violent army’ of how s/he negotiated an alternative interpretation of political Islam. Women were encouraged to be involved in the Khudai Khidmatgars movement and the resultant political activism brought about an easing of purdah and segregation rules, and inclusion of concerns like women’s access to education and inheritance rights.

As Mulkika Bannerjee’s painstaking research in the Khidmatgars movement shows (The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier published by the Oxford University Press and the School of American Research Press) this was not an instance of an ignorant ‘peasant’ movement blindly following a charismatic leader. All sections of Pakhtun society involved in the Khidmatgars movement had a careful understanding of what the movement meant for them. For some the movement’s civil disobedience, for example, through its refusal to pay dues, struck effectively at the authority, income and prestige of the tax collectors and the khan community who were seen as agents and intermediaries of the British. For others it was some semblance of fending for Islamic values by opposing British wrongdoing and promoting social cohesion. As Banerjee notes for the Pakhtun intelligentsia the movement was seen a revival of Pakhtun culture and living which Marsden explores elsewhere for the Chitrali Muslim as living a ‘mindful life’. Ghaffar Khan by coming up with the cooperative sugar depots tried to challenge the economic stranglehold that the NWFP was placed in and also initiated business opportunities for Pathans. True to his principles of austerity he tried to discourage extravagance amongst Pathans and their reliance on moneylenders which he was of the opinion living a wasteful life encourages.

It is important to study and follow the history of the movement as symbolic interactionism derived from how Khidmatgars ‘did Pakhtunwali’. At times history should be acknowledged as a cultural studies project by understanding the (Khidmatgars) ‘observation’ of the situation, what they took into account and follow common people’s interpretation of their actions and what led to their selection and execution of any of their behavior.

With the simple oath ‘In the name of God who is Present and Evident, I am a Khudai Khidmatgars. I will serve the nation without any self-interest. I will not take revenge (badla) and my actions will not be a burden for anyone. My actions will be non-violent. I will make every sacrifice required of me to stay on this path. I will serve people without regard to their religion or faith. I shall use nation-made goods. I shall not be tempted by any office’ the ‘‘average villager who is ignorant and follows blindly’ as British intelligence reports described them followed a life world that seems alien to today’s perception of the community.

Banerjee’s beautiful narration of the community distributing charkha (spinning wheel), of men questioning gendered representations of work (that spinning thread is only ‘a woman’s job’) and challenging what they saw as British misinformation regarding class in Pakhtun society (that weavers are low caste and weaving was frowned upon in polite Pakhtun society) and the episode when a Khidmatgars in response to taunts that carrying a spinning wheel was carrying something unIslamic and feminine with the retort that this is his top (canon) with which he will blast the British are moving. With communal weaver’s workshops women no longer keep purdah in front of the weavers and there was a relaxation of any restraints on mobility.

But what is exceptionally poignant are the images of the thousands of Khidmatgars at their charkha conscious that being at the spinning wheel would remind them of the lessons that Ghaffar Khan had taught them at training camps of being self-contained and restraining pride. Grinding wheat for flour, rape-seed oil for cooking, cleaning the house, sweeping the hujra of the ‘khan’ as khidmat (service), volunteering to dig graves, latrines were all as Banerjee has analyzed the ‘psychological preparation for non violence instilling patience, stoicism and forbearance in the Pathan’. That the Khidmatgars stuck to their principles of non-violence and negotiated their political goals in the face of the physical violence unleashed by the British is exemplary.

This is in direct contrast to the present NWFP leadership that stands accused of propagating a very monotheist definition of what ‘doing Pakhto’ or being Muslim signifies. The provincial and national government’s Afghan policy of the eighties has left behind a violent gun culture, promoted seclusion of women and left behind a very narrow public space for religious and ethnic minorities. Though NWFP’s low social development indicators can be explained as trends that existed before the development of the Afghan inspired ‘gun culture’, but to this some like Khattak (1994) reply that the comparative improvement in other Pakistani provinces indicate that there have been retrogressive state policies that have kept social change at bay in the NWFP. In post-partition Pakistan the Khudai Khidmatgars movement has faced the brunt of political violence and economic repression by successive regimes with family members of those involved in the movement and their later generations still continuing to suffer. Therefore we have lost out on the opportunity of exploring an alternative paradigm for NWFP of a movement that had sponsored and supported a dialogue to address difficult problems of inter-communal and societal harmony. And that tolerance towards diversity of belief was not alien to the NWFP province.

This included street demonstrations by the Khidmatgars protesting the acts of disruption sponsored by the political Agent administered tribal areas and Muslim League, appointing groups to patrol the areas hosting non-Muslim population and supporting these communities in the wake of provocation by any rioters. There are also oral testimonies of various instances where Khidmatgars and their extended families protected the lives and properties of non-Muslim minorities. Post-partition the Pakistan state’s efforts to valorize a belligerent rather than a more rational and pacifist attitude towards ‘others’ in the community did not give any space to the Khidmatgar and their episodes of valor in the ‘official’ history of partition, therefore a particular episode of South Asian history will remain ‘invisible’ with these stories remaining unspoken, hidden and de-legitimized.


-originally published by The Post circa 2005 republished for educational purposes
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