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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Remembering Frontier Gandhi / Disaster in Uttarakhand

Saturday 20 February 2021, by Humra Quraishi


February 10, 2021

 February 6 was Khan Abdul Ghaffar’s Khan birth anniversary; he was born on 6 February 1890, in Utmanzai, Pakistan. Also, known as the Frontier Gandhi, he played a very, very significant role in the Independence struggle. Needless to add that today, with the changing political climate, he and his struggles get bypassed, if not side tracked.

Few years back, Delhi based activist, Faisal Khan, had formed the ‘Khudai Khidmatgars’ (Servants of God), in memory of the Frontier Gandhi. And in keeping with his philosophy, Faisal Khan and his fellow activists, reached out to anyone and everyone in distress. They also set up a ‘home’ in New Delhi, for all humans, from any religion or region. Justice Rajinder Sachar had inaugurated it and we were all present at that touching ceremony. But what fate awaited Faisal Khan! Few months back he and one of his Khudai Khidmatgar colleagues were jailed. Why? Because he was seen offering namaaz in the premises of a temple!

Provoking one to quip: Don’t we all belong to the same Creator! Don’t we all come up with prayers from the heart, whether rendered in any language or at any place! Don’t we all rush towards a peaceful place for solace, where we can pray!

Whilst keying in, nostalgia tightening its hold. I recall in school, Lucknow’s Loreto Convent, I would rush towards the school chapel to sit there and pray. This was whenever I would be hurt and going through emotional lows. Mind you, no upheavals nor threats that a Hindoostani Musalmaan girl was seen sitting praying in the confines of the chapel of a missionary school. Nah, none of those communally surcharged apprehensions were in circulation along the strain that the selfless nuns were trying to convert, from a this to that! Those were those good old days, when the political mafia wasn’t hounding on any given alibi or pretext!

 Getting back to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and with that to his grandson, Asfandyar Wali Khan. I met Asfandyar Wali Khan in 2004, in New Delhi, when he was here, at the invitation of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi.

I’d done a detailed interview with Asfandyar Wali Khan for a national daily and I loved the way he spoke out in that absolutely forthright blatant way. He was of the firm view that non- violence is the only way forward, “See, there are only two ways to sort out any issue --- using the military or through dialogue. Military or warfare do not sort out a thing and sooner or later one has to resort to the non - violent methods, which means to have a dialogue. That is what both the Gandhis --- Mahatma and Ghaffar Khan --- had strongly believed in and practised. It is better to have a dialogue in the first place and not to so after the destruction that war invariably unleashes on people.”

And on why liberals like his grandfather lie forgotten he corrected me, “This is not entirely true. There are groups of students in Germany and in the US who are doing research on him. Then let me tell you this incident. In the mid — 90s I was travelling in India and on way to Agra we stopped at a motel where a young man came up to me , touched the thick khadi weave kurta I was wearing and kept saying ‘Frontier Gandhi used to wear such Khadi.’ ”

 And when I’d asked him about his recollections of his grandfather, he looked lost in thoughts, before detailing, “Most of the time he was in prison. In fact, he spent almost 33 years in jail ( in Pakistan) and for about seven years he lived in exile in Afghanistan. I managed to spend only about two years with him. There was one aspect to him that always stood out: his stark simplicity. Once when we were invited for dinner at an Afghan friend’s home, my grandfather ordered all the dishes to be removed from the dastarkhwan except saag. To that the hosts commented that he is stricter than God, for God at least lets his people eat as much as they want! Even to this day, in my family, we have only two dishes for each meal...He always thought about the welfare of the people and that’s about it. He was extremely simple and that particular photograph of his still haunts me --- he alighting from the plane with a little bundle tucked under his arm and Indira Gandhi waiting to receive him ...He lived by his convictions and in 1929 when Mahatma Gandhi called for a non- violent struggle against the British rule, he responded by forming an ‘army’ of 1,00,000 men --- the Khudai Khidmatgars( servants of God), who worked with him to take on the British through non- violent ways.”

And when I asked him to comment on the dilemma hitting many --- it surprises many that the Pathans, who are considered to be violent people, could practise non —violence. And this is what he has to comment, “ My grandfather had once answered this question. He had said, “There is nothing surprising that in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of non - violence. This is not a new creed. This was followed 1,400 years ago by the Prophet, all the time he was in Mecca.’ ” He went on detail, “This propaganda that the Muslims are a violent community is a fall out of today’s world politics and the games played by the super power. In fact, when I was invited to address a forum in the US, I told the audience that you would have expected to see me , a Pakhtun, with a long flowing beard and a gun on my shoulder but here I am , clean shaven and a strong believer in non- violence. I have no security guards with me. Even when travelling in the interiors of my country, it is just me and my driver. I believe there is a fixed time for death and nobody can change it by even a second. Such is my belief and faith. And though I have been in politics for years but I have never deterred from my principles...In fact, if you have studied Afghan history, then you’d know that their struggles have always been based on nationalism and not religion. It is the US that brought in religion and used it in recent wars. This phase has been like a curse for the people of Afghanistan.”

He had come up with this rather simplistic explanation to the growing turmoil in world, more so in the Islamic world,“ If you have two badmashes in a village its okay, because will be busy settling scores with each other. But there will be chaos and confusion if there is only one badmash left! That’s the trouble in today’s world. There is only one badmash left! Also, where’s the leadership of calibre in today’s Muslim world. Religion was used by Americans in Afghanistan to create their base, otherwise Afghan struggles had been based on nationalism and not religion. Also, the ongoing atrocities against the Palestinians are hurting the Muslims the world over . Post 9 /11, the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are being looked at as if they are similar ,which is not the case. The true essence and meaning of Islam is being overshadowed in this chaos which is unfortunate , for Islam stands for justice and peace.”

WITH DISASTERS AND TRAGEDIES TAKING PLACE IN UTTARAKHAND, one is thinking of PROTIMA BEDI - she had died in a landslide, on August 18, 1998, in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh.

Much before I had interviewed Protima Bedi I’d been spotting her all over this capital city, New Delhi . Some aspects stood out, unchanging---  she was never alone but always accompanied by a male friend , who invariably happened to be one of those who’s who, from the creamy lot this city houses in plenty. She always wore simple cotton stuff; very often the traditional mundu (Kerala’s two piece saris) tied rather low, with her mid riff amply revealed. She didn’t seem to wear much make up, except a big-sized bindi and lipstick on her thick lips! That pout caught attention. Oh, yes, she looked attractive and she knew that people were staring at her, rather ogling! Her gait was confident and even when she wore the simplest of saris or mundus she looked different. Something or everything very different to her.

I had met Protima Bedi and spoken to her along the informal strain, at social dos and gatherings, but a detailed interview with her came up when she was all set to dance for the newly formed forum --- Association of British Scholars (ABS ).And with that, she was all set to collect enough money for the dance school --- Nrityagram --- she had set up in Karnataka.

And as the interview progressed, it got more than apparent that she did not feel comfortable answering any of the queries related to the then reigning political figure of Karnataka , Ramkrishna Hedge , whose name was more than linked with her ... She’d retorted and reacted to any of those romantic links to him , “ If that was true then I wouldn’t be begging for rupees for my dance school...right now I feel like a beggar, begging for one hundred or ten thousand ...yes , I am begging for rs 100 or rs 10,000 for my dance school ...but no giving up .No way!”

But didn’t her dance school get ample funds from the Department of Culture?

“ Of course we got, but we need more funds. After all, I’m taking our traditional dance to the rural areas, for that’s where it belongs. Why should cultural dance forms get limited to the urbane elite , viewing in the air-conditioned halls! I have taken our traditional dance forms to where it belongs ---to rural India.”

But with all her possible contacts with men on the circuit, funding couldn’t be such a problem. Well, not such a problem that she’s reduced to ‘begging’?

“What men! What contacts! I’m so involved in my dance village that I have no time to think of anything else... from early morning I’m so busy with the daily chores. We do all the work ourselves ---cleaning, cooking, washing, teaching. I am determined to continue doing what I’m ... have to keep this dance school going on. Yes, I am very strong- willed woman and even if I have to starve I will not give up.”

And with that she took to explaining that traditional dance forms must be taught to women and that its time women of this country be given their due freedom in the actual sense of the term “ How can I rest in peace when so many injustices are going on. Look at the way our women are being suppressed! Look at the crap going on in the name of culture!”

And when I pointed out to her that very contradiction —  she dancing for the urban elite forum ABS, yet talking of rural India , she hit out, “ For funds ! For my dancers! For my dance village! For my passion, my dance school! I’m one of those women who never ever gives up.”

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