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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Roots of Current Violence are in Oppression under Colonialism and Dictatorships

Thursday 2 July 2009, by Bharat Dogra, Reshma Bharti

Pakistan’s Wild West

In order to understand the roots of the present-day violence in Pakistani’s Pashtun (or Pathan) belt, we need to go back to colonial times. While the British colonial rule was oppressive all over (the then united, pre-partition) India, it was even more ruthless in this region (present-day North-West Frontier Province and FATA area) as this was regarded as the strategic gateway of India which had to be secured for British interests at all costs.

Although the Pathan tribes had a reputation for violence and revenge, yet it is remarkable that under the inspiring leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also called Badshah Khan—the King of Khans—and the Frontier Gandhi), they faced colonial oppression with one of the most admired non-violent movements. Badshah Khan considered himself a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, but Mahatma Gandhi himself said that the non-violent struggle started by him had attained the most inspiring stature under the leadership of Badshah Khan. Badshah Khan also had the most inspiring vision of Islam based on peace, brotherhood and equality, including gender equality. His followers increased very rapidly in a short time during the 1930s.

The question we need to ask is: why couldn’t these efforts to make this a region of peace be sustained and how did this region reach the present-day stage of increasing domination by completely ruthless Taliban? The most likely answer is that in societies with a rich tradition of struggle and rebellion, when all avenues of broad-based, democratic, pro-poor mobilisation are denied to people by repressive policies, then it becomes more likely that the pent-up feelings of peple will find an outlet in religious extremism and fundamentalism, particularly when this is supported by powerful patronage.


Let’s take a brief look at the way ordinary people and activists have suffered in this region at the hands of colonialism and dictaterships.

Badshah Khan himself summarised his experience of colonial repression in these words (spoken before the Indian Christian Association, Bombay on October 27, 1934):

“Our fault is that our province is the gateway of India. Because we live there, the government calls us the gatekeepers and openly tells us, “How can we give reforms to the gatekeepers?” The Britishers regard it as dangerous and think that they will not be able to rule India if the gatekeepers join hands with the Indians. It was for this very reason that our movement was crushed at that very outset....

We started our own schools, but the government, under some pretext or other, cleverly ruined the educational institutions of our little children

We were born in the Frontier Province and this is why we were doomed. This is our great crime, that we wanted to see the people of the villages civilized in that very Frontier Province which is called the gateway of India, while they wanted that these people should go on fighting among themselves and remain in need of them and remain in a ruined and destroyed condition so that they might rule our country without feeling any anxiety.

In the words of Eknath Easwaran, the widely quoted biographer of Badshah Khan:

During the Indian freedom struggle, Khan and his nonviolent army found themselves the target of savage repression. On occasion the entire provice was even sealed off from the eys of the world, leaving government forces a free hand to crush the movement in whatever way they could. Throughout the thirties and early forties, Pathans had to endure mass shootings, torture, the destruction of their fields and homes, jail, flogging, and humiliations. Khan himself spent fifteen years in British prisons, often in solitary confinement: in effect, in jail one day for every day that he was free.

Annie Besant, an English woman in India agitating for Indian ‘Home Rule’, wrote:

We loudly proclaimed that we had no quarrel with the Pathan nation, yet we burnt their villages, destroyed their crops, stole their cattle, looted their homes, hanged their men as ‘rebels’ if they resisted, while we drove out their women and children to perish in the snow.

From out of the darkness, moans of suffering reach us, and we shrink in horror from the work which is being done in our names. These starved babes wail out our condemnation. These frozen women cry aloud against us. These stiffened corpses, these fire-blackened districts, these snow-covered, blood-stained plains appear to humanity to curse us.

After independence, this repression of peaceful movement led by Badshah Khan continued in the newly formed Pakistan. He was arrested on June 15, 1948 and sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment. His army of ‘soldiers of peace’—Khudai Khidmatgars—was banned and its headquarter razed. More than a thousand of these activists were jailed. Many of them were killed. The journal which Badshah Khan could bring out even during colonial rule (despite many difficulties) was now entirely stopped.

Badshah Khan jail’s sentence was extended twice, so that he actually spent seven years in jail instead of three. Finally when he come out in jail, he had only a year of freedom before being jailed again. In 1956 his property was confiscaled. In 1957, Amnesty International voted him ‘prisoner of the year’. During the first 30 years following the formation of Pakistan, Badshah Khan was in jail for 15 years. Even at the age of 95 Badshah Khan was placed under house arrest at a government ‘subjail’ after protesting against military rule in Pakistan.

When we try to form an understanding of the roots of religious extremism and its violence,

it is important to remember how the struggles of people to find peaceful democratic outlets for their yearnings were crushed by the brutal forces of colonialism and dictatorships.

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