Lately, Peshawar has been in the news for all the bad reasons. First it was the attack on the Army Public School on 16th December 2014, carried out by seven gunmen affiliated to an offshoot of the Taliban, killing 132 children. Then it’s the recent attack on the Bacha Khan University in nearby Charsadda, on 20th January, purportedly by the same group, killing 21 people.
Interestingly Peshawar, the capital of the erstwhile North West Frontier Province, presently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Indian subcontinent, with a very strong legacy in art, culture and religion that transcends the boundaries of Pakistan and India. Peshawar, and that entire region, also happens to be the karmabhoomi of Bacha (Badshah) Khan, the legendary Pashto leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an apostle of nonviolence and a close aid of Mahatma Gandhi.
The history of Peshawar, and especially that of Bacha Khan, who lends his name to the University where the recent attack happened, don’t seem to go hand in hand with the present state the entire region has got into. The glorious past and the legacy left behind by Bacha Khan were all indigenous to the region. It was not something that any external agency had created for them, unlike the thousand legacies left behind by the British on India. The cultural heritage of that region is very much rooted there, not anywhere else. So it shocks more when we see what it has degenerated into now. The most striking thing of that place is indeed Bacha Khan’s tryst with nonviolence, something the towering personality had started preaching and practicing totally independent of Gandhi. It could very well be a case study in itself, when seen in the context of Islam, or rather the Islam he believed in. It’s intriguing why his interpretations of Islam, which he used to justify his faith in nonviolence, doesn’t find any resonance now.
It’s paradoxical that, at a time when certain interpretations of Islam have been fuelling a sort of violence and terrorism not seen before, no one wants to talk about Bacha Khan’s nonviolence. It’s as though, the moment you talk about that, you indirectly accept Islam can also be interpreted in a different way, and thus, you would accept this too that the other interpretation is questionable, or rather wrong. That’s where lies all the problem – no one is ready say that the king is naked.
Let us go back and look into the history a bit. Peshawar had a famous dagaba (dhatu-garbha in Sanskrit meaning a receptacle for sacred ashes or relics) enshrining the begging pot of the Buddha. It was constructed by the Kushana Emperor Kanishka in the 2nd century AD. The sacred relic was taken to Vaishali, and then to Kandahar, where it’s still believed to be preserved and revered by the Muslims.
When the Chinese monk and traveler Fah Hien passed through the province in the 5th century he describes the dagaba at Peshawar as “more than 470 ft. in height, and decorated with every sort of precious substance, so that all who passed by, and saw the exquisite beauty and graceful proportions of the tower and the temple attached to it, exclaimed in delight that it was incomparable for beauty”. He adds, “Tradition says this was the highest tower in Jambudwipa.”
When Hiuen Tsang passed that way more than 200 years later, he reports the tower as having been 400 ft. high, but it was then ruined. It doesn’t exist now.
Kanishka is represented as a Buddhist, beyond all doubt. He held a convocation at which Nagarjuna was apparently the presiding genius. From about that time the Tibetans, Burmese, and Chinese date the first introduction of Buddhism into their countries. Nagarjuna essentially spread Buddhism, from Peshawar, over the whole of central and eastern Asia. It was precisely analogous to the revolution that took place in the Christian Church, about the same time after the death of its founder. Six hundred years after Christ, Gregory the Great established the hierarchical Roman Catholic system.
So the Sanskrit Purushapura, which Akbar Persianized to Peshawar, the Frontier Town, happens to be an epicenter for Buddhism. At Jamalgarhi, 36 miles NE of Peshawar, and Takht-i-Bahai, 8 miles further westward, the ancient monasteries exist till date.
Charsadda, where the recent attack happened, is identified with the ancient Pushkalavati, another important Buddhist site.
Peshawar still has the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Teller’s Market. It’s not for nothing that the qafilas have been bringing the Afghans, Persians, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Russians and many others from round the world to this place, for two thousand years, since the time of the great Kanishki Namworr, as was the Kushan Emperor Kanishka often referred to in the old inscriptions.
Everyone who came here had a story to share and that’s how this market came to be known as the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Tellers’ Market. For thousands of years the people have listened to these stories of the world. The followers of Bacha Khan created their own story on 23rd April, 1930. It was the story of the honesty and truthfulness of the Pashtuns, the story of sacrificing their wealth, life and comfort for the liberty of Hindustan, the story of their lives in accordance with the principles of adam tashaddud, nonviolence, preached by their leader, Bacha Khan.
With his affable but stupefying personality, as towering as his tall height, and the earnestness in his speech, Bacha Khan had hypnotized many young minds. Sometime back, he had given a mesmerizing speech at Utmanzai, his birthplace, not very far from Peshawar.
“I’m going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you’re not aware of it. That weapon is sabr, patience, renunciation of all violent retaliation and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it. When you go back to villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God, and its weapon is sabr. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise sabr, victory will be yours…”
Bacha Khan had formed the Khudai Khidmadgar, Servants of God, the previous year. Such was the popularity of Abdul Gaffar Khan, anointed as Badshah Khan, the King of Khans, that even his reference would augur a feeling of reverence among his people. Such a level of acceptance among the Pashtuns was perhaps because he had instilled new vigor and honor into Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, giving the violent people a new meaning to their lives which had been relegated to bad blood and savage killings.
He would say, “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke. A Muslim never hurts anyone by word or deed. Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat, work and faith and love…”
Bacha Khan was essentially interpreting the 250th verse of the 2nd chapter of Quran. Rabbana, afrigh alayna sabran, Lord, pour sabr on us. Wa-thabbit aqdamana, and make firm our qadm, the steps we take. Wa-unsurna ala al-qawami al-kafirana, and help us against the people who are kafir, infidels. What’s interesting here is his interpretation of “kafir” which most commonly is taken as non-believers in Islam. But Bacha Khan interpreted that as enemies, the Angrez in his case. He decided to support the Peshawar Congress and participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
A picketing was planned at the Qissa Khawani Bazar on 23rd April, 1930, which soon turned out to be another Jallianwala Bagh. The police from the nearby Kabuli Thana fired indiscriminately at the nonviolent Pashtuns who ran for their lives in the narrow streets of the market and died, not even one turning violent.
What exactly happened on 23rd April may be well understood from the following two poems, one in Urdu and the other in Pashto.
Malakul maut ko khatir mein na lene wale
Goliyan taney huye seeno pe khane wale
Qabr tak sabr ko sehte huye jane wale
Sabat ka mujiza dunya ko dikhane wale
Not paying any heed to the Angel of Death,
Taking the bullets valiantly on their chest,
Till they go to their graves enduring the patience,
Showing the world the wonder of perseverance…
Dasey toye karhi hecha nadi da chargano winey
Laka toye karhi di angrez da mazlumano winey
Zaka likaley de Santis April harcha pa wino
Che pa de wradz bande werhia we da khwarano winey
Qissa Khana qasab-khana wah pa nazar da khalqo
Che ye bazar ke bahedalay da khwarano winey
No one has shed the blood of the chickens in the way
The Angrez shed the blood of the oppressed, that day.
“Santis April” all have written in letters bloody red –
The day saw easy blood as the poor died and bled.
Qissa Khana became a slaughter’s house before our eyes;
In the bazar the poor’s blood was scattered under the sky.
It’s very important now to talk about Bacha Khan and his interpretation of Islam. It’s important to highlight his teachings, not only to inspire people, but also to point out that there indeed is a big issue in the way Islam can be interpreted otherwise.
Problems do creep into every religion. It crept into Hinduism even 600 years before the birth of Christ. That was when Buddha emerged and re-interpreted Hinduism. What the Tagore family et-al tried to do, as late as 150 years ago, was to re-interpret Hinduism, perhaps for the last time. In between, in the two thousand years that have elapsed, a lot of people and movements have emerged to re-align Hinduism with the need of the time. A similar thing is totally missing in Islam.
What’s really curious is why no one wants to talk openly about the need to reorient Islam. All religions have gone through phases of revival and reorientation from time to time. There’s nothing wrong or bad or sad about it. In turning a blind eye to it, the academia, media and intellectuals are actually doing more harm than good. That’s why Bacha Khan is important now because he did something that any religion needs from time to time – reinterpretation and reorientation.