A man to match his mountains


Rafi Ullah

This article is named after Eknath Easwaran's book A Man to Match his Mountains, a biography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan popularly known as Bacha Khan. There might be found no inclusive similarity between that volume and this piece of writing. But, however, one thing is certain that Bacha Khan is heir to the centuries old experiences of his Mountains. His towering personality is embedded in the legacy of the syncretic and dialectic process in his land rather than confining it to the socio-political and socio-religious phenomena of his time.

There is a plethora of literature about the life, faith and political philosophy of Bacha Khan. Almost all such writings try to fix the standing of Bacha Khan in the prevalent time and space context. He is presented no more than a devout Muslim or a chap deeply influenced by the Gandhian philosophy. No comprehensive attempt has to date been made to find out the myriad sources inspiring and influencing, consciously or unconsciously, Bacha Khan's political outlook and social philosophy.

I posit here two dimensions of Bacha khan's personality; his individual thought and his collective representation. Let me simply put it in another way as his historical consciousness. In this way, I will relate these postulates to Bacha Khan's response to the British imperialism as well as his reform programme about the social evils. It will also show us his considerable stature as a man to match his mountains.

The individual representation of Bacha Khan is more evident in his available inner and bodily experiences. The social, political and constitutional developments of his time lead him to undergo bitter experiences. He is kept uneasy by the social evils in the Pakhtun society i.e. turburwali (agnatic rivalry), rigorous social stratification, ignorance and other ruinous customs and traditions. He takes, as well, the brunt of the arrogant and contemptuous behaviour of the British in relation to the locals. Similarly, the repressive political system opens Bacha Khan' eyes to the constitutional injustices meted out especially to the Pakhtuns. The broader political phenomenon in terms of the Rowlatt Act (1919), the Khilafat issue, activities of Pan-Islamists and the massacres of the locals such as at Qissa Khwani Bazar also counts for his inner state of pain. These are but a few of Bacha Khan's personal experiences leading to shape his individual thought, of course, in the frame of his time and space.

I may term my second postulate as the collective representation of Bacha Khan. And this is the point which demands to be seen in the wider context of space and time. It is here that Bacha Khan transcends the prevalent socio-political realities and liabilities of the Pakhtun society. He seeks to communicate his personal experiences and individual thought in a way shown by his historical experiences. He takes a long view of the Pakhtun history – comprising the Buddhist, Greek and Islamic periods – and in its light formulates his response to the social and political evils and detriments of his people.

Bacha Khan is aware of the civilizational development of his land and its people. This fact is amply evident in his autobiography, Zama Jwand ao Jadd-u-Jehed (My Life and Struggle) (Pashto). He refers to Gandhara Civilization and one of its important cities Pushkalawati (modern Charsadda). He is also familiar with the role played by his homeland in the proselytism of Buddhism into China and Tibet. What's more, he knows that the fourth Buddhist council was held here (Dr. A. H. Dani, however, writes that it was held by Kanishka in Kashmir). Moreover, Bacha Khan is confident enough to relate that the inhabitants of the area were Pakhtuns but definitely practicing the religion of Mahatama Buddha. The remains of Pushkalawati intrigue him to deduce that the city had progressed in the fields of industry, trade, agriculture and education. The roundabout character of the region, where the syncretic processes were going on in the past and which served as a cross-road between China and Tibet, Central Asia and Europe and Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, is also well-known to him. This historical consciousness of Bacha Khan is further augmented by his understanding of Islam. He better understands the history of Islam and is well-versed in the two sources of Islamic law viz. Quran and Hadith.

The social continuity in the Pakhtun society spreading over four thousands years is reflected in its culturally available collective representations. They are both tangible and intangible of which Bacha Khan seems well aware. Pakhtuns may seek for their material and non-material cultural heritage into the history and tradition of art and architecture and Pakhtunwali respectively. And both are rich enough in sophistication and genius. Bacha Khan definitely capitalizes on the ideals of this generous expressive culture.

Bacha Khan finds a sound footing in this culture and puts a tenable and invincible resistance to the colonial masters. He also wipes out social evils by galvanizing the long forgotten ideals of the Pakhtun land. In his course of action he sets such super-patterns as tolerance, non-violence, pluralism, mutual co-existence and the spirit of learning.

He instills tolerance and non-violence of Islam and Buddhism in Pakhtuns at a time when the political ideal of Pan-Islamism and the notorious phenomenon of colonial aggression dominate the Muslim world. He creates a society characterized by the ethos of pluralism and mutual co-existence at the moment when the whole sub-continent is overwhelmed by exclusivist philosophies. People, belonging to different religions, ethnic groups and social classes, begin to shun evil intensions towards each other. Brotherhood and egalitarianism prevail.

It is Bacha Khan who puts his energy in reviving the great Gandharan tradition of knowledge and learning. As this spirit is high, achievements are made in art and literature, researches and history. A magazine by the name of Pakhtun is started in 1928 which creates awareness and spreads consciousness in people vis-à-vis their culture, politics, language and the wider universe of humanistic ideals.

The symbiotic relationship between Bacha Khan’s individual thought and his collective representation set a new course of action and a new line of thinking for the Pakhtuns. His multi-faceted personality needs to be approached in this way as it is congruent with the demand of the present circumstances.

Rafi Ullah is lecturer at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He may be reached at