Pakhtun Nationalism: A Brief Sketch


By Juma Khan Sufi

Before going straight on the subject, let me remind that Afghanistan had been once part and parcel of greater Iran and Pakistan until very recently to the mid of 20th Century was part of subcontinent.  The twentieth century was an era of national liberation movements in third world countries and the initiation of decolonisation process.  So nationalism was on its height.  The rising national or nationalist consciousness was also emerging in Afghanistan and its rulers also needed a narrative which was separate from Persia and the Farsi language and culture.  So during period of Zahir Shah’s Monarchy when the rising bourgeoisie and nascent intelligentsia in Afghanistan started grumbling and demanded constitutional monarchy, as well as reunification of Afghan/Pakhtun land which was then under British occupation, the monarchy could not stay aloof.  The Afghan rulers started encouraging Pakhtun(ism) in theory and practice.  For this purpose they took some measures and started propaganda in this regard, while nullifying all the treaties reached with British India, especially related to Durand Line.

On the other hand, the creation of Pakistan agreed by the Hindu leadership of Indian National Congress, which they considered ‘lesser evil’ than really federal and united India guaranteeing rights of minorities, Muslims on the top, as enunciated in the Cabinet Mission Plan.  So Pakistan also wanted and needed a narrative separate from its cultural roots embedded in united India.  The security and other reasons forced Pakistan to stress upon its Muslim roots denying the multicultural and plural nature of the state.  This narrative was in direct confrontation with that of Afghanistan which stressed upon its Pakhtun identity.

At the very inception of Pakistan, Afghanistan started challenging the territorial integrity of Pakistan by laying irredentist claim over its Pakhtun areas.  On the other hand, the party of Bacha Khan, the Khudai Khidmatagrs, and to some extent the organisation of Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, wror Pakhtun, long-time allies of the Indian National Congress and staunch opponents of Muslim League and its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, found themselves in lurch unable to charter a new course in conformity with the needs of the hour in Pakistan.  Though Bacha Khan had earlier spurned the offer of Quid e Azam to join hands with him, the proposal of Maulana Azad to join Muslim League and the sagacious suggestion of Governor Sir Olaf Caroe to get rid of Congress and make his own alliances before the partition plan, but he was listening to Congress leadership for guidance to the end.

Since Pakistan was never accepted as a separate country by India in its heart of hearts, therefore, they also surreptitiously put its weight behind Afghanistan and its claim of Pakhtunistan in order to create problems for Pakistan.  Financially, India supported the Pakhtunistan bogey of Afghanistan.  The idea of Pakhtunistan was the result of July 1947 referendum in which majority people of NWFP participated and won the case of Pakistan.  This event of was boycotted by Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) party as they wanted a third option of free Pathan State along with Hindustan or Pakistan option in the plebiscite agreed by British, Muslim League and Congress – Bacha Khan’s own party, this created the stunt of Pakhtunistan.  The Congress papers termed it Pathanistan and the Afghan rulers changed it into Pakhtunistan.  Thus the name of Pakhtunistan (Pashtunistan) got currency.

Although playing very negative role on the eve of partition, Ghaffar Khan avowed allegiance to Pakistan in the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.  But in his heart, he entertained suspicions about Pakistan and openly propagated against Pakistan in its initial period of existence.  Like other Congress stalwarts, he doubted the survival of Pakistan.  The centrist policies of Pakistan government added further impetus to Pakhtun nationalism.  These policies not only augmented the case of nationalism among Pakhtuns but also created problems in Bengal, Sind and Baluchistan.  In order to neutralise the majority of East Pakistan and not let slip the reins of power from the West Pakistani elite, a very ill-advised scheme of One Unit by amalgamating four units of West Pakistan into one province dominated by Punjab in order to impose parity with majority Eastern wing of the country was introduced in 1955, which played havoc with the integrity of the homeland afterwards.

These were the times of Cold War and Pakistan had opted for closer alliance with USA against the then Soviet Union, so all the forces – nationalists, leftists and democrats – joined hands and formed National Awami Party under the charismatic Maulana Abdul Hameed Khan Bhashani in 1957.  The pro-West rightist policies of the elite gave space to these forces.  Pakhtun nationalism was unique in the sense that apart from Indian connection, it was ideologically fed from Afghanistan also.  The unitary polices of the ruling elite and denial of plurality, multiculturism and multiethnicity not only fuelled Bengali nationalism from day one, but also provided water to the mill of Pakhtun nationalism.

Pakistani soil is the cradle of Pakhtun culture and literature, as well as the original abode of this ethnicity in history.  Instead of using these tools, Pakistan left open the space to Afghanistan and nationalists.  Pakhtun nationalists, including Bacha Khan, never openly supported Afghan claim, but it however kept their connections with Afghanistan and never questioned its claim.  Afghanistan like India which termed Bacha Khan as Frontier Gandhi, referred to him as great leader of Pakhtunistan.  Afghanistan never clearly substantiated its claim of Pakhtunistan, but kept celebrating 31 August as Pakhtunistan Day, which during the Presidency of Sardar Daud Khan, following the Pakhtun-Baluch unity in National Awami Party, termed it the Pakhtuns-Baluchs Solidarity Day in 1973.  However, Pakhtunistan had struck its chord in popular mind.

In August 1948 a tribal jirga was called in Tirah (Khyber Agency) at the behest of Afghanistan which avowed to struggle for Pakhtunistan and Afghanistan termed 31st August as Pakhtunistan Day.  This marked the beginning of concerted propaganda against the state of Pakistan influencing both sides of the border.  1973 was another inauspicious occasion when Z.A. Bhutto dismissed the NAP-JUI (National Awami Party and Jamiat ul Ulma e Islam) coalition government in Baluchistan and NWFP government resigned in protests that started militant struggle in both provinces supported by Afghanistan and India.  The joint Afghan-Pakhtun narrative and struggle could not motivate the common Pakhtun to join it actively.  However, this event left its mark on the Pakhtun landscape.

To my mind basically neither Pakhtun nationalists nor Afghan authorities ever wanted the real unification of Pakhtuns as Afghanistan spurned the suggestion of confederation or rather one state comprised both of Pakistan and Afghanistan put forward from Pakistan side.  This could have peacefully realised the unity of Pakhtuns in single political arrangement. The monarchy in Afghanistan wanted continuation of their family rule and Pakhtun nationalists in Pakistan wanted regaining of power which they had lost after creation of Pakistan. Though there are extremists among them. This dilemma created a sort of nebulous nationalism, which is still pedalled by some elements.  That is why, when these nationalists become part of power sharing in their provinces, they almost behave like any other Pakistani party. However, they thrive on nationalist propaganda, the main component of which is anti-Punjabi and anti-army plank.  This sort of propaganda and the overbearing status of Punjab in the establishment always feed Pakhtun nationalism.

One of the main components of nationalism is language.  Pakistan for the reason stated above did not give any attention to this problem and left the space open for Afghanistan and nationalists within Pakistan.  This created a jaundiced mindset among those who write, read and speak in and for Pashto.  If one goes to the internet and surf the social media, listen and read electronic as well as print media, even the electronic and print media of Pashto in Pakistan, the participants and anchors are in one way or other under the influence of nationalism.  Pashto broadcasts of foreign radio and TV channels, including of BBC and VOA and others, are part and parcel of hybrid warfare going on against Pakistan.

In this regard, Pakistan must recapture the space which it has left open for Afghanistan and nationalists.  Both Pakhtun nationalist parties have special centres to propagate their views.  The Pashto academies in Quetta and Peshawar is no exception.  Since the national narrative is devoid of this cultural component. Pakistan must develop unofficial, semi-official sub-narrative on this score and pay attention to grass-root level of Pakhtuns, which is under bombardment of nationalists. The so-called Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement is the by-product of this neglect.  Our national narrative is elitist in character and does not cater for the uneducated or semi-educated masses.  We can fight nationalist narrative through a positive and pro-Pakistan narrative which must appeal to common Pakhtun in his own language and logic.

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