April 23, 1930 marks a dark day in the history of the Indian Independence movement. It was the day when hundreds of peaceful protestors lost their lives at the hands of the British colonial regime in Qissa Khwani Bazaar, Peshawar (in present day Pakistan).
A month after Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March, members of the Indian National Congress arrived in Peshawar to investigate concerns over the imposition of the Frontier Crimes Regulation to the majority Pashtun inhabited North West Frontier Province (NWFP) which denied them the basic rights of appeal, wakeel and daleel – the right to challenge a conviction in a court of appeal, right to legal representation and the right to present reasoned evidence, respectively.
Hundreds of Khudai Khidmatgars assembled at the Peshawar railway station to receive the Congress leaders, but were informed that the delegation had been detained in Punjab and was not being allowed to proceed. This led to a massive non- violent demonstration as the protestors threatened to picket liquor shops if the delegation was not set free.
The Khudai Khidmatgars (literally ‘Servants of God’) was a nonviolent organisation set up by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in 1929. Originating in the NWFP, the organisation believed – as the name suggests – in serving God by serving humanity. It emerged as the first non-violent army that the world had known. It aimed at not just ousting the British peacefully, but also to strengthen the ties among Pashtuns who had been plagued by centuries of fratricidal warfare.
The northwest frontier was the last province to be brought fully under the British administration in 1849 when the settled administrative districts were separated from Punjab by Lord Curzon to constitute a chief commissioner’s province. Though the British co-opted the bigger landlords in the administration, the region at large exhibited a strong anti-imperialist sentiment.
The stability of the colonial regime necessitated a steady supply of soldiers to the colonial army and hence, the British tapped the existing military labour market, branding certain communities as ‘martial races’ i.e. those who were ‘biologically martial’ than others, making them ‘fit’ to man the army. The Pashtuns were listed as one such ‘martial race’. In order to ensure a steady reserve of soldiers, the British deliberately kept the Pashtun-inhabited NWFP underdeveloped, denying them access to education.
Khan saw education as a way of reforming Pashtun society. He opened several Azad schools. Being an ardent follower of Gandhi, he emphasised on the absolute use of nonviolence and wanted to show the British and the Pashtuns themselves that the ‘martial race’, otherwise known as “smoldering embers” who were believed to be ready to put up a fight, were capable of using the most pragmatic way of resolving disputes. The Khudai Khidmatgars engaged in community volunteering like cleaning other’s houses, weaving their own clothes, and so on, to not just make themselves economically self-reliant but to also build a sense of communitarian unity among them. The group made sure that nonviolence was never compromised with. Anyone found indulging in violent behaviour was expelled and was only accepted after displaying good behaviour for three years. Khan’s own son, Ghani, too faced his father’s wrath when it came to this cherished principle. The Khudai Khidmatgars wore red uniforms which announced their presence instead of camouflaging them and earned them the name Surkh Posh. Women too actively participated.
Though predominantly Muslim, the Khudai Khidmatgars also included Sikhs and Hindus who were viewed as hum saya in Pashtun society. Khan always emphasised on unity and brotherly love between all religious communities. This selfless spirit was displayed on the fateful day of April 23, 1930.
Several Pashtun leaders, including Khan, were arrested on charges of sedition. When vehicles of the British army crashed into the crowd of protestors and opened fire on them, the Khidmatgars came forward in the aid of others and bravely faced the bullets without raising an arm. They agreed to leave the premises of the Qissa Khwani Bazaar if they were allowed to collect their dead brethren and if the British troops left. But the British refused. As a result, almost 400 unarmed protestors died in this shameful incident. Soldiers of the Royal Garhwal Rifles, who were renowned for their valour in the First World War, defied orders and refused to fire on the peaceful protestors. The entire platoon was arrested and court martialled.
The sacrifice of the martyrs did not go in vain. Colonial control over Peshawar loosened as protests swept across different areas in the subcontinent. King George VI ordered an official probe. A committee led by Naimatullah Chaudhry presented a 200-page report criticising British actions. Describing the atrocities faced by the Khudai Khidmatgars, Khan wrote in his autobiography My Life and Struggle that for the British, a nonviolent Pathan was more dangerous than a violent one and hence, they tried everything to provoke them into violence but failed.
The faceless crowd which gave their lives in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar Massacre represent not just the epitome of patriotism and the spirit of non0violence but also the spirit of humanity. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs-all stood beside the other to bravely face atrocities of the colonial regime and proved that the spirit of non-violence conquers the use of arms. The day marks two unforgettable moments in modern history of the subcontinent – on one hand, the ruthless oppression of the colonial regime and on the other, the remarkable courage and spirit of fraternity shown by the San Tees Shaheedan (the martyrs of 1930) who not just defeated the colonial policy of spreading communal animosity but also the fear of a much powerful oppressor.
Their undaunting spirit of sacrifice and nonviolence must never be forgotten.
Cherry Hitkari is a history graduate from University of Delhi. You can find her on Instagram @cherryhitkari
Featured image credit: Wikipedia/Editing: LiveWire