Rise and Fall of the Frontier Gandhi’s Legacy

The Awami National Party (ANP), one of the two main Pashtun nationalist parties in Pakistan, took an unusually harsh measure over a week ago, when it suspended the basic membership of its former provincial president and ex-Senator Afrasiab Khattak and the incumbent female vice president and ex-member National Assembly Bushra Gohar, for allegedly sowing discord among the party cadres through their social media activities, among other things. The highhanded action is not merely the party’s internal matter but an event that could shape or deface the Pashtun nationalist politics for years to come. The hasty and shoddy decision is deeply worrisome for many reasons: firstly, the ANP proclaims to be the political heir to the legacy of the legendary freedom-fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Badshah Khan or the Frontier Gandhi; secondly, the party advertises itself as a liberal, democratic outfit where dissent is tolerated if not welcomed and encouraged; thirdly, the decision had a strong whiff of the party pandering to the Pakistani army; and, fourthly, one of the leaders axed, Afrasiab Khattak, has been synonymous with the Marxist, leftist and progressive nationalist politics for a good 50 years, and not just in Pakistan but Afghanistan as well. The brusque dismissal from a party, which is supposedly is anti-status quo, of a man who has influenced three generations of political activists, bodes ill for both the enlightened Pashtun nationalism and free-thinking Pakistanis at large.

The sorry episode is reminiscent of another historical event, when two brothers, each one a political giant in his own right, were loggerheads over whether to collaborate with the Pakistani civil and military establishment or not. Badshah Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgars (KKs or the Servants of God) aka the Red Shirts were allied with the Indian National Congress (INC) throughout the freedom movement against the British rule. When the INC accepted the British plan to partition India without the Pashtuns getting their right to self-determination i.e. to have an independent status, as against joining Pakistan or India, Badshah Khan while lamenting the INC’s betrayal had begrudgingly accepted existence in the new Pakistani dominion. While an independent Pashtunistan issue was raised by both Afghanistan and Pashtuns to the east of the Duran Line, Badshah Khan, true to his oath of allegiance to the new state, however, never once tried to sabotage the Pakistani federation. But the grand old man of Pashtuns, also had an unflinching commitment to his people, whom he felt were getting a short shrift in the new state due to the civil-military establishment’s machinations. While Badshah Khan called for rights and autonomy for the ethno-national entities within Pakistan, his older brother Abdul Jabbar Khan, known commonly as Dr. Khan Sahib, who had served as the KK/INC’s chief minister of the Northwest Frontier province (NWFP) twice only to have his ministry dismissed by the nascent Muslim League government in Pakistan, was coopted by the new country’s establishment. After some time in prison, Dr. Khan Sahib caved and opted to join the government as the premier of what was called the One Unit, which was an administrative structure where the four west Pakistani provinces were lumped together to counter the numerical Bengali majority from the then East Pakistan. In his book, Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns, Rajmohan Gandhi records: “Over One Unit, implemented in 1955 with the agreement of the legislatures of the Punjab, Sindh and the NWFP, the brothers were totally divided. Dr. Khan Sahib became the active proponent of One Unit and the younger brother its ardent foe.”

The One Unit was the Pakistani establishment’s ploy to deny the Bengalis of East Pakistan their democratic right to rule, by consolidating the West Pakistani provinces into one entity for an ostensible parity with the eastern wing. The Khan Brothers, who had been the stalwarts of both the Indian liberation movement and Pashtun nationalism, were thus divided and conquered. On the eve of Dr. Khan Sahib’s inauguration as the premier of the One Unit, his younger, but immensely more celebrated, brother was in prison! The One Unit was an oppressive tool to serve the ruling elite and establishment’s interest. Dr. Khan Sahib and the Governor General Iskandar Mirza – a bureaucrat and a major general himself – tried to convince Badshah Khan of the new schemes “virtues” but to no avail. Rajmohan Gandhi chronicles the latter’s feelings: “My elder brother is the Prime Minister of West Pakistan, and among the Pakhtuns the elder brother is given the position of the father. But then I have dared to disagree with him on the issue of One Unit because I see great harm in it for my people.”

While Dr. Khan Sahib went on join the Republican Party, a king’s party effectively, in July 1957, Badshah Khan along with the Bengali peasant leader Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani, Punjabi leftist Mian Iftikharuddin and a former Muslim Leaguer-turned-Sindhi nationalist GM Syed, formed the united Pakistan’s first openly leftist political outfit, the National Awami Party (NAP) after the country had banned the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1954. While the NAP was a multi-class, socialist party with clear leftist orientation, it wasn’t technically a Marxist working-class party. Nonetheless, the formidable agitators that they were, Badshah Khan and Maulana Bhashani, mobilized the masses in both wings of the country. The beauty of the NAP was that it, not unlike the INC, served as an umbrella organization for vast array of political views and activist cadres. From hardcore Marxists to ethno-nationalists to trade unionists to peasants

The NAP, like other political outfits, bore the brunt of the country’s first martial law regime led by Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan. While Maulana Bhashani eventually developed a soft corner for the Ayub regime thanks to their common affinity with Peking, Badshah Khan and the NAP in West Pakistan remained vehemently opposed to the junta. In 1965, the Field Marshal’s electoral bid for presidency against Ms. Fatima Jinnah, the revered sister of the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, saw the NAP split over support to the two candidates. Badshah Khan’s son, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, who by then was established as a Pashtun nationalist leader in his own right, along with Professor Muzaffar and a majority faction of the NAP chose to support Ms. Jinnah. The combined opposition, effectively led by the anti-establishment leaders and cadres, served as the backbone of Ms. Jinnah’s electoral campaign. The NAP also utilized this as an opportunity to revamp its program and reorganize its cadres. While the KKs had significant electoral victories to their credit, their NAP successors found their political feet running Ms. Jinnah’s campaign. In that era, the NAP moved from a party of protest to an organization capable of electoral politics. The party developed a clear pro-Soviet bend – in contrast to Bhashani’s pro-Peking tilt --under Wali Khan’s leadership and formally declared itself as a separate entity on July 1, 1968. Badshah Khan’s down-to-earth, primordial Pashtun nationalism had evolved into a national-democratic thought and political process, which also attracted the Baloch and Sindhi nationalists as well as died-in-the-wool Marxists. The NAP was a cocoon, an umbrella, a shelter or a front – depending on how one looks at it – for a rainbow of political opinions and programs from hard left to bourgeois nationalists. The famed Baloch triumvirate, Nawab Khair Bux Khan Marri, Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal and the quintessential Baloch Marxist-nationalist Mir Ghaus Bux Bizenjo, made NAP their home. The younger breed of the Marxist Pashtun politicians like Afrasiab Khattak, Lateef Afridi, Mukhtiar Bacha, Sarfaraz Mahmood as well as the underground CPP leaders, like Imam Ali Nazish Amrohi and Professor Jamal Naqvi, all found home in the NAP or its affiliated bodies. The NAP vehemently opposed the martial laws imposed by Ayub Khan and his successor Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan and went into the 1970 elections on a progressive, anti-imperialist program that called for devolution of powers to the federating the units. The NAP secured electoral plurality in the NWFP – rechristened later as the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (KP) -- and the Balochistan provinces and, to the charging of the establishment, formed governments there. This was the highest point of Badshah Khan’s political and reformist struggle, who while steering clear of the electoral politics himself, had guided – in spirit, if you will – the NAP.

Individuals with tremendously varying backgrounds, like Afrasiab Khattak, who had joined and then led one of the student wings of the NAP called the Pashtun Students Federation (PSF), to the celebrated tribal Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, contributed to the NAP’s rise, culminating in an electoral victory in the NWFP (KP) and Balochistan. On the other hand, sick and tired of the Pakistani establishments intrigues, especially attempts to deny the East Pakistanis their rightfully-gained electoral victory, the Bengalis led by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman and his Awami League, waged a war of independence and Bangladesh came into being. The NAP’s government in the Balochistan was dismissed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and its NWFP (KP) government resigned in protest. The more militant among the Baloch wing of the party started an armed struggle against the state, while the Pashtun wing by-and-large stuck to non-violent protests. The NAP was banned, and its Pashtun, Baloch and even Punjabi leaders, were imprisoned. Bhutto got the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) to ban the NAP on the pretext of treasonous activities, while its entire leadership remained behind bars for over four years in what became known as the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case.  The NAP’s General Secretary, ideologue and famous poet Ajmal Khattak was perhaps the only first-tier leader to avoid arrest, by going into self-exile in Kabul. The Hyderabad tribunal was eventually disbanded when in an irony of fate, Bhutto was toppled by his hand-picked army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq. The demise of the NAP as broad-based, multi-class, leftist outfit, which not only championed socialism but also the rights of the ethno-national entities, however started with the Supreme Court ban.

While Wali Khan and other leaders were languishing in Bhutto’s prison, the former’s wife Begum Naseem Wali Khan along with a Baloch opposition leader Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari found the National Democratic Party (NDP). Badshah Khan blessed the new party but remained out of its organizational structure. The NDP, which effectively was bourgeois Pashtun nationalist party, joined hands with assorted right-wing religious and centrist parties against ZA Bhutto, who to his own detriment, had morphed into an elected dictator. The old NAP’s leftist guard frowned upon the NDP’s collaboration with the right-wing parties, many of whom had the blessings of the country’s army. While the NDP did not collaborate directly with the army, the combined opposition to Bhutto called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), had many who did. After the disbanding of the Hyderabad tribunal Wali Khan assumed the leadership of the NDP. Out of the Baloch leaders, Nawab Marri opted to go not enter active politics and later went into self-exile while Mengal and Bizenjo briefly joined the NDP only to quit after much bickering. Bizenjo, along with Ajmal Khattak, Nazish Amrohi and Professor Jamal Naqvi et al, was among the underground CPP’s leadership with the former NAP’s ranks. He opted to revive Pakistan National Party (PNP) and nearly all Pashtun leftists within Pakistan, including Afrasiab Khattak and Lateef Afridi joined Bizenjo. It wasn’t long before Gen Zia-ul-Haq came down hard on the underground and openly operating communists from the legendary Sindhi Marxist Jam Saqi to Afrasiab Khattak. In what were dubbed as Operation Sweep I & II, Zia rounded up Bhutto loyalists as well as assorted leftists across the country. Khattak finally fled Pakistan into exile in Kabul.

The limited appeal of the NDP, effectively a rump party of the NAP, was not lost on both the leftists and Wali Khan himself, who strived for a merger of the nationalists, leftists and fellow travelers. Finally in 1986 the Awami National Party (ANP), a Pakistan-wide outfit, was formed after the merger of the NDP, the Mazdoor Kissan Party (Labor, Peasant party or MKP) faction led by Kamil Bangash, Sindhi leftist-nationalist Rasool Bux Paleejo’s Awami Tehrik and the PNP’s Pashtun Marxist faction led by Lateef Afridi. Badshah Khan, up in age then and frequently ill, did not have much to do with the new party or politics for that matter at the time. With Bizenjo opting to stay away from the new party, it had no Baloch representation of note, from the outset and within a short period Paleejo too parted ways, reducing it back to being effectively a Pashtun outfit. The Pashtun Marxists, however, were extremely active and contributed significantly to the ANP’s program, which even used the vintage Leninist jargon such as the national democratic revolution, being the ultimate objective. While the Pashtun nationalist had vied for maximum provincial autonomy within Pakistan, it was the Marxist ideologues that set the tone and tenor of both the demands for provincial rights within Pakistan as well as fraternal ties with Afghanistan, if not an outright call for reunification of the Pashtun/Afghan irredentas.  Lateef Afridi and Sarfraz Mahmood had coined what became the ANP’s signature slogan for the rights of the ethno-national entities constituting the Pakistani federations. The Pashto slogan “Khpala Khawra, Khpal Ikhtiyar” literally meant our land, our right to rule. The ANP’s leftist cadre was proactive in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), a multiparty coalition resisting the martial law. Through the Pashtun Marxists Ajmal Khattak and Afrasiab Khattak in Kabul, the progressive nationalists also had a great liaison with the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and staunchly supported the communist Saur Revolution, a common rally cry being “Lar aw bar, yaw Afghan” (Afghans to the east and west of the Durand Line are but one).

After General Zia’s demise in an air crash, democracy returned to Pakistan. The ANP did rather dismally at the 1988 polls and was forced to form a provincial coalition government with its former foe and ally in the MRD, the Pakistan Peoples Party that was then led by Benazir Bhutto. The progressive group of the ANP was instrumental in the negotiations with the PPP and the execution of the coalition. With Benazir Bhutto’s rise to power, scores of political exiles and self-exiles returned home and among them were Ajmal Khattak and Afrasiab Khattak, both of whom joined the ANP immediately. The ANP-PPP coalition didn’t last long and within months rifts developed and the ANP, much to the chagrin of its leftist leaders and cadres, sided with the opposition rightwing alliance called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), in a no-confidence vote to oust the Prime Minister Bhutto. While Bhutto temporarily survived in the office, the ANP-PPP coalition did not. The leftists led by Lateef Afridi and Afrasiab Khattak, and a few nationalists like Mohammad Afzal Khan, within the ANP, staunchly opposed the party siding with the IJI but being a numerical minority could not prevail and quit. Ajmal Khattak remained in the fold at the time. The ANP remain under the control of Begum Naseem Wali Khan, who ran a rather tight ship within the party and had no qualms about colluding with the security establishment, as her ageing husband hung his political gloves. The leftists reorganized themselves as a communist bloc called the Qaumi Inquilabi Party (National Revolutionary Party or QIP) in 1989, which did not last long as first the two leaders Lateef Afridi and Afrasiab Khattak fell out with each other and then the fall of the Soviet Union left the Marxists rather rudderless. The two did join Afzal Khan to form the Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party only to go their separate ways again and then later rejoin the ANP one by one. In a major turn of events, Wali Khan’s son Asfandyar Wali Khan joined hands with Afrasiab Khattak to first topple and then oust his step-mother and party leader Begum Naseem Wali Khan, who had become increasingly unpopular.

Once again the progressive group, led predominantly by Afrasiab Khattak, set the post-2005 ANP’s agenda, which included larger quantum of provincial autonomy, renaming the NWFP as the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and incorporating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the KP. Khattak was the first politician to actually formulate in writing that the FATA’s exclusively Pashtun population makeup, geographical contiguity of the various tribal agencies with the KP and established trade and social ties, make it imperative that not only should the constitution of Pakistan be extended into FATA but the region be formally merged with the KP. The merger finally came to fruition in 2018. A two-time chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Khattak also ensured that the party platform also raised rights issues. In the revamped ANP, women leaders like Bushra Gohar, took centerstage and became the vocal and enlightened face of the party. The ANP championed the cause of peace in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 world and advocated for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan to be given their due rights. While Asfandyar Wali Khan signed off on the party’s reformed, progressive agenda, Afrasiab Khattak’s imprint on its formulation was unmistakable. The party drew the ire of both the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the military establishment, whom it criticized for carrying out a duplicitous policy of harboring the so-called good Taliban to fight in Afghanistan.  The TTP unleashed dozens of attacks on the ANP killing prominent leaders, their family members and hundreds of workers. Despite the reign of terror, the ANP secured electoral success in the 2008 and formed a coalition government in the KP, with the PPP and joined the federal government as well.

Afrasiab Khattak, the party’s provincial president back then and the de facto whip of the provincial government, was elected to the senate. Along with the ANP’s late Senator Haji Muhammad Adeel, Khattak worked with the PPP to reform the constitution and rid it of several aberrations and virulent mutations introduced by military dictators, resulting in thelandmark 18th constitutional amendment. On several other issues, which could not be undone, the two ANP senators made strong dissenting notes. The PPP government led by Asif Zardari and the provincial governments also signed an overdue National Finance Commission (NFC) accord. Between the 18th amendment and the NFC accord, the provinces, got the maximum quantum of political, legislative and financial autonomy in the history of the country, something which the erstwhile NAP and its various successors had strived for. The icing on the cake was formal, constitutional name-change of the NWFP to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The ANP was at the pinnacle of its political achievements, the key intellectual architect of which was Afrasiab Khattak. Under Khattak’s tutelage, the provincial government undertook curriculum reform in KP to rectify the warped and deceitful history that been part of the syllabus for decades. He also was the most vocal opponent of the Pakistan army’s jihadist project, especially its Afghanistan misadventure.  A frequent speaker on Pak-Afghan talk circuit, he consistently called for rolling back the disastrous strategy of prosecuting foreign policy through jihadist proxies. Many of these issues obviously did not go down well with the security establishment, which on the eve of 2013 elections did little to stop the TTP of virtually bombing the ANP out of elections. In addition, the party’s traditional leadership had assorted corruption  charges leveled against it. The ANP was routed in the polls. In the subsequent years, while Afrasiab Khattak remained the face of the part in the media, he was sidelined in the internal power struggle.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back and precipitated his expulsion, was Afrasiab Khattak openly sympathizing with the nascent Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Defense League or PTM). In the aftermath of the 2013 elections, the ANP under Asfandyar Wali Khan had opted to tread cautiously vis-à-vis the army’s Afghan policy and its increasing encroachment on the domestic political domain. The blowback from the Taliban venture was the worst in the tribal areas, where the common people bore the brunt first of the TTP and then the army when it decided to go after the TTP or so-called bad Taliban i.e. the ones which attack the army and the state. Behind an iron curtain, the army conducted operations against the TTP, while preserving the ostensibly good Taliban i.e. the ones that fight on its behalf in Afghanistan. The operations left a trail of death, destruction, displaced people and disappeared individuals. The ANP’s reticence created a political void, which the PTM, led by the tribal Pashtun youth started to fill. The army has deplored the PTM openly, tacitly and through its hirelings in the conventional and social media, only to see the movement evolve into a campaign that draws support from the Pashtuns of the former FATA, KP and the Pashtun region of the Balochistan. Approaching the 2018 elections, the ANP’s calculus remained that it did not wish to ruffle the army’s feathers and it expelled one of the key PTM leaders Mohsin Dawar in the run up to the polls. The army, however, was unwilling to let even the tame, docile ANP back in power. While two key PTM leaders were elected to the national assembly, the ANP suffered another massive defeat, in an election dubbed one of most tainted ones in the country’s history, with Asfandyar Wali Khan losing his home constituency yet again. The ascendant army was wrestling back from politicians the ground it had lost after the ouster of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008-9. A rolling, creeping coup was underway and culminated with the installation of the army’s blue-eyed leader Imran Khan.

It was in this backdrop that the progressives within the ANP wanted the leadership to revisit its program, message, organization and mobilization strategy and tactics. People like Afrasiab Khattak sensed that the country’s massive young population is tired of the old canards and looking for change on both the right and left of the political spectrum. Khattak saw the PTM as complementing the ANP and not as a competitor. The ANP on the other hand came under pressure ostensibly from the army to rein in Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar, who were seen sympathizing with the PTM’s message, especially through their Twitter accounts. Asfandyar Wali Khan apparently shared a screenshot of one their posts apparently to chastise the progressive leaders. Without any internal due process, they were given an ambiguous charge-sheet and after reviewing their response, they were shown the door. It seems unlikely that the ANP will reverse its decision. The ousted leaders remain unbending and continue to morally support what is a legitimate, constitutional and, above all, non-violent movement for rights and rectification of wrongs done to the Pashtuns. At a time when the ANP needed to reinvent its politics and reinvigorate its electorate, it opted to cave in to the army and collaborate in censuring two of its most articulate leaders. It is deeply disturbing to see at a time when the press remains in chains in Pakistan, the political parties instead of speaking up, are gagging their own. The two successive electoral defeats were not the lowest point of the ANP, for in politics one wins some and loses some, but an abject surrender to the army’s brazen attempts to control political parties and discourse, is certainly the lowest point in its history. At a time when the party should have revived and upheld the great Badshah Khan’s upright and defiant legacy, it has opted to follow in the tracks of Dr. Khan Sahib, which unfortunately lead to political oblivion.

(Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist; he tweets @mazdaki)