Thursday, February 16, 2012


I stumbled across this story quite by accident. Did you know that two of India’s finest actors Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar, share the record of having the same number of Filmfare Awards in the Best Actor (male) category? Maybe you did, but there’s more in common between the two than what first meets the eye. Both Yusuf Khan, aka Dilip Kumar, and Shahrukh Khan are Pnathans and trace their origins back to the same little market square in Peshawar called Kissa Qhwani Bazaar.

It’s a romantic name – Kissa Qhwani Bazaar-the market of story-tellers, and it gave our films two of its most romantic story-tellers. In the old days, when Kissa Qhwani Bazaar was a part of the Silk Route, this market was indeed an enchanting little town where merchants from all along the length of the Route, and from West and Central Asia, would meet and trade in this bazaar. Bands of soldiers would pass through this town between assignments and spend some of their gold to live a little before they went to court death again. And while businessmen would haggle over deals, over meals and cups of green tea; and soldiers would look for love and laughter, professional story-tellers would liven up the place, entertaining people with their tales of love and valour in the shadow of wars. It is these professional story tellers who gave this Bazaar its inimitable name.

Today, Kissa Qhwani Bazaar, I gather, looks much like the rest of the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan where men in long flowing beards in pakuls and salwar-kameez walk the streets, Kalashnikovs by their side and distrust in their eyes. But I could be wrong of course, because the legacy of Kissa Qhwani bazaar is intertwined with the most courageous act of pacifism in the history of man. The red dust that lines the streets that lead to this market square is an ever present reminder of the day when proud Pathan blood flooded these streets and anointed this square with the mark of nearly a thousand martyrs – nameless numbers today, and yet as brave as the bravest of them all.

This is the tragic story of their greatest glory. The story begins with the arrest of Khan Abdul Ghaff ar Khan, the tall soldier of peace and pacifism on April 23rd,1930. Ghaff ar Khan, a Pashtun (Pathan) leader whose spiritual integrity and commitment to non-violence and the cause of Undivided India’s independence had won him the devotion of thousands of his countrymen, especially Pathans, had started a social reform movement with his band of 100,000 followers, a non-violent army called the Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God).

That fateful day, Khan Abdul Ghaff ar Khan had urged his followers to stage non-violent protests across Peshawar in support of Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march. After a public meeting where Ghaff ar Khan urged the people of the frontier to rise, strongly but peacefully, against the British occupation, he, along with some of his senior leaders, was arrested and imprisoned. His supporters rallied for his release, staging peaceful protests across the North-West Frontier. A large contingent of Khudai Khidmatgars gathered at Kissa Qhwani Bazaar and staged a peaceful demonstration, protesting against the arrests and the unfair laws enacted by the British. Unnerved (Ghaff ar Khan believed that the British respected the war-like Pathans in martial combat but a peaceful Pathan intimidated them far more), the British administrators ordered the army to march into the bazaar and scatter the crowd. Armoured cars and soldiers with guns surrounded the market square. The Khidmatgars chanted slogans in support of their leaders and protested against the unfair British laws. The crowd remained undaunted and kept chanting, non-violently. The British officers, perhaps unnerved by the sight of more than a thousand Pathans, armed with unyielding spiritual courage even when staring into the barrels of British rifles, gave the orders to shoot. A hail of bullets ripped through the crowd, felling the front line. Even as those in front fell, those behind them came forward to take their place, baring their chests, welcoming the bullets with a prayer on their lips and the dream of an independent dignified and undivided India in their hearts. Wave upon wave of men crashed into an unrelenting wall of bullets. The square resounded with the hellish crescendo of screams and slogans and gun shots. While the soldiers reloaded, the Khidmatgars off ered to take their dead and injured leave if the troops also left the Bazaar. The troops refused to leave, so the Khidmatgars stayed on. The troops were ordered to fire again at the unarmed crowd. Royal Garhwal Rifles, the most celebrated British Indian regiment, and the most decorated for their valiant exploits during World War I refused to fire at the unarmed protestors. It was the first time that a regiment of the British Indian Army had refused to obey orders. At the time they were removed from the scene and replace by another contingent but this defiance sent shock waves through the British administration and the tremors must have shaken the very roots of Imperial Britain. And this act of defiance was triggered by the uncommon valour of the Khidmatgars.

This carnage continued for six hours, from 11am to 5pm. The unrelenting British guns had met their match. Bullets failed to weaken their resolve. The Khidmatgars remained peaceful all through this blood bath. And even though they didn’t raise a hand, they had the courage to come forward to pick up their wounded brothers and greet their death till a volley of bullets struck them down.

Kissa Qhwani Bazaar finally had a story of its own. Some say 400, some say a thousand, died that day. It was a massacre that rivaled Jallianwala Bagh in scale, and yet more than a massacre, it was a battle between two ideologies. The Khidgamatgars lost mere lives that day, but the Brits lost far more, their strength and their honour.

Sadly, neither India nor Pakistan cares to remember the Khidmatgars. But the story of these pariahs of history will forever be told and retold in a market of story-tellers called Kissa Qhwani Bazaar. May the memory of their sacrifice live long and inspire…


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