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Traditional Solutions to Modern Problems

Now you may or may not be aware of it – you can be forgiven for being quite unaware of what is going on on the Western side of your national border – but the Eastern neighbors of Punjabis are Pashtoons, more commonly known as Pathans in India. Pathans have a good reputation in India.

Like Sikhs from the Punjab are called Sardarjis, Pathans from the Frontier are called Khansahibs. Since I have lived most of my life among the Pashtoons and know Pashto almost as well as I know English, most of the time here in India I get mistaken for a Pashtoon, so I notice and benefit from this natural respect that people in India have for Pashtoons.

Actually, in India you are at an advantage. You know the Pashtoons as film stars – Shahrukh Khan is the big example: even Shahid Afridi I consider to be a good Pashtoon of the old school. Or you remember the Pashtoons of the old days. In particular, you remember Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – also known as the Frontier Gandhi. Well, it is clear enough how he received his title of the Frontier Gandhi, but how did he get the name Bacha Khan? Early on in his political career, he arranged a meeting for the people living in the neighborhood of his home village of Utmanzai near Peshawar. He was trying to root out harmful customs from his society. He said to his people that now they were having a meeting, someone would have to be chairman of that meeting. They said that you called the meeting, so you should be chairman. So once he was installed as chairman of the meeting, they said that since you are chairman, you must also be king! That is when he was installed as Bacha Khan – King Khan.

I tell this story because it tells one a lot about the good qualities of the Pashtoons, and that when they have the right leadership, and are encouraged in the right direction, they have great potential for good. Those same Pashtoons who attended Bacha Khan’s meeting in the 1920s went on to form the Khudai Khidmatgars – Servants for the Sake of God – Gandhi’s non-violent army in the border regions.

The Pashtoons have a national bard, like the English have Shakespeare. His name is Rahman Baba. He has a poem which sums up the qualities of Pashtoons of the old school:

خدایه څه شو هغه ښکلي ښکلي خلق
په ظاهر په باطن سپین سپیڅلي خلق
هیڅ خندا می د دي خلقو سره نه شي
ژروي می هغه تللي تللي خلق
What happened to those beautiful people?
Fair and pure, inwardly and outwardly.
This current crop do not inspire me at all
I mourn only for the ones who have passed.

Well, when I came to the Pashtoon lands along with droves of hippies some forty-five years ago, these qualities were still intact, and inspired many of us to settle amongst the Pashtoons, and also to accept Islam. When I am asked why I accepted Islam and settled amongst the Pashtoons, I usually remember one day when I was traveling – as a non-Muslim hippie – down the Swat valley where I had been living. When other travelers got out of the bus to break their fast, I stayed inside the bus. Someone came and without saying anything, placed some dates and pakoras into my hand. That was typical of the attitude of the Pashtoons towards their foreign guests in those days. Far from seeing me as a vile foreigner who was not fasting, he discreetly invited me to partake in the breaking of the fast, along with everyone else.

Well, a lot has happened in the meantime. I cannot go into all the reasons for the deterioration of standards in those Pashto-speaking border regions, but one thing I would like to mention is their custom of giving refuge (پناه دینا). This giving refuge is part of their code of Pashtoonwali. Originally, this was a custom which was reserved for giving refuge to good people, to those seeking refuge from injustice – much the same as the internationally accepted law of asylum practiced in various countries nowadays. Unfortunately, the Pashtoons gave refuge to a lot of international ruffians and trouble-makers, who not only gave their country a bad name but also sowed the seeds of conflict in that part of the world.

When we set up PACT Radio in those Pashto-speaking border regions in 2005, seeking Traditional Solutions for Modern Problems, this practice of giving refuge to trouble-makers – and the trouble this had caused to the Pashtoons’ own country – was one of the first topics that we dealt with. We made a whole series of programmes, on the responsibilities of those who had been granted asylum to keep the peace and not cause trouble for their hosts, on the conditions for granting refuge to any asylum-seeker. One of these programmes – The Bajaur Agreement and Outlaws – that I will play for you now, started off with these words:

Reporter: Malik Sahib (addressing one of the tribal leaders who made an agreement not to give refuge to outlaws), in the recent jirga held in Bajaur, it was agreed that you would not give sanctuary to outlaws. Is this a reference to foreign outlaws?
First interviewee: My name is Malik Abdul Aziz. I am known as Qamar Malik. We will not give sanctuary to anyone who disturbs our peace.

So like Bacha Khan before us, we are trying to reform wrong customs of the Pashtoons in accordance with the true tenets of their traditions. The Holy Book of the Muslims, for example, says:

وَتَعَاوَنُواْ عَلَى الْبرِّ وَالتَّقْوَى وَلاَ تَعَاوَنُواْ عَلَى الإِثْمِ وَالْعُدْوَانِ
Help one another in goodness and in piety. Do not help one another in sin and transgression.
(Al-Quran, 5:2)

So giving asylum to people – as the Pashtoons have over the last thirty years – in order to enable those asylum-seekers to perpetrate evil at home and abroad is a custom to be rooted out. It is  a custom that has brought ruin on the Pashtoons. It has also destroyed their way of life, since the people they gave refuge to were not only from a different culture from themselves: they were also more powerful and wealthy than them. Instead of the host being able to control the asylum-seeker, the asylum-seeker has been able to dictate terms to the people who granted them asylum.

This was taken from a talk originally intended to be delivered at Chandigarh University of Technology in India.

by: John Butt

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