the pathan unarmed

Written by Mishayam Jan Ayub 8:28 pm Book Reviews, Published Content

The Pathan Unarmed

Mukulika Banerjee’s “The Pathan Unarmed” is an enlightening book that dives into the captivating history of Pashtuns’ nonviolent resistance. It gives an in-depth history of the Khudai Khidmatgaar movement, which was started and steered by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, commonly known as Bacha Khan. His non-violent movement became a sincere instrument for the transformation of Pathans from a group with polemic and defiant nature to a non-violent one.
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Ms Mishayam Jan Ayub is currently a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at the National Defense University.


The Pathan Unarmed commences with an overview of the NWFP province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and its significance in the historical perspective of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. It also gives a brief overview of the region’s geography, demography, history, and the significance of the Pashtun tribal society.

Mukulika Banerjee examines the British colonial administrative strategy in dealing with the Pashtun tribes, delving into the characteristics of the British governance tactics, in which they used the method of carrot and stick through rigors and bounties. She also ponders upon the relationship between the creation of the Durand Line and its impact on Pashtuns’ identity and cultural norms.

Khudai Khidmatgaar and the Role of Bacha Khan

One of the central arguments of Dr. Banarjee revolves around the idea that movements like the Khudai Khidmatgaar are more likely to emerge in “frontier zones (where) new ideas do not eliminate old ones but rather combine with them to produce novel syntheses, which are then transmitted to surrounding civilizations.” Similar was the situation of the Khudai Khidmatgaar movement, referred to as the Red Shirts (laal Kurtis), that hatched in regions around the Peshawar valley, where new ideas and innovative means of development were equivalent to challenging old methods.

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The author also stresses the idea that Bacha Khan’s goal was more than merely harnessing independence from the shackles of colonial rule. He was also an advocate for the abolition of old Pashtun customs like feuds, exorbitant bride prices, and factionalism. He righteously condemned the avarice of moneylenders, unhealthy hygienic conditions in villages, child abuse, the rapacity of clergies (Mullahs), and the populace’s ignorance and intolerance.

His campaign intended to liberate his people from the shackles of oppressive philosophy and ignorance, restoring them to the true conditions of enlightenment, civility, and nationhood. He wanted to instill the true means of Pakhtunwali and rescue Pashtun women from the tyranny of patriarchal norms that had corrupted the Pashtun society for decades.

Legacy and Influence

Banerjee’s work is an academic triumph, providing a comprehensive understanding of Pashtun’s nonviolent resistance. With the well-articulated work and brilliant utilization of the data from the interviews with the former redshirts, she explicitly sheds light on the nuances of the Khudai Khidmatgaar movement. She refutes the general perception of the motives behind the movement and galvanizes a more nuanced depiction of the Pathans’ quest for justice and peace.

Initially, the forum was open to all inhabitants of India, irrespective of their caste, creed, or religion. The servants of God were distinguished from the ordinary people for their unique red attires, which provided them with a launching pad for presenting a united front as one body. The hierarchical formulation of the Khudai Khidmatgaar teams in a military style coupled with rigorous military-style drills and training, instilled subordination and unity.

The Khidmatgaars undertook their journey with resilience by traversing to the farthest extents of the province, thus uplifting the hygienic conditions of folks by inculcating the basic concept of cleanliness, self-reliance by suggesting and demonstrating to people the techniques of spinning fabric, establishing schools and maternity clinics, and assisting people socially, morally and economically through support in general. The immediate pragmatic outcome of the above activities provided legitimacy to Bacha Khan’s mission and attracted fresh supporters to the cause.

Bacha Khan, A Pragmatic Leader

The author portrays Bacha Khan as a pragmatic leader, whose own demeanor and dispositions reflected his philosophy of self-sacrificing and pacifist beliefs. His adopted modesty by giving up a privileged lifestyle basically conveyed to the lower strata of society that he belonged from within them. As one of the redshirts in the book recalls about him, “He was a big Khan, but he lived like a faqir.”

The ultimate and most important factor in establishing self-sacrifice principles in the Khudai Khidmatgaar movement was his real personal experience of confinement, torture, and humiliation. He thought that by adopting this philosophy, they would become shaheed for a sacred mission, a task that stemmed from imperative Islamic doctrines.


According to Banerjee, the movement’s core doctrine of non-violence was aligned with the postulates of Pukhtunwali & Islam. However, Pukhtunwali’s core postulate of revenge Badal is tangent to the philosophy of Islam. Thus, Bacha Khan’s intention to inculcate pacifism ended in failure. The setting of a dispute-free personality as a prerequisite for joining the Khudai Khidmatgar movement was a rare phenomenon in Pashtun culture. Therefore, the idea that Puktunwali and the Khudai Khidmatgaar were in congruence is entirely a defective claim.

The author also states that Bacha Khan’s non-violent resistance was inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) and was later adopted as one of the core principles of the movement. While both leaders encouraged peaceful means of nonviolence, noncooperation, civil disobedience, and large rallies to oppose British colonial power, Bacha Khan’s movement emphasized social reforms, productive labor, and community service above direct political confrontation with the British.

Like former scholars, Dr. Banarjee emphasizes that the vast majority of Khudai Khitmatgars belonged to the Peshawar valley and were mainly impoverished peasants. She also claims that the majority of the members were from suburban Peshawar and Mardan (probably the Tehsils), but she failed to explore further by ignoring the links between the Khudai Khidmatgar and the residents of the tribal lands like Faqeer of Ipi and Afridis of Teerah who formed an important and formidable front to the British resistance. 

Dr. Banerjee’s contention that the Khudai Khidmatgar movement was politically motivated and was only used to liberate the land from colonial rule is not correct in entirety as it was more of a social work movement. The philosophy of non-violence seems like a failure in the wake of actions by Subas Chandra Bhos, closely affiliated with Congress. Social work combined with other political tools like the unification of the Pathans and presenting a front to colonial rule ended with the creation of Pakistan.     


The significance of the Pathan Unarmed stems from its capacity to clarify misconceptions and preconceived assumptions about Pathans being inherently aggressive or radical. Banerjee’s work emphasizes the Pathans’ autonomy and resilience, demonstrating nonviolence as a strategic option rather than a sign of weakness. By doing so, she contributes to a better understanding of the possibilities for nonviolent resistance in conflict regions across the world.

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