CHARSADDA, PAKISTAN — Here are two words that don't often appear in the same sentence: nonviolent Pashtuns.
For centuries, Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and in India's northwest frontier were famed for their vendettas and feuds, for their bravery and treachery, for their unwillingness to accept outside rule. Pashtuns formed the bulk of Islamic militants who expelled first the British and then the Russian imperial armies from Afghanistan, and later formed a religious extremist movement called the Taliban.
But back in 1930, tens of thousands of Pashtuns tried a path less traveled: nonviolent civil disobedience. This movement - called the Khudai Khidmatgar, or Servants of God - united bickering tribes for an astounding 17 years to end British colonial rule.
"Pashtuns by nature are peace lovers," says Murtaza Khan Shaheen, a biographer of Abdul Gaffar Khan, the nonviolent leader known to his followers as Badshah Khan, or King of Kings.
Knowing his statement bucks a good 600 years of history, Mr. Shaheen adds a caveat. "But, they live in an area that is the gateway to India, and throughout history, they were constantly invaded by others. They had to defend themselves, but they never attacked anyone and they never surrendered to anyone either."
From southern Afghanistan to northwestern Pakistan, there is precious little sign of the Pashtuns' peacenik side. Most of the major military bases from which American troops are operating in Afghanistan are in Pashtun areas, putting US soldiers face to face with one of the world's least understood cultures. But historians say the key to avoiding mistakes in Pashtun lands, and undermining potential allies in the region, is understanding the strong pacifist streak that runs through Pashtun history.
"If the [Khudai Khidmatgar] movement had employed guerrilla tactics, it would not have lasted 17 years," writes Mukulika Banerjee, a historian of the movement and anthropologist at University College in London. "Nonviolent demonstration had the virtue of being a surprise tactic, as the British did not expect it from what they saw as an archetypal warrior race."
Persuading all those Pashtuns to turn the other cheek required a charismatic man of the people, and Badshah Khan fitted the bill. Son of a wealthy landowner, and product of a British university education, Badshah Khan used his better circumstances as a tool to help his people. Wearing simple clothes and traveling from village to village, the barrel-chested leader convinced one tribe at a time that the only way to improve their lives was to stop fighting each other and start resisting the British.
While others called for jihad, or holy war against the British infidels, Badshah Khan called for a reform of Pashtun culture itself. It was not Britain's superior numbers, weapons, or even culture that kept Pashtuns subjected. Instead, it was the Pashtuns themselves, through endless land feuds and tribal bickering.
Badshah Khan knew that Pashtuns could never defeat the British through violence that required money, arms, and complete secrecy, three things that were in short supply on the impoverished frontier. A disciplined moral cause, on the other hand, was cheap, and required only thousands of Pashtuns with attitude.
Typical of these activists is Musharraf Din, a 90-something villager who joined the movement at the age of 20 after hearing a speech by Badshah Khan. Khan's compassion for the common man impressed Mr. Din, and his ideology helped Din remain true to nonviolence, even when he felt like grabbing a gun.
"The British used to torture us, throw us into ponds in wintertime, shave our beards, but even then Badshah Khan told his followers not to lose patience," says Din, his Jack Nicholson-style sunglasses perched atop his forehead beneath a broad white turban. "He said, 'there is an answer to violence, which is more violence. But nothing can conquer nonviolence. You cannot kill it. It keeps standing up.'"
Din recalls his first major protest one cold April morning in 1930, when British troops came to Charsadda to break up a public meeting of the Khudai Khidmatgar. Wearing their trademark bright-red baggy uniforms and Sam Browne-style leather belts, Din and his fellow KKs formed a human roadblock.
"The British sent their horses and cars to run over us, but I took my shawl in my mouth to keep from screaming," he says. "We were human beings, but we should not cry or express in any way that we were injured or weak."
Firsthand written accounts from the period show that the British administrators clearly had no idea what to do with the Servants of God. Beating and jailing the Khudai Khidmatgar only seemed to make them grow. In a single year, from 1930 to 1931, the KKs had grown from 1,000 to 25,000 members.
Sadly, Khan's attempts to reach across ethnic and religious lines to other independent-minded Indians, such as Mahatma Gandhi and several other Sikh and Hindu leaders, ended up damaging his reputation when Indian independence finally came in 1947. It was then that India was partitioned into two states, with the mostly Muslim north broken off into East and West Pakistan.
Under the new rulers of the Pakistan Muslim League, the Khudai Khidmatgar were banned and jailed as traitors, in part because of their close ties to India's new rulers, the Congress party.
But the movement reemerged a few decades later as the Awami National Party. In the brief decade of civilian rule in the 1990s, the Awamis ruled Northwest Frontier Province with little competition. Local political observers say last October's elections, in which the Awamis were defeated in favor of a coalition of extreme religious parties, had more to do with voter discontent with mainstream politics than with the Awamis themselves.
For his part, Musharraf Din says he has no doubt that nonviolence has relevance today among Pashtuns. The clearest evidence is the Pashtun tradition for negotiating disputes through jirgas, or tribal councils, and their distaste for open, face-to-face fights.
And even though his legs aren't as strong as they once were, he can still remember the marching drills he learned 70-odd years ago.
"I'm a Khudai Khidmatgar member until death," he says proudly. Pulling himself off a string cot by grasping a hooked cane, he stands at full attention. "Left-face," he shouts, pivoting, and then stomping his right foot. "Ow," he winces, and then smiles. "Need to warm up my knee first."