In a century-old province, the major milestone of its history vis-a-vis the Qissa Khwani tragedy of April 23, 1930, in spite of its paramount importance is still shrouded in mystery as regards its real basis. The only historic incident on the sub-continent which can match it in gravity is the Jalianwala Bagh firing. Now the vested interests of certain quarters have been successful in distorting our history and replacing it with the personal activities and gatherings of the khans, nawabs and sardars. The result of this practice is the sheer ignorance of the fact that the Qissa Khwani massacre was in fact an all-out struggle launched for the restoration of human rights and civil liberties and freedom of expression of the inhabitants of the NWFP. No doubt the slogans against the Salt act and Sarda act were also used to associate it with the general uprising in the country in that movement, but had it been simply defiance of the Salt act, hundreds of people who laid down their lives in Qissa Khwani would have done so in Landhi where Gandhi himself was leading a long march.
The strange side of the story is that while the Jalianwala Bagh incident has earned international fame to such as extent that the Queen of Britain had to go to India in the recent years and pay tributes to those who died due to the firing ordered by General Dyre on a large gathering considered defiant to the freshly-introduced Rowlette Bill. The tragic part of the freedom struggle is the fact that even the people who now belong to Qissa Khwani have been kept ignorant of the great battle for human rights and freedom of press no less important than the Jalianwala Bagh incident.
The record of the Peshawar Archives still provides testimony to the fact that the Qissa Khwani massacre occurred because there were discriminatory and tyrant laws promulgated only in the NWFP and not anywhere else in the British-ruled India. Hundreds of men, women and children came out to sacrifice their lives for a movement launched in the name of human rights and civil liberties at least equal to those existing elsewhere in the dominion’s provinces. This historic milestone reminds us of the state terrorism to which the non-violent people of the NWFP were subjected.
The discriminatory and despotic laws enforced in the NWFP in the early twentieth century were the Frontier Crimes Regulation, the Frontier Security Regulation, the Frontier Murderous Outrage Regulation (also called the Ghazi Act) and the Safety Regulation etc.
Troops advancing on the protesters
Map showing events on April 23rd 1930 (Marsh, 2009)
A military vehicle burns in the empty streets
The people of the Frontier protested against the trampling down of the human rights under the feet of the authorities, but all in vain. They made correspondence with the national leaders in the country. In December 1929, when the Congress passed the resolution of complete independence in Lahore on the bank of the Ravi, the demand to withdraw the autocratic regulations in the NWFP was also made. The great Mufti of the NWFP, Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai, was elected to represent the NWFP in this mammoth rally. He always stood for the down-trodden and the most down-trodden at that time happened to be the Muslims. He advocated the transfer of power and prosperity to the common man instead of merely changing the rulers from the English to the indigenous feudal lords and capitalists. Interestingly, this fact is on record in the very first work published by Omer Farooq Khan of Hazara, a disciple of the Maulana, in January 1970, that Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai for the first time propounded the modern concept of decentralisation and deregulation within the framework of centralisation.
Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai alias Imam-e-Hurriat, while addressing the mammoth rally in Lahore at Lajypat Roy Nagar on December 27, 1929, directed the attention of his audience towards the discriminatory and tyrannical laws promulgated only in the NWFP. He said that these laws were meant to suppress and weaken the poor and oppressed people. He also remarked that for the establishment of a complete democratic society in the country, the foremost obligation of all the people was to abolish the laws of oppression in the NWFP like FCR. This can be verified by consulting the Abstract of Intelligence vol xxxvi 1930, para number 168 etc.
Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai and his associates had organised the first ever revolutionary political party of the NWFP by the name of the Jamiat-i-Naujawanan-i-Sarhad for their cause. A number of party organs used to be published and secretly distributed in the era of the twenties. Later on, the same organisation remained active by different names like the Naujawan Baharat Sabha, Socialist Workers League, and Congress Socialist Party of the Frontier etc whenever there was a need to change the name. The newspapers used as organs of the party included the Naujawanan-i-Sarhad, Chingari and Naujawan Sarfarosh. In the early 1930s, copies of the newspaper Naujawan Sarfarosh were confiscated by the local authorities. As a protest to this action, different political workers, including those of the Naujawan Baharat Sabha and Congress Committee, held public meetings and the issue of the freedom of the press was highlighted.
The leaders of the National Caliber constituted a committee to investigate the discriminatory laws in the NWFP. The committee included Dr Syed Mahmood, Lala Dooni Chand and Maulana Abdul Qadir Qasuri, the grandfather of Pakistan’s former prime minister, Moeen Qureshi. The committee was stopped at Attock and not allowed to enter the NWFP on April 21, 1930.
In response to this act, a large protest gathering was announced in Shahi Bagh on the same evening. In this public meeting, Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai, who was the Mufti-e-Sarhad, moved a resolution of strong protest and condemnation. This protest resolution became the central theme of the speeches by all the speakers who included Pir Shahinshah of Kohat, Maulana Khan Mir Hilali, Rahim Bakhsh Ghaznawi, Lala Para Khan of DI Khan and Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar. In this public meeting, the programme of picketing at liquor shops and holding demonstrations in Peshawar was agreed upon.
The next day secret meetings were held at the residences of Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai and Agha Syed Lal Badshah Bukhari, the leaders of the twelve-member war council. The names of the members had been published in the daily Tribune, Lahore, dated April 26, 1930, and later quoted by the IG police, Ice monger, in his report which can be consulted at the Peshawar Archives in TRC bundle No 64 at serial No 1775.
In the late hours of the night, most of the leaders of the war council were arrested. The arrest of Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai by a special DSP was narrated in the Bang-e-Haram dated May 28, 1958, by Kakaji Sanober Hussain Mohmand who was an eyewitness in the house of Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai. He wrote that at the time of the Maulana�s arrest, the DSP remarked, “If we do not arrest you now, you are going to bring a revolution in the morning.”
A sepoy takes aim early in the day
Armoured Cars in the Qissa Khwani Bazar (Marsh, 2009)
Crowd gathering around “Bray” prior to second round of shootings (Marsh, 2009)
The last two members of the war council who were arrested in the morning near the Clock Tower provoked an already agitated mob. They burst the tyres of the police van and two members, Allah Bakhsh Barqi and Ghulam Rabbani Sethi, were set free. They persuaded the SHO to let them offer court arrest in the police station, Kabuli. The mob followed the two members of the war council. When they entered the police station to offer themselves for arrest, the mob became unruly and raised the slogans of “long live revolution”. Some participants pelted stones at the police. In the meantime, the deputy commissioner entered the city from the cantonment side and some four armoured cars with infantry followed. The cars drove with such a speed that half a dozen people were crushed under them. It became difficult now to control the mob and some one hit the deputy commissioner with a brick. He was wounded and fell unconscious. A water-carrier, named Abdur Rehman, alias Mani, hit an English motorcyclist and killed him. Mani was later arrested and tired for murder. The English troops had put advancing the Gorhwali Rifles platoons ahead of them. When ordered to fire on the mob, they plainly refused to fire at the innocent people. They were disarmed and later court martialled.
The troops continued hunting the Peshawarites indiscriminately for six hours. Jean Sharp has described in his work on non-violent movements that the youth came forward and offered themselves for sacrifice one after the other and the troops did not hesitate to open fire at them.
When the news of the killing of hundreds of the Peshawarites was heard by the prisoners of the Central Jail, they began to revolt. They broke their cells and came out and the jail authorities had to run away for their lives. In the meantime, Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai and Agha Lal Badshah addressed the violent prisoners and cooled them down by saying that even if they committed some violent act in a single jail it would be of no benefit to the movement because they were not under a proper discipline and command and violence and anarchy by no means could be translated into a desired revolution. Later on, the troops took over the jail as well and the leaders of the war council were taken to the Bala Hisar fort for trial. Within a week’s time they were awarded punishments and sent to the Gujrat special jail. On the way to Gujrat, every two leaders were chained in a single handcuff. The maximum punishment was awarded to the Imam-i-Hurriat, Allama Abdur Rahim Popalzai, and his associate, Rahim Bakhsh Ghaznavi. Both of them were sentenced to nine years of rigorous imprisonment in three different cases. This was presumably because Maulana Popalzai was a radical leader of the movement and he had while addressing a large gathering at the Shahi Bagh on April 15, 1930, remarked that he planned to overthrow the English rulers. Rahim Bakhsh Ghaznavi had openly said in the same meeting that he was a rebel. Agha Lal Badshah Bukhari was sentenced to three years of imprisonment. The same three years imprisonment was awarded to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who had on his way to Peshawar near the Nahqi police station refused to furnish a security under section 40 of the FCR.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s political party was established a couple of days before the Qissa Khwani incident on April 19, 20, 21, 1930. Earlier, he was mostly engaged in reforming the Pukhtoons and took an active part in the Khilafat and Congress activities, but both of these parties were all-India based organisations and not purely NWFP based.
It is painful to recall that while the Chicago Martyrs Day is celebrated throughout the world as they rendered sacrifices for their wages and hours of work, the Qissa Khwani martyrs day, a milestone of human rights, civil liberties and freedom of expression by an entire province, has been constantly underestimated. More pitiable is the fact that history has been distorted to the benefit of the feudal lords. At detailed documentary work or a series of books still awaits publication.