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Explained: 90 years on, remembering Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre

The Khudai Khidmatgar was a non-violent movement against British occupation of the Indian subcontinent led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun freedom fighter, in the North-West Frontier Province.

Protests spilled into the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar on the day of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s arrest.

Qissa Khwani Bazaar is not much different from other marketplaces in older parts of South Asian cities. Indo-Islamic architectural styles can still be seen in the crumbling facades of the old buildings of the marketplace, known for its book shops, publishers and sweet shops. Before the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the marketplace was also the site of a massacre perpetrated by British soldiers against non-violent protesters of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement on April 23, 1930.

Who were the Khudai Khidmatgars?

The Khudai Khidmatgar was a non-violent movement against British occupation of the Indian subcontinent led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun freedom fighter, in the North-West Frontier Province. Over time, the movement acquired a more political colour, leading to the British taking notice of its growing prominence in the region. Following the arrest of Khan and other leaders in 1929, the movement formally joined the Indian National Congress after they failed to receive support from the All-India Muslim League. Members of the Khudai Khidmatgar were organised and the men stood out because of the bright red shirts they wore as uniforms, while the women wore black garments.

Why did the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre happen?

Abdul Ghaffar Khan and other leaders of the Khudai Khidmatgar were arrested on April 23, 1930 by British police after he gave a speech at a gathering in the town of Utmanzai in the North-West Frontier Province. A respected leader well-known for his non-violent ways, Khan’s arrest spurred protests in neighbouring towns, including Peshawar.

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Protests spilled into the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar on the day of Khan’s arrest. British soldiers entered the market area to disperse crowds that had refused to leave. In response, British army vehicles drove into the crowds, killing several protesters and bystanders. British soldiers then opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing even more people.

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Historical records suggest the British attempted to deploy the Garhwal Regiment against the civilians in the marketplace, but two platoons of this respected regiment refused to shoot at unarmed protesters. In retaliation, British officials court martialled the platoon members with upto eight years of imprisonment.

The British ramped up the crackdown on Khudai Khidmatgar leaders and members following the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre.

What was the aftermath of the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre?

The British ramped up the crackdown on Khudai Khidmatgar leaders and members following the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre. In response, the movement began involving young women in its struggle against the British, a decision in line with tactics adopted by revolutionaries across the undivided India. Women were able to move undetected with more ease than men.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan

According to accounts by Khudai Khidmatgar activists, the British subjected members of the movement to harassment, abuse and coercive tactics adopted elsewhere in the subcontinent. This included physical violence and religious persecution. Following the recruitment of women in the movement, the British also engaged in violence, brutality and abuse of women members.

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British also adopted their tactic of sowing divisions on religious grounds in the North-West Frontier Province as well, in an attempt to weaken the Khudai Khidmatgar. In a move that surprised the British government, in August 1931, the Khudai Khidmatgar aligned themselves with the Congress party, forcing the British to reduce the violence they were perpetrated on the movement.

The Khudai Khidtmatgar opposed Partition, a stance that many interpreted as the movement not being in favour of the creation of the independent nation of Pakistan. Post 1947, the Khudai Khidmatgar slowly found their political influence decreasing to such an extent that the movement and the massacre 90 years ago in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar has been wiped out from collective memory.

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