Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: The Land of Frontier Gandhi

Pakistan’s north-western region has been facing insurgency for a long time. It was a constant challenge to the British as the loyalty of the people in this area is more towards the tribes than the country. Afghanistan supported insurgency after declaring the Durand Line invalid and claiming the region as its own. After the partition, Frontier Gandhi was unwilling to join Pakistan.

By Col Alok Mathur


Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan was born in Utmanzai, a village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), located in the north-western mountainous region of Pakistan. This province shares a border with Afghanistan in the west and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the north and northeast. Pakistan’s Punjab province is to the east and Baluchistan is to its South. It is the smallest province with an area of 101,741 sq km but holds 35 million (18 per cent) population of Pakistan. It was called North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) in British India. Pakistan renamed it Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010 by the 18thamendment to its constitution. It is also popularly called Pashtunistan by Pashtuns. 

History of the region 

During Vedic times 1200 BC, the region was known as Janpad Pushkalavati as part of the Gandhar kingdom in north-western united India. The princess of Gandhar was married to Dhritarashtra, whose troops led by King Shakuni participated in Mahabharata. Peshawar, the main city in the region, was known as Purushpura. Alexander of Macedonia had a treaty with Ambiraj King of Takshila and defeated Porus on the Hydaspes River in 326 BC. Subsequently, Alexander headed home and died in 323 BC. He appointed Seleukos Nikator as Trans Indus ruler of NW India. Emperor Chandragupta defeated King Dhananand of the Magadh empire guided by Acharya Chanakya and Macedonian forces, and extended his kingdom across Afghanistan in 321 BC. 

Emperor Ashoka, his grandson ruled this entire region from 272 BC until 232 BC. Buddhism prospered in this region. Ashok became a Buddhist after Kalinga War. Mauryan empire collapsed after his demise. Later, Parthians and Sakas ruled the area. Hindu Emperor Kanishka occupied the region from 127 AD to 140 AD followed by his son Harshikha and grandson Vasudeva. King Jayapal of the Shahi dynasty ruled the area until 1001 AD when the Sultan of Ghazni invaded and defeated Jayapal. This was followed by the forced conversion of the masses to Islam. Khyber Pass was under the control of Shaybani Khan, an Uzbek warlord, who kept the first Mughal king Babur on the run between Ferguna to Samarkand. Finally, Iran helped Babur to establish his kingdom in Kabul and in killing Shaybani Khan. Sher Shah Suri, who defeated Humayun, got a road constructed connecting Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, Delhi and Calcutta.


Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan was honoured with Jawahar Lal Nehru Award for Peace in 1967 and Bharat Ratna in 1987 for his role in the freedom struggle 

Aurangzeb recovered Khyber Pass in 1672 AD and Mohammad Shah was defeated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1818. Maharaja Ranjit Singh captured Peshawar and made Lahore his capital. Peshawar had to be recaptured in 1823, as Yar Mohammad revolted against the Sikh empire, in the battle of Nowshera. He was reinstated as a vassal ruler. East India Company defeated Sikhs during the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849 and incorporated the Pashtun region in British India and named it as North West Frontier province. There was a revolt in 1857 in Peshawar but Pashtuns remained neutral.

The Wazir tribes from Waziristan were a constant challenge to British convoys. There was a dispute between the Afghan Kingdom and the British who claimed this region as part of Afghanistan. Durand Line became the frontier in 1893 as a treaty was signed. The third Anglo-Afghan war ended in 1919 as the treaty of Rawalpindi was enforced. Wazir tribes could not be tamed, the British finally introduced big cantonments in Peshawar, Kohat, Mardan, and Nowshera to control the tribal resistance. The roads and railways until Quetta were constructed to join the remote areas with the plains of central India. 

Frontier Gandhi’s stance

North West Frontier Province was carved out of Punjab province in 1901 for better command of the area. It became Kyber PakhtunKwah in 2010. Before the partition, senior Pashtun leaders led by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (Baccha Khan) were in favour of United India. Still, when the British announced that India will be divided into two nations, he decided to declare North West province as an independent country. The Bannu incident in which a marriage between a Hindu minor girl with a Muslim boy was declared invalid by a British court, caused the rift between the Jamiat-e-Ulama Hind and Khudai Khitmatgar group. It resulted in a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims. Finally, he opted for Muslim Pakistan. Later in 1950, Mirzali Khan, another firebrand Pashtun commander declared independence and continued with guerrilla warfare until his death in 1960. 

Afghanistan declared the Durand Line invalid and claimed NWFP as part of Afghanistan and supported insurgency by Pashtuns. Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the Taliban withdrew to Pashtunistan and launched Jihad. The Soviets left in 1989 and NWFP became a hideout for Afghan fighters. It became KPH in 2010. The militancy became dominant as the USA launched a war against AL Qaida fighters after the 9/11 attack in 2001 on the Twin Towers of WTC in New York killing 3000 Americans. Pakistan Army being an ally of the USA got trapped and become targets of armed militant groups such as Tehreek Taliban e Pakistan (TTP) Lashkar-e-Islam, Tehreek-e-Nafaz Shariat Mohammad (TNSM) and Al Qaida. Nearly 50,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives since 2001 mostly in KPK and Baluchistan. In 2014, 123 students were killed by militants in retaliation to a major operation by Pak Army (Zarb-e-Azb). The militancy has been controlled by Pak Army but still, low-level terrorist incidents are common.

Central Asia-type climate

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is famous for snow-peaked mountains and lush green valleys. It is located on the western edge of the Iranian Plateau and lies in between the Hindukush Mountain range and the western Indus plains. Khyber Pass is the northern gate of the ancient Lahore-Peshawar-Kabul trade route on the Eurasian Plate with high seismic turbulence. The area of KPH can be divided into the Peshawar basin in the north and Deratat Basin in the south. The northern zone extends from the Hindukush range to Peshawar and is extremely cold in winter with heavy rainfall and moderate summer. The southern zone has Sandstone Buddin Hills extending east from Sulaiman Mountain towards Indus separating the Dera Ismail Khan area from Marwat plains. There is a National Park named Sheikh Buddin. Kafir Kot is located near the Indus River on hills with an old Hindu temple. The major rivers that flow through are Kabul, Swat, Chitral, Kuna, Siran, Panjkora, Kurram, Dor, Haroo, Gomal and Zhob.

The province can be divided into three climatic zones.  Northern Zone is located in the Chitral district and protected by Nanga Parbat massif. The climate humid subtropical is more like Central Asia. The winters are cold and heavy snowfall blocks the Passes and blizzards are common. The summers are not as severe as in other parts. Most rainfall and thunderstorms occur in the Winter months and summers are dry and with scanty rain. The area is mountainous with elevations up to 5000 metres. Central Pakhtunkhwa is on the southern flank of Nanga Parbhat and the monsoon from the Arabian sea can penetrate and collide with mountain slopes and cause heavy rainfall. The rainfall in Abottabad and Manshera districts is as high as 1750 mm whereas in the upper and lower district of Dir it drops to 500 mm per year. The winters are milder than in the North. Southern KPK is in the foothills away from the Himalayas and climate changes to the typically arid climate of semi-desert plains. The average rainfall is below 300 mm. The temperature rises to 50 degrees Celsius in summers and winters are also tolerable. Nights are colder followed by frost in the early hours.

Rigid code of conduct

The province has about 35 million population. The largest ethnic group is Pashtuns along with 1.5 million Afghani refugees who are also Pashtuns. They have named the area Pashtunistan, home of Pashtuns. There are Tajiks and Hazara tribes living in this region. Pashtuns have a very rigid code of conduct. The high-value components are Nangi (Honour), Badla (Revenge), Melmastiya  (Hospitality), and Nanawata (Protection to refugees). Their loyalty is more towards Tribes and Groups than the country. Pashto and Urdu are the main languages. Arabic is used for religious ceremonies. Hindko, Saraiki, Khowar and Kohistani are other ethnic dialects. The majority practices Sunni Islam and there is a small percentage of Shias, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs also. The head of the province is the chief minister elected by the popular vote in the provincial assembly and the governor is appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. Peshawar High Court is the highest court of law in the province.  

Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the Taliban withdrew to Pashtunistan and launched Jihad. The Soviets left in 1989 and NWFP became a hideout for Afghan fighters 

Earlier, KPK had seven administrative divisions but after the 2008 elections, 27 districts have been formed; Abottabad, Bannu, Bastagram, Buner, Chardassa, Chitral, Dera Ismail Khan, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Hagu, Haripur, Karak, Kohat, Kohistan Upper, Kohistan Lower, Kolai Pallas, Lakki Marawat, Malakand, Majshera, Mardan, Nowshera, Peshawar, Swabi, Swat, Shangla, Tank and Torghar.

The KPK share of GDP is 10 per cent of the economy of Pakistan. The main crops are wheat, maize, tobacco, rice, sugar, beets and fruits like peaches are also produced. There are large forests in the region. There are marble mines accounting for 80 per cent of the marble production in the nation. Peshawar has been developed into a large manufacturing Hub producing small arms and weapons. Peshawar is also called the largest trade centre of the northern region and gateway to Kabul. Sharmai Hydro Power Project financed by Japan Nippon company is near completion in Upper Dir District on Panj Kora River with an installed capacity of 150 Mega Watt and will bring prosperity to this region.

Exiled for 10 years

Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and was a freedom fighter and fought against British rule. He was in favour of United India and opposed Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He was also called Badshah Khan and nicknamed Fakhr-e-Afghan. He was head of the Khudai Khitmatgar Party and opted for an independent Pashtunistan than joining Pakistan. He went into exile for 10 years for opposing one unit rule and later died in Peshawar during house arrest in 1988. He was honoured with Jawahar Lal Nehru Award for Peace in 1967 and Bharat Ratna in 1987 being a freedom fighter and close follower of Gandhi.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s share of GDP is 10 per cent of the economy of Pakistan. There are marble mines accounting for 80 per cent of the marble production in the nation

There was a lot of tension in KPK in 1979 as Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan to support the Communist regime. Babrak Karmal was appointed as the president by the USSR. Millions of Pashtun refugees crossed over to KPK and with help of CIA and ISI in Zia-ul-Haque’s regime in Pakistan and launched guerrilla warfare. The Soviets suffered heavy casualties and they withdrew in 1989. The region again was the site of heavy fighting and militancy after 9/11 and when US Army and Pak Army launched a major operation “Zarb e Azb” to destroy Al Ouida hideouts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The situation worsened as terrorists killed school children in December 2014. The militant groups such as Tahreek-e-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam, and Tahreek-a-Nafaz opposed the US intervention and attacked US/Pak joint forces. The militants were happy as the US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a recent development, Pakistani Army Chief General Bajwa has initiated a ceasefire agreement with Noor Wali Mahmood, head of dreaded Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Accordingly, Army troops will gradually withdraw from the Former Federal Administered Tribal Area (FATA) now merged with KPK. TTP will impose the traditional Shariat laws in the region dominated by Pashtuns. Locals are fearing cruel execution and there is a large section of the army not happy with the agreement with TTP because this organisation was responsible for the killing of 123 students of army School Peshawar Cantt in 2014. The children were wards of army personnel. The army will have to release at least 500 TTP men from custody. Pak army chief believes that it will bring peace to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

-The writer is an Indian Army veteran and a defence analyst. He has keen interest in Geo-strategic affairs and writes regularly on internal and external affairs issues related to India and neighbours. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.

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