Sunday, June 14, 2009
Film Review: FRONTIER GANDHI (2008)
The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace, directed by T.C. McLuhan; screened on June 14, 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Muslim Voices festival.
The sheer incongruity of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) merits some explanation. He lived most of his life on the wrong side of history and political geography: his championing of Pashtun causes in the 1920s and 1930s did not win him the friendship of the British Raj (which ruled the Pashtun lands east of the Durand line as part of British India's North-West Frontier Province ("NWFP")); over time, his Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement became the only mass-based predominantly Muslim movement in (what is today) Pakistan to be allied with the Indian National Congress in the struggle for independence -- which, by the 1940s, meant that he had to contend with the rising tide of the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan (not to mention a colonial authority that was far more suspicious of the Khidmatgars than of the League); he couldn't simply be an Afghan nationalist, given that he was born on the side of the Durand line not ruled from Kabul. Finally, he and his movement became misfits in the post-1947 political dispensation, the man himself branded a traitor by the ruling establishment in Pakistan, a Gandhi-lover in a nation-state founded on the two-nation theory. Yet none of this can detract from the fact that Khan was the driving force behind the most (only?) organized Pashtun mass movement of modern times, a force so potent that even six decades after the NWFP voted to join Pakistan in a referendum (the only one of its kind in the sub-continent), "Badshah" ("King") Khan's brand lives on, in Pakistan, by means of the Awami National Party ("ANP"), a Pashtun-centric political party run (for the most part) by his descendants; and in India, by means of Khan's induction into mainstream nationalist historiography's pantheon of heros, as the very archetype of the "good" Muslim.
Yet traces of the man's "difference", his strangeness, remain, defying easy assimilation: his championing of Pashtun nationalism, on both sides of the Durand line, cannot sit comfortably within the Nehruvian project (a problem Indian textbooks have dealt with by passing over it in silence); his preference for an un-partitioned India over Pakistan if the option of "Pashtunistan" was off the table is even more incomprehensible to mainstream Pakistani discourse than Pashtun nationalism is; and his frank religiosity would make the Indian Left uncomfortable. The oddness extends to his physical appearance: he seems immensely tall in the newsreels and photographs, with powerful, yet gentle, eyes, and a nose the size of which beggars belief. Badshah Khan was, quite simply, the echidna of sub-continental politics, the patron saint of all desi political oddities who have never found a home in the region's post-colonial states.
It should thus come as no surprise that the mass movement Khan built is like a compendium of stereotype-busters: fanatically non-violent in a violent region, and composed of people defined -- by both colonial and post-colonial authorities, by "Westerners" as well as by native "others" -- as essentially and irredeemably violent; progressive in a milieu where the term is reserved for secular dispensations; and inter-religious in a place and time when communal identity came to become all but synonymous with political destiny. The story of Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars touches upon virtually every significant political concern in three South Asian nation-states (India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), and is yet practically unknown outside the sub-continent, and simplistically understood within it. All of which is a rather long-winded way of explaining just why I took the train one balmy Sunday afternoon, from Spanish Harlem all the way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when I heard that a documentary on the great man's life was going to be screened as part of a festival called "Muslim Voices."
Unfortunately, McLuhan's documentary is nowhere near as interesting as a film on Badshah Khan should be, largely due to a prism that insists on beatifying the man, on representing him as a now-forgotten prophet, rather than as the fascinating political animal he was. The film's title is thus no accident, for Mahatma Gandhi has himself long been consumed by Western audiences as a saint, rather than the enigmatic, frustrating, and great political leader he was. For Frontier Gandhi, as for the Eknath Easwaran book that McLuhan says inspired the film, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is an almost other-worldly figure, an incarnation of humanistic love, his philosophy of non-violent resistance simply an expression of that love. This is all well-intentioned, and certainly none could deny the ethical import of the tactics championed by Khan and Gandhi, but the effect is not only simple-minded, but downright pernicious. For Khan to tower as the Pashtun Jesus, he must be set against a hopelessly lost people, and an ethos where the only natural thing to do is to fight and kill. As noted above, this is a common stereotype, both in the sub-continent and in the West, but overuse has certainly not dulled its edge (indeed, I have myself heard the Pakistani military's recent interventions in the region justified on the ground that the Pashtuns only appreciate force). Nor does it explain anything: watching this documentary does not enable one to get even a glimmer of how and why Khan's message was able to resonate in the NWFP of his day, how he was able to build up such a formidable organization, and why the movement was not more successful in preventing partition, or even of winning the allegiance of more Muslims (not to mention whether or not Khan's call for a boycott of the 1947 referendum, was a political blunder). Frontier Gandhi gives us, instead, a glimpse of the sacred: we see the holy man in grainy newsreels, while modern-day acolytes profess wonder at his goodness; in short, a devotional, not a documentary (although admittedly one with the benefit of introducing "the West" to an aspect of Pashtun history that has hardly gotten any attention in the post-9/11 world; for a serious engagement with that history, check out Mukulika Banerjee's wonderful The Pathan Unarmed).
Nevertheless, there is much to redeem Frontier Gandhi: despite the problematic framing of her subject, McLuhan allows Badshah Khan to "speak", through scattered doses of his writings (narrated by Om Puri), and audio clips of the man's own wonderfully rich, measured voice. And then there are the videos, very many of them, enabling the audience to catch glimpses of the man, even if he's doing pretty much the same thing in most of them (namely, greeting people) -- and there are some memorable exceptions, such as the excerpt from a very late interview of Khan's wherein he warns that the best solution to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is a negotiated one, lest the conflict engulf everyone; or videos of his trip to India in 1969, replete with Indira Gandhi looking at the audience rather than paying any heed to the man speaking at the podium; or one from the 1940s, when an animated Jawaharlal Nehru throws his arm over Badhsah Khan's shoulder. Last, but certainly not least, McLuhan has done the audience a great service by including extensive footage of interviews with surviving Khudai Khidmatgars, from both Pakistan and India. Their ardor and conviction, and (at times) their sorrow and disappointment, shine through. Taken together, the audio/video clips and the interviews take the documentary in a different direction than the one McLuhan (or interviewees like Saeed Naqvi, Eknath Easwaran, and M.J. Akbar) appear to have had in mind -- a far richer and more authentically grounded direction. For those testimonials to a lost world, and to an abiding conviction, this film deserves to be seen.