Undivided India’s North West Frontier had always been a zone of insurgency. Ruling or occupying forces, such as the Pakistanis, Americans, the British and the Mughals have faced the wrath of the fiercely independent, and warlike Pathan tribes of the region. Centuries of wars, and mythologies and clan genealogies set clan against clan and tribe against tribe – this made trade and cooperation very difficult. The harsh lands were unsuitable for producing enough food. However, it periodically produced charismatic religious figures who railed against “predatory infidels and apostates corrupting their lands and destroying their people”. Thus, wars, rebellions and predatory raids were regular affairs. Imperial powers tried to control with these tribes by force or bribes or using pliant local leaders. However, guided by tribal laws of honor and vendetta (a code collectively called Pakthunwali), the tribes answered only to their chiefs and holy men who rose through strength, piety and charisma. Some of these leaders rebelled against the imperial powers, sometimes uniting hitherto warring tribes. Peace could be wrung out, but only after much blood and gold had been spent. Over the years the “peace” would collapse in favor of the Pathans, leaving one to wonder if the tribes were ever truly defeated! The rebellions of Khushal Khan Khattak, Pir Roshan, The Akhund of Swat, Mullah Powindah, Hadda Mullah, etc. are still celebrated in the songs and stories of the region. Though the rebellion was less bloody than say, Khattak’s rebellion or the Roshanniya war, the long rebellion of the Faqir of Ipi is notable for its curious links to the Axis Powers and the Indian National Movement.
Mirzali Khan was born in 1897, into a clan of the Utmanzai tribe of North Waziristan. After religious studies he became a student of the Chaharbagh Nazqib, the greatest religious leader in Afghanistan at the time. After Hajj, he settled in Ipi, a village near the city of Bannu. Soon he became well known for his piety and acquired a reputation as a saint with divine powers. In 1936 the controversial ‘Islam Bibi’ case marked the end of his hitherto peaceful career. An alleged forcible conversion to Islam of a minor Hindu girl was judged illegal, and the girl was returned to her family by the British courts. The Faqir called for Jihad against the British in November 1936 and thousands flocked to his banner. The Faqir attracted so much support due to recent events: Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Khudai-Khidmatgar movement shocked the British. Massive agitations were launched in the region when Gandhiji’s Civil Disobedience Movement began in 1930. The British retaliated strongly and many died in police firings and Air Force attacks in places such as Peshawar, Takkar and Hathikhel. Anger seethed as the British clampdown continued for years – the Islam Bibi judgement had only provided the spark.
The rebels struck at visible symbols of British authority, supporters of the British but rarely attacked Hindus. When the rebellion strengthened the British Army sent two columns (including armor) and chased the Faqir into the mountains. The subsequent planned withdrawal after mopping-up operations was ascribed to the Faqir’s divine powers! Now many more came to join him. He succeeded unifying some tribes and launched bolder attacks. Soon a huge force of over 40,000 soldiers were deployed to combat the Faqir. The British campaign was soon fragmented and bogged down. Their armor and vehicles were not of much use in the mountains and the Faqir’s guerilla tactics inflicted heavy damage on them. Many miraculous powers commonly attributed to the Faqir, which agitated colonial authorities. The story went that the Faqir could turn a felled tree into rifles and his hands could heal injuries. Chief among the very worried authorities was Sir Olaf Caroe, governor of the North West, veteran of the Great Game and many plots, and a seasoned administrator of British India. However, despite the Faqir’s best efforts (including a personal letter to Jawaharlal Nehru), he was unable to gather wider support outside the North West Frontier Province. Even powerful tribes such as the Afridis and the Mohmands refused to support him, perhaps fearing his stature. The Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was now wedded to Satyagraha and refused to support the bloody rebellion. The British now employed scorched earth tactics and used the Air Force heavily. Royal Air Force aircraft bombed many villages and mountains where the Faqir held sway. The British had swarmed over Waziristan and the faqir decided to move into a safe region which outsiders knew very little about. The vast cave complexes of Spin Ghar mountains, in a region called Gorwekt near the Afghan border, became the Faqir’s base. The British methodically killed his sons and hundreds of followers, but the Faqir continued to elude and harass them.
Many British now suspected that the Faqir’s warfighting ability had a secret sauce – he was likely funded by the Empire’s Axis enemies, Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Imperial Japan. This was true – the Italian ambassador Pietro Quaroni was neck deep in anti-British operations in Afghanistan. He supported the Faqir with cash, technical assistance, arms and ammunition. In fact, it was this colorful diplomat who provided Subhash Chandra Bose his fake papers as an Italian nobleman and enabled him to evade British agents and enter Russia. In this he was assisted by the “Quintuple Agent” Bhagat Ram Talwar aka Rehmat Khan, code-named “Silver”, who was also apparently linked to the Faqir’s rebellion. – but that is another story. German intelligence was also active in Kabul, under Ambassador Hans Pilger and resident chief-spy Lieutenant “Pathan” Witzel. The Germans had not-so-bizarre plans named Operation Fire-Eater and Operation Tiger, for an uprising at India’s north-western frontier in September 1941 – when the German invasion of Russia was expected to be completed. Bose was now in Berlin and had raised a small Indian Legion for the aim of liberating India through an invasion from Afghanistan. The Germans also provided aid to the Faqir through direct and indirect means. It was a long shot, but the Axis continued to feed the Faqir’s rebellion. The Axis powers felt that the Faqir’s rebellion could be channeled to unleash Afghan and Muslim rage to topple British India – a dream shared by many of the Empire’s former foes such as Lenin, the Ottoman Caliph and The German Kaiser.
The situation got murkier in late 1937 when a charismatic and well-known Syrian holy man called Shaami Pir – of Prophet Muhammed’s lineage and kinsman of an exiled Afghan King – arrived in the region. He quickly stirred up another major rebellion in the opposite direction – against the current Afghan King whom he called a usurper. There was a confusion on who was behind this new rebellion – (the Germans or Italians or Soviets or British or the exiled Afghan King). However, after a few bloody battles along the Afghan border, the wily Olaf Caroe bribed the Shaami Pir to end the rebellion and return to Syria (after bombing the Pir’s army to bits) in 1938. The Faqir of Ipi kept away from this rebellion, wary of Shaami Pir and his followers – who were from tribes that refused to join his own rebellion. Later it turned out that the Shaami Pir was tasked by other groups in the German government to cause trouble in Afghanistan but infighting within German ranks, bureaucratic rivalry and intelligence failures led to the initiative failing. If the Pir and the Faqir were brought together to attack the British, things might have been very very different!. At least it could have made a considerable dent on British hold on the region, but that opportunity had passed. The Germans would try to get both the Shaami Pir and the Faqir to raise hell on their behalf but now the situation turned unfavorable for the Axis by late 1942.
On the other hand, the Faqir had narrow aims and worldviews. He did not care for Fascism or Communism or Lebensraum or the Indian independence movement. All he wanted was to eject the British from the land of the Pathans, Pakhtunistan. He took foreign assistance but also avoided being closely identified with foreigners or their proxies. As 1942 came to a close, Axis failures in Russia and Africa ended all hopes of invading India from Afghanistan. The British also persuaded the Afghan king (who was hedging his bets so far) to expel most of the Axis diplomatic mission but the remnant managed to keep funding the Faqir’s rebellion. This was to tie down British Army in the region to make things easier for the Japanese who were sweeping across South East Asia towards India. The Italians ditched the Axis in 1943 and Ambassador Quaroni promptly defected and spilled the beans to British intelligence. The Japanese advance also halted at India’s North Eastern borders by 1944. Now all hope of toppling the British Raj was lost. The consequent drying up of Axis support did not stop the Faqir – he continued his war against the British. The British for their part continued to retaliate heavily, even though the threat of invasion of India was over, and the British Raj in India was ending.
The Faqir, no fan of the Pakistan idea, now aligned with the Khudai Khidmatgars for an independent Pakhtunistan. In fact, he felt that the idea of Pakistan was an abomination created by heretical Qadianis, Ahmadis, predatory Islamic gentry, and apostates. He also realized that his land and people would be under the control of Punjabis and rich Muslims who would emigrate to Pakistan from India. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Faqir led a grand tribal conference in the city of Bannu. This conference passed a resolution calling for independent Pakhtunistan. Despite pleas to the British and the Indian leadership, no help came. The Pakistani authorities launched a major crackdown on the separatists. The Frontier Gandhi and major leaders were jailed, and all agitations were crushed. However, the Faqir escaped once again. Pakistan was now his new enemy as her government continued the British tradition of killing the Faqir’s people. There are tales of support from the Soviet Union, the Afghan King, the Khudai Khidmatgars who escaped to India and even the Indian government – support which kept alive the rebellion. The Pakistan Army and police could not get much headway in the Faqir’s home grounds. The cave complexes of Spin Ghar were vast and uncharted and the Faqir and his troops moved through them like Ghosts, evading capture and striking their new enemy. He created his own cabinet, an advisory body and a representative assembly of 180 members from the tribes loyal to his cause and held court in the caves. The Faqir of Ipi continued his rebellion from his mountain stronghold till he died in his bed in 1960, unbowed and uncaught.
Today the Faqir of Ipi is largely forgotten outside his haunts. His grave still stands in Waziristan and his tale is still told in the region. When Osama Bin Laden fled to the caves in the Afghan border, historians and strategists raked up the case of the Faqir of Ipi to show how a popular and motivated movement can survive in those lands despite the efforts of the authorities. After the death of the Faqir, the rebellion faded away and the tribes were appeased through bribes and promises. Most importantly, they were left alone in the semi-autonomous F.A.T.A. (Federally Administered Tribal Area) territory of Pakistan for a long time. Today, things are back to the “normal” in the Faqir’s land: the Pakistani military (and American drones and Special Forces) now prowl the same lands and skies hunting new rebels and terrorists. Perhaps what they say is true – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
PS: This is a much expanded version of my article in DNA, published on December 2, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.