Pashto Literature - A Quest for Identity

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Pashto Literature - A Quest for Identity, Fazlur Rahim Marwat
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, April 25 2003 (

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Pashto Literature - A Quest for Identity

Fazlur Rahim Marwat

University of Texas, USA, November 14-15, 2002

Publishing Date: Friday, April 25 2003

The dilemma of the Pashto Literature in Pakistan is that of the Pashtoon nation and its merger in Pakistan under British Colonial Framework. Pashtoons, originally a Central Asian stock, is spread over in Pashtunkhwa (the land of the Pashtoons) lying between rivers Oxus and Indus. The culture of Pashtunkhwa - a synthesis at least in its essence of the great humanistic ideals of Zoroastra, Greco-Bactria, Gandhara, and Islam - all integrated in the traditional tribal secular code of the Pashtoons - Pashtunwali.

The great game followed by the Cold War and Iron Curtain of the Soviet Regime if on the one hand isolated Central Asia from the outside world; it also detached Pashtoons from their socio-cultural roots and pushed them towards Indian sub continent where they naturally faced an identity crisis. The British intrigues, suppression and exploitation of Pashtunkhwa further aggravated this identity crisis.

In the 20th century nationalism, imperialism and communal identity shaped political history of South Asia. Out of these contradictions in the Indian society, Pakistan emerged in the name of Islam or Muslim Communalism. While the Pashtoon nationalist movement was secular and pluralistic in its very nature and was identified rightly or wrongly with the Soviet Expansion in the pre partition politics. All political, social or cultural activities in Pashtunkhwa were considered a conspiracy of the Bolsheviks to reach the warm waters. That is why the Pashtun nationalist movement attracted suspicion of the new state on the basis of past record. Thereby Islamabad gained the support of the west against Pashtoons.

The year 1947 brought new challenges and prospects for the Pashto literature and the Pashtun nation.

Three phases of Pashto Literature in Pakistan:

  • First Phase: Pashtunistan Literature (1947-1978)
  • Second Phase: Inqilabi and Jihadi (Revolutionary and Resistance) literature (1978-1992)
  • Third Phase: Aman and Jirga (Peace and Reconciliation) Literature (1992-2002)

First Phase

Pashtunistan Literature (1947-1978)

Pashto literature developed in the womb of nationalist movement of non-violence and in a violent political culture in Pakistan.

Mostly the writers were passive nationalists, progressive nationalists, radical nationalists and Marxists. Except the passive nationalists, almost all of them were politically motivated.

  • Passive Nationalists:
    Ahmad Trio (Mir Ahmad Shah Rizwani, Maulvi Ahmad and Munshi Ahmad Jan) translating into Pashto Maulana Altaf Hussein Hali's Musadas, Deputy Nazir Ahmad's Miratul Urus and Ibn e Batutas travelogue. Syed Rahat Zakheli, the harbinger of modern Pashto prose, novel and short story translated some poems of Dr Iqbal into Pashto.
  • Progressive Nationalists:
    Abdul Ghafar Khan and his non-violent colleagues like Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, Abdul Akbar Khan Akbar, Fazal Mahmud Makhfi and Nasrullah Khan Nasr attempts for cultural, political, educational renaissance in Pashtunkhwa. It should be noted that most of the pioneers of Pashto literature on modern ideological lines were those writers who had experience of the great Hijrat movement of 1920s and of Russian society, political system and all revolutionary theories and practices either in Moscow or Tashkent.
  • Radical Nationalists:
    Haji Mirza Ali Khan alias Faqir of Ipi and his militant followers were also publishing anti British and anti Pakistan literature in the tribal areas.
  • Marxists:
    Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai and Sanobar Hussein Kakaji led the Marxist group.The following four literary associations played an important role in the promotion of Pashto language and literature.
    • Pashto Adabi Jirga
    • Nowshera Bazm e Adab
    • Peshawar Adabi Tolay
    • Peshawar Ulusi Adabi Jirga Peshawar.
    The Kabul government besides numerous articles, posters and pamphlets also published more than 59 books in Pashto on different aspects of Pashtunistan.

Pashtun nationalism with its dual goal of freedom and development was the hallmark of Pashtun political thinking at dawn of the century. A nationalist literary movement advocating reassessment of the role of poets and intellectuals in the society in the new circumstances consciously promoted social and political goals. In the Pakhtun journal, Abdul Ghafar khan attempted to set a political, economic, educational and cultural agenda for the future of the nation. Writings of that time depicted high ideals of democracy, modernism, social and economic justice, pluralism and above all, independence or azadi.

This period produced a Pashtun version of sentimental socialism in literature, which has color of Rabindra Nath Tagore's mysticism and down to earth style of Maxim Gorky. Some Pashto writers explained economic issues and attempted to present the views of Adam Smith as well as those of Karl Marx. Pashto periodicals also reprinted and translated the works of contemporary middle eastern and Indian writers and poets like Tagore, Namik Kemal, Mirza Ghalib, Iqbal, Taha Hussein, and even Victor Hugo's Less Miserable.

Pakistani political experiences in the first thirty years of its existence failed to turn the country into a genuine federal democratic state. In this troubled period, Pashto in their writings shared the trauma with other Pakistani nationalists. Politically immature and economically crippled, the new state itself was in search of identity in the name of Islam in its own geographical surroundings with justification of its own political and physical existence. The Muslim league phobia of Hindu majority turned into Punjabi phobia of Bengali majority.

In such a socio-political scenario, the first set back for the Pashtun leaders and Pashto literature in the new country was the dismissal of majority congress ministry in the NWFP an installation of Muslim league ministry under Abdul qayyum khan on august 23, 1947. Pashtuns process of integration with Pakistan was further distanced when the new state like its British predecessors targeted the nationalist leaders, political works and writers labeling them as traitors. Naturally it hampered smooth sailing for the Pashtuns in Pakistani.

Pashto literature, like Pashtoon leaders was branded as 'Pashtunistani' and treacherous.

To counter the influence of nationalist literature the new state also started publishing two Pashto monthlies Jamhur e Islam (Islamic State) and Abasin (Indus) from Peshawar and Karachi with the objective to create unity among different regions of Pakistan, to create hatred against the Kabul regime and defuse the Pashtunistan propaganda in Pashto and to embrace and assimilate Pashtoons in the name of Islam with Pakistan. Instead of literary pursuits, most of the writings in official periodicals were reproduction of official statements and government policy in favor of national integration. The role of official periodical was more of an open propaganda with less originality or objectivity. The non-official writers were barred from radio Peshawar and Quetta and mostly persecuted by the state. Most of their writings were published in weeklies like Lar (Path), Rahbar (Guide), Jamhuriat (Democracy), Nangialai (Brave), Rarha (Light), Ghuncha (Bouquet), and Gulistan.

During the era of the One Unit (1955-1969), Pashto literature was clearly divided into official and non-official. The official publications under Pashto Academy, University of Peshawar and Tribal Publicity Organization (1961) published two dozen books about Pakistan and Muhammad Ali Jinnah and even Ayub Khan. These organizations also translated Iqbal's books into Pashto and most of the works of Khushal Khan Khattak were translated into Urdu. Other important English and Urdu Books on Islam were also translated into Pashto. All these translations contributed in the state efforts for integration and cultural and linguistic diffusion among nationalities. These writings had profound impact on he young generation. The common theme they projected was of love, peace, and rule of law, humanism and equal rights for all nationalities of Pakistan irrespective of color, creed and religion.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, the nationalists and Pashto literature in Pakistani remained autonomy seekers demanding a Pashtun Suba (an autonomous province) inside Pakistan. They also remained active participants of alliances such as National Awami Party (NAP), whose struggle was mainly based on the demand for autonomy and democracy within Pakistan.

Among the literary works of this period, Ajmal Khattak's 'Da Ghairat Chagha' (The call of valor) surpassed all poetic works on both sides of the Durand Line with a lasting impact on the young generation. His active role in politics and humble background found an outlet for his strong determination, expression, revolt, courage and above all, revolution. When the dictatorial regimes appeared with new trappings and new methods of suppression of the nationalities, Ajmal Khattak declared a war and revolt against the rulers by saying:

Comrades, it is not enough to smoke,
We must turn ourselves into flames,
To create new flowers is not a joke,
Clean up the garden to build again.

The other two literary icons of the period were Abdul Ghani Khan and Qalandar Mohmand. Ghani Khan's 'Da Panjree Chaghar' (Lamentations of the Caged) and Qalandar's 'Gajray' (Bracelet) was the proclamation of a new thinking and an open rebellion against conservationism and self-realization.

Some of the poets like Abdur Rahim Majzoob adopted Greek mythology as a symbolism against despotic regimes.

The victory of Awami League in 1970s election in the East Wing gave a new message to the people of other nationalities that secular nationalism was more powerful than 'Islam of Islamabad' and 'Socialism' of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

The emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 encouraged the nationalist forces by defying Islamic ideological base of Pakistan. The New Pakistan in the words of late Bhutto was itself in search of an identity. During this period Pashtoons quest for identity intensified and demand for democracy and more provincial autonomy reflected in Pashto literature. The decision of the NAP-JUI coalition government (1972-73) to adopt Urdu as the official language of the NEWFP came as a rude shock to the nationalists and was harshly criticized in Pashto literature.

Throughout this period Pashto literature was wavering between cooperation and confrontation and was always on forefront for equal rights of Pashto and the Pashtoons in Pakistani under a true parliamentary democratic system. Nationalists, Marxists, Maoists and democrats collectively promoted the cause of common masses and its literature raised the banner of revolt against the notions of strong center, authoritarianism, economic disparities and the hegemony of one province over the other and supported secular, democratic, constitutional economic rights of the masses of all provinces.

Second Phase

Inqilabi & Jihadi Literature (Revolutionary Resistance) (1978-1992)

The martial law regime of General Zia ul Haq made certain positive gestures to own or at least to neutralize Pashtun Nationalists by releasing all their leaders, dissolving the Hyderabad Tribunal, calling off the military action and granting general amnesty to the Baloch rebels. The dictator tried to win over Abdul Ghafar Khan proposed 'Pashtunkhwa' as a new name but later on Zia shelved that case. It was during Zia's regime that Khushal Research Cell was established in the Pashto Academy and the provincial government started a project for Pashto as a medium of instruction in primary schools of the province.

Some of these gestures helped in easing the tension between the State and the Pashtuns, yet this marriage of convenience was short lived due to geopolitical changes in Afghanistan and Iran. The Afghan Revolution (1978) followed by Soviet intervention and the Islamic Revolution in Iran jolted the entire region and accelerated the process of ideological polarization.

Like his predecessors, Zia was extremely against Pashtun Nationalism. In pursuing this goal, the three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan were hijacked by Islamabad through different means and methods to suppress and discourage Pashtun nationalism and to reduce Afghanistan to the status of Pakistan's protege. Zia regime tried to produce a 'Pakistani Generation' of the Afghans to counter a 'Pashtoonistan generation'.

Radicalism, extremism and Kalashnikov culture were gifts of Afghan revolution and Jehad. Kalashnikov became a symbol of power and prestige.

The Islamic nature of the Afghan resistance highlighted the close relationship of religion and politics by encouraging people to establish Islamic Madaris (schools) to provide ideological base for the Afghan Jehad. In all educational institutions, Pakistan Studies and Islamiat were introduced as compulsory subjects to make the young generation more 'Islamic for the defense of the ideological frontiers' of Pakistan.

The Kabul Regime produced ideological propaganda literature in Pashto with notions of 'class struggle', nationalism and proletariat revolution. The novels and stories of Noor Muhammad Taraki (the head of the new regime and an eminent Pashto writer) were republished and distributed freely on both sides of the Durand Line.

The settlement of 2.2 million Afghan refugees in the Frontier contributed a lot to the Pashto literature and journalism. A major achievement was made in the field of common Pashto script. It was due to the Afghan crisis that Pashto service had been started from BBC, VOA and twenty other radio stations. During these years, more than 2500 books, dailies, weeklies, periodicals as well as a large number of anti soviet propaganda material were published by different organizations and institutions in lower Pashtunkhwa.

From calligraphy to art and from handicrafts to Pashto music, all improved and changed the lifestyle due to the arrival of Afghan artists, singers and musicians. Pashto film industry and video-audio business also increased manifold. In short, if the Afghan war politically damaged the cause of Pashtun nationalism in Pashtunkhwa for the time being, but it also accelerated and regenerated the cultural nationalism, which will prove more effective than political in the future.

Pashto literature produced during this period was more diversified in form and content. Instead of Pashtunistan, the word Pashtunkhwa was more popularized and politicized. Some of the nationalist Pashtun refugee writers were killed in Peshawar by unknown assailants and the other were forced to leave Pakistan. The writings of Pashtun refugees were anti soviet, anti communism and pro mujahideen while the local Pashto publications were also ideologically motivated. The government institutions like Pashto Academy, Area Study Center (Central Asia) and Pakistan Study Center, University of Peshawar and other institutions like Writers Union of Free Afghanistan (WUFA) and other cultural associations, centers and NGOs in the northern and southern Pashtunkhwa produced a lot in Pashto as well as in English.

During this period though most of the writers diverted their attention from Islamabad to Kabul and very little, or no space was left for others to talk about pea e or democracy. Among the positive fallout of the Afghan crisis was the cultural, economic and ideological fusion of Pashtuns with other nationalities of Pakistan. Among the negative fallout's, one could underline the growing tendencies off Mullaism, Extremism, Militancy, Sectarianism, Drug Mafia and the spreading of the Kalashnikov culture in the entire country.

In 1985, anti Kalabagh and anti center sentiments were running high in the Frontier both in political and literary circles. This was followed by another important event in April 1987 in the province when eminent intellectual Salim Raaz convened First World Pashto Conference in Peshawar. The writers in the conference condemned inhuman punishments of the martial law regime. They also condemned war in all its forms and even the 'Star Wars' and supported all peaceful efforts for resolution of the Afghan conflict. They demanded that Pashto, Punjabi, Seraiki, Sindhi and Balochi should be declared national languages. They supported the just struggle of all people in Pakistan for democracy, peace and rights irrespective of religion, race, sect, nation and creed.

In the provincial politics, an important event was rejection of ANP sponsored Pashtunkhwa resolution for a new name of the province on November 29, 1990 in the provincial assembly by its coalition partner IJI. Writers and nationalists forces in the entire Pashtunkhwa criticized this event.

In Pashtunkhwa, all such literary and academic occasions and seminars were used to express opposition to authoritarian federal rule, martial law, Islamisation and flawed Afghan policy.

With the fall of Soviet Empire and rise of Central Asian republics a new debate started in the literary circles whether Islamic Jihad or nationalism was the main instrument of this change. All such thoughts found a place in the reams, songs and sorrow of poets and writers even of those who are illiterate.

The second phase (1978-1992) of Pashto literature witnessed revolutions, resistance, civil wars, ideological polarization, extremism, mullaism, Drug Mafia, Kalashnikov culture, Sectarianism, rebirth of two nation theory, Islamisation, military dictatorship and political anachronism.

Pashto literature gained a lot but the Pashtun society turned into a society of violent tendencies. Practically and culturally if not politically, the Durand Line was blurred and provided for more exposures of the Pashto artists, musicians, singers and artists to other areas of Pakistan and provided a ground for common avenues and cultural penetration with positive effects. The Tablighi Jamat, Gadinashins, mystics, mass media, globalization, NGOs are other factors and tools for bringing harmony among different nationalities of Pakistan.

Third Phase

Aman & Jirga Literature (Peace and Reconciliation) (1992-2002)

The fall of Dr Najibullah, the rise of Mujahideen government in Kabul followed by fratricidal war, bloodshed and burning of Kabul all changed the attitude and thinking of those who had held expectations from the Islamic radical forces. Unfortunately, the Mujahideen government burned all the books found in the libraries in Kabul in order to 'obliterate the marks of Communism' and in Pakistan two books 'The Silent Soldier' and the 'The Bear Trap' exposed the real designs of Pakistan in the Afghan War. The hopelessness of the people reflects in the following couplet:

Some embraced martyrdom on the very name of a country,
While others erected palaces on the blood of the martyrs.

The Pashtun society already divided into ideological extremes reassessed itself into two political streams: one was for Jirga, Reconciliation and peace and the other for Jehad and war.

Among the Pashtoon writers, five groups produced literature in their own perspective on the national question of the Pashtoons and the future of the Pashtoons in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • The first group of writers, mostly based in European countries, particularly German based members of social democratic party (PSDP) interpreting Pashtun problems in their own western cultural environment and with utopian hypotheses. The best example is Ali Khan Masud, 'Germanian bia Yoo Shwal' (The Germans reunited) and a journal 'Pashtunkhwa'.
  • The second group of writers mostly a 'Pashtunistan generation' with new experience of revolution, Jihad and civil war closely observed the problems of local Pashtoons and their own kith and kin are more careful and more objective in their writings and analysis. The best example is late Bahauddin Majrooh. Professor Rasul Amin's book 'Afghanistan da Tarikh Khatarnak Pachumi na Teregi' (Afghanistan through the critical phase of history) analyses the history of the region with special reference to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the role of political leaders. He negates the concept of Iqbal 'Har Mulk e Mulk e Masat, Khee Mulk e Khudai Masat'. (Every country is my country because I am the heir to the property of God.
  • The third group of writers is mostly nationalists interpreting Pashtun history and literature with their own political agendas. For instance the writings of Mahmud Khan Achakzai, Abdul Rahim Mandokhel, Sher Ali Bacha and the series of Abdul Wali Khan's books: Bacha Khan aw Khudai Khidmatgari (Bacha Khan and Khudai Khidmatgari).
  • The fourth group is led by Muhammad Afzal Khan and can be called a re-constructionist group. Afzal Khan in his booklet Pakhtun Qami Wahdat (Pashtoon National Unity) presents a different hypothesis for the unification of Pashtuns by justifying his arguments in the light of the sayings of Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He proposed for the abolition of feudalism for the unity of Pashtuns and even envisaged it at the cost of disintegration of Afghanistan.
  • Salim Raaz and Noorul Bashar Navid, both leftist progressives lead the fifth group of writers. Their approach is more progressive, democratic, independent and dynamic with notions of socialism, nationalism, peace and progress.
  • The sixth group is that of 'War generation' either born or bred in Indo Pak wars or Afghan wars. Most of these writers are either deadly against war or they are for war and Jehad. Their psyche was further developed in Islamic seminaries and training camps. Their slogans and their songs in Islamic rhetoric show war mongering. The best example of this group is the Taleban and the rise of the Taleban Islamic movement in Afghanistan.

Some new periodicals; Jirga, Shamshad, Gorbat, Gandhara, Waryaze from Peshawar; and Mewand, Palana from Quetta started publications for peace, reconciliation and promotion of Pashto language and literature. Among these periodicals Likwal (writer) (1992-1997) was more vocal in championing the cause of Pashto language and literature. In an article 'literature and Democratic culture' Salim Raaz criticized the militant policies of government by saying: 'The rulers are trying to oxygenate the old system and Pakistan has produced a fake leadership for Afghanistan and the result is unending war'.

In the new geo economic world order it is clear that on the one hand Pashtun nationalism is declining politically and on the other hand it is emerging culturally and economically.

The last few years saw a plethora of new titles of Pashto about history, legal systems, technical subjects, fiction and poetry. A cursory look at these titles indicates that majorities of these authors come from the middle class and their writings are replete with anti war slogans and lust for peace and reconciliation. For instance Akbar Sial, Paa Jang Day Aoor Wa Lagi (to hell with war) and Abdullah Jan Maghmoom's "Armanuna aw Hasratuna" (Ambitions and Aspirations).

All contemporary events both regional and global found its place in Pashto literature, for instance Muhammad Kamal wrote a book on 9/11 with a title 'Naray da Topan pa Oogo' (World on the shoulders of storm) and a periodical Hillah of April-May 2002 raised an important issue by posing question to the entire world community that 'are all Pashtuns Taleban?'

Afrasiab Khattak and Dr Sher Zaman Taizai are optimistic about the role and place of Pashto in globalization and fast changing world. But the situation calls for an urgent and fundamental change. A change from the old parasitic ethos tot he technological heights through 'intellectual insurgency' if possible, otherwise the rusted system and anachronistic order will collapse under its own contradictions.


For many years, Pashtoon Nationalist movement remained underdeveloped and with particularism, yet its literature contains all qualities of the modern global literary trends. Under its shadow, the new Pashtun nationalism includes the demand for a new federal relationship with Pakistan. Democracy and a genuine federation of Pakistan top the list of agenda of the Pashtun demand. This includes political autonomy and the right over the natural resources to the components of the federation, and the right to independence. This diversity has to be emphasized because it is denied. But this diversity is for the unity. For positive aims like democracy and economic development, it is essential.

Last but not the least; I will recite a famous couplet of Abdul Akbar Khan Akbar:

"I am not such a fool as to want to rule over other people in Pakistan,
All that I want is the reflection of the Pashtun entity in the constitution of the country,
The region where I live to be named after my people, the Pashtuns who live there (Pashtunistan/Pashtunkhwa)


Good education for my children in their own language Pashto.
As long as these aspirations are fulfilled, I do not mind even if I remain poor, hungry and naked."

Note: The paper was presented in a conference on November 14-15, 2002, at the University of Texas, USA).


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Pashto Literature - A Quest for Identity, Fazlur Rahim Marwat
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, April 25 2003 (