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Khushal Khan Khattak: The fearless Pashtun

Courtesy: DNS India

Khushal Khan likes the grave where the dust of Mughal boots cannot fall!” says the epitaph of a medieval era tomb near the town of Attock in today’s Pakistan. Who indeed was this person, and what caused him, a Pashtun better known as ‘Pathan’, to hate the Mughals to this extent?

Khushal Khan Khattak’s family had been serving the Mughals for three generations, from the time of Jehangir to Aurangzeb. They had done their job of guarding the Peshawar–Nowshera region with utmost sincerity. When Aurangzeb ascended the Mughal throne, he confirmed Khushal in his mansabdari. At this point in time, Kabul was very much in Mughal hands with a governor named Amin Khan Shahdar ruling over it. Envious of Khushal Khan Khattak’s growing popularity in the Peshawar region, he spread canards about him in Delhi, making Aurangzeb suspicious. The Mughal emperor, forever wary of powerful and popular mansabdars, was convinced that Khushal Khan Khattak’s growing clout in the Khyber region was detrimental to the Mughal empire, and not before long, Khushal Khan Khattak found himself in a prison at Ranthambore! His notions of loyalty towards the Mughals completely changed, and by the time he was released, the century-old bond with the Mughal throne had given way to hatred. Khushal Khan Khattak also composed poetry during his years at Ranthambore.

He was reinstated and sent with Mohammed Amin Khan to quell some trouble caused by the Yusufzai tribesman near Peshawar. In earlier days, Khushal’s family had bravely fought for the Mughal empire, and Khushal Khan’s own father had died fighting against the Yusufzai tribes. But now, Khushal Khan’s commitment wavered, and he wrote poetry to rouse every Pashtun tribe against the Mughals.

Around this time, Aurangzeb abolished ‘rahdari’ or toll tax. This caused much heartburn, especially among the Shinwari and Afridi tribes of the Khyber Pass who depended on it for their livelihood. On top of this, there were quite substantial allegations that Mohammed Amin Khan’s soldiers had molested women of the Safi tribe in the regions east of Peshawar. Khan, instead of dispassionately looking at the case, came down heavily on the poor tribesmen instead! Thus, the insult to the popular Khushal Khan coupled with the above two events caused widespread resentment against Aurangzeb. The Afridi tribe quietly closed the Khyber pass, and Darya Khan Afridi minted coins in his name. Then he went a step ahead and declared jihad against Aurangzeb. The Mughal badhshah responded in the usual heavy-handed manner — and sent 15,000 soldiers into the Khyber pass under Mohammed Amin Khan.

But the tribesmen, now aroused by the poetry of Khushal Khan Khattak and the activities of Darya Khan Afridi, fell upon the Mughal soldiers. At the narrowest point of the pass, at Ali Masjid, a great slaughter was carried out.

Finally, just four of the original 15,000 were allowed to return to Peshawar! The resounding success brought the Pashtun tribes together. Khushal Khan Khattak’s poetry inspired them against a common enemy — Aurangzeb.

Many minor scuffles followed between Mughal troops and Pashtun tribes. Khushal Khan was joined by Darya Khan Afridi and Aimal Khan Mohmand in battling the Mughals. Various tribes had joined Khushal Khan’s anti–Aurangzeb revolt. The Mughal emperor, recognising the gravity of the situation, deputed Maharaja Jaswant Singh , the powerful mansabdar from Jodhpur, and Mahabat Khan. They waited at Jamrud, looking for an opportunity to break through. An impatient Aurangzeb got irritated and sent a Shujat Khan, who followed where Mohammed Amin Khan had gone and burnt his fingers. The result was similar — another slaughter in the Khyber pass with Shujat himself ending up among the dead.

Now Aurangzeb himself moved to the town of Hasan Abdal near the Indus river, located between Rawalpindi and Peshawar. Khushal Khan Khattak’s activities had become important enough for the Mughal emperor to move from his capital. It was a crucial time. For earlier in the same month, Shivaji had been crowned Chhatrapati at Raigad! Aurangzeb, the Mughal treasury, and thousands of troops were bogged down for two years fighting the Pashtun tribes. Every trick in the book was tried. He bribed the tribes, set them against each other, fought against them. Aurangzeb sent his best Pashtun warriors to the war front — Aga Khan and Diler Khan Daudzai. Darya Khan Afridi and Aimal Khan Mohmand were both killed fighting these battles, and by the end of 1675, the Mughal emperor was winning. He finally retreated to Delhi in 1676, after agreeing to pay the tribes 12 lakh rupees annually for their “loyalty”. Mughal control had been re-established in the Khyber region, but at great cost.

Khushal Khan’s ideals made him an inspirational figure. He invoked a sense of nationalism and belonging amongst the Pashtuns and inspired them to face Mughal imperialism. Till his death, he wrote about his love for his fellow tribesmen, their unity and sacrifices. Mughal control of the hilly region was forever lost soon afterwards.

The writer is the author of Brahmaputra — Story of Lachit Barphukan and Sahyadris to Hindukush — Maratha Conquest of Lahore and Attock

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