A soldier stands guard outside the Kitton outpost on the border with Afghanistan in North Waziristan, Pakistan, on October 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Caren Firouz

April 16 is the 60th death anniversary of Pashtun freedom fighter Ghazi Mirzali Khan, better know as the Faqir of Ipi. It was he who challenged the expansionism and imperialism of the British in NWFP (North-West Frontier Province). That strategically important frontier region remained the core target of Great Britain for expanding its security and political interests to Afghanistan.

The colonization of the South Asian subcontinent and wars against Afghanistan were the bedrocks of this colonial strategy to enhance influence in the region.

Faqir Ipi. File photo

Ghazi Mirzali Khan was born to Haji Arsala Khan Wazir in 1897 in a village in North Waziristan. In adulthood, changing regional scenarios and continued skirmishes between the British imperialist forces and tribal lashkars (forces) cemented his nationalist ideology to a quest for freedom.

In March 1936, the case of Islam Bibi (Ram Nori, a Hindu girl who converted to Islam) and fraudulent behavior of the then British deputy commissioner of Bannu district, NWFP, further mobilized the Faqir to fight a guerrilla war against the colonial power. A month after the incident, he called a tribal jirga in Ipi, Mir Ali, North Waziristan, and declared war against the injustice, fascism and atrocities of expansionist British imperialism.

In Waziristan, almost every Pashtun tribe endorsed his decision to wage jihad against the colonial forces. The movement soon attracted fighters from across the Pashtun lands. Among them, Paley Khan Khostai (1888-1951) was the most prominent supporter the Faqir of Ipi’s cause of freedom.

Interestingly, many Pashtun women supported the freedom movement. These women not only participated in war against the colonial forces, but also played historical roles by singing war tappey (a popular genre of Pashto folk poetry) to encourage their men in combat men. In November 1936, two British Army brigades were sent to Khasur against tribal lashkars, but suffered heavy casualties.

In 1937, the British Raj sent more than 40,000 British-Indian troops (mostly Sikhs) to crush the Faqir of Ipi’s forces in Waziristan. The operation was launched to retaliate against an ambush against an army convoy in South Waziristan that killed more than 50 British soldiers.

Throughout 1937, the tribal insurgency and raids in the frontier region continued. British newspaper The Telegraph in a November 15, 2001, article said the British government deployed more than 40,000 troops and spent £1.5 million to tackle the rebellion and track the Faqir of Ipi, but all was in vain. By December, the British government withdrew all forces from Waziristan back to their cantonments.

The British government blamed the Italian government led by Benito Mussolini for enhancing the war capacity of the Faqir of Ipi’s lashkars. An April 16, 1937, report of the Daily Herald claimed that “dictator Mussolini of Italy is sponsoring tribal revolt against the British government in NWFP.” But despite intelligence surveillance in Kabul, the British didn’t find valid evidence of Italian involvement, yet the rumors continued.

The Sunday Chronicle in February 1939 also spread the notion of Italian and German involvement in NWFP. The Italian minister at Kabul, Pietro Quaroni, who supported King Amanullah and Subhash Chandra Bose in Afghanistan and India respectively against the British colonial power, was chiefly alleged to have driven Italian policy of involvement in the tribal frontier region.

The tribal revolt led by the Faqir of Ipi continued into mid-1945, when World War II ended with the Allied defeat of Italy and Germany. Even so, it emerged as more united and powerful than in 1937; the Mehsud, Bhattani and Dawar tribes extended their full support to the lashkars of the Faqir of Ipi. Again in 1946, the British viceroy attempted to tackle the tribal lashkars, but the British “Forward Policy on the Frontiers” eventually failed.

Nevertheless, the Faqir of Ipi’s guerrilla policy continued after the establishment of Pakistan in August 1947.

On June 21, 1947, Pashtun nationalists organized a jirga in Bannu district of what is today Khyber Pashtunkhwa (then NWFP) to decide the future of Pashtuns. The jirga favored an independent state of Pashtunistan. The Faqir of Ipi strongly supported the jirga and the Pashtunistan declaration. Moreover, the tribal lashkars called the establishment of Pakistan the continuation of British imperialism.

In 1948, the Faqir took control of Datta Khel and moved toward the establishment of an independent state of Pashtunistan. In this regard, he established strong ties with regional political leaders including Pandit Nehru and Prince Sardar Daud Khan, a staunch supporter of Pashtunistan.

On May 29, 1949, the Faqir of Ipi called on a tribal jirga in Gurwek, North Waziristan, and asked Pakistan to accept Pashtunistan as an independent state. To counter his lashkars, Pakistan favored bombing his safe havens to undermine the tribal revolt. In 1953-54, No 14 Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force led an operation from Miranshah airbase and heavily bombarded the Faqir of Ipi’s compound.

Despite the use of mighty force, the Faqir of Ipi never surrendered, and eventually died of an illness on April 16, 1960. To this day, he is remembered as the symbol of Pashtun resistance and struggle against the forces of colonization and imperialism.

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Rahim Nasar

Rahim Nasar writes on regional security, political and strategic affairs with special focus on South Asia, Central Asia and Indian Ocean regions. He tweets on @RahimNasari.