KHAN ABDUL GHAFFAR KHAN – THE FRONTIER GANDHI
Among the great personalities who contributed in no small measure to India gaining freedom from the British yoke, there are many notables who played cardinal roles in mainstreaming the mass movements that were the hallmark of India’s non-violent struggle for independence against the British raj and its oppressive policies. History writers have been kind to some, and not so kind to others, and while some have for long been in the limelight, many do not find much of mention in today’s literature. One such towering personality of our independence struggle was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Even for Delhiites, who have two places named after him, rarely connect these popular markets – Khan Market and Ghaffar Market – with his name. This unsung hero, who was the first non-citizen to be honoured with the Bharat Ratna, is the subject matter of our profile in Great Indians this issue.
Malala Yousafzai, the 18-yearold Pakistani girl and youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate in history, gave an incredible jaw-dropping speech as she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize after becoming a courageous icon of the fight for children’s education rights. Many of us who have been following her must have watched her much discussed and inspiring speech in Oslo, Norway last month, and maybe her talk to the United Nations last year as well. If you were among those who did, you may well have heard this courageous teenager who was shot by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education, refer to Badshah Khan as someone who inspired her the most in strengthening her determined commitment to nonviolence. You may have also wondered, “Who might this man be ?” After all, his is not a name on instant recall in our minds like those of Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa — the other two illustrious people Mamala cited.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known variously as Fakhr-e Afghān, Bāchā Khān, Pāchā Khān or Bādshāh Khān (King), was born in 1890 in the little town of Utmanzai — not far from Peshawar, in what was then the Northwest Frontier Province of India. His father was a khan, or village headman, widely respected for his honesty and more grudgingly perhaps, for his somewhat independent approach to the Islam of the Mullahs of his day — and for his coldness toward the code of badal, or revenge, that was a prominent and dominant cultural feature among the Pashtuns. Ghaffar Khan’s early years ran a course roughly parallel to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s – he was passionately devoted to the uplift of his people, had a deeply spiritual bent of mind, and at first accepted British rule as a matter of course, but later saw the light when he was deeply offended by the dehumanising treatement meted out to the dominated that is an inevitable concomitant of domination. Inevitably too his village work, which mostly took the form of establishing schools, put him on a collision course with both the mullahs and the British authorities for similar reasons – educated people are harder to oppress. He soon came to realize that his educational work, like Gandhi’s constructive program, was “not just service, but rebellion” — a point that must have gone home powerfully with Malala Yousafzai.
Shortly after meeting Gandhi in 1919 —to cut a very long story short — Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgars or “Servants of God” to expand his revolutionary work. Their dedication to him and to nonviolence flummoxed the British, who responded in the only way they knew how at that time – with brutal repression. But Khan was not easily repressed. After perpetrating a terrible massacre in 1930 in Peshawar, the British saw the ranks of the Servants swell from several hundred to 80,000 — an improbable fact if one is not familiar with nonviolent dynamics. The Servants and their adored leader — who had come to be known, over his objections, as the “Frontier Gandhi” — were shot at, tortured, humiliated and (in his case) jailed; but not before they had played a cardinal role in liberating their country and helping Gandhi give “an ocular demonstration” to the world of the might and power of nonviolence. Khan’s incredible life is one of the great untold stories of our time. His “ocular demonstration” went beyond that of Gandhi in vaporising some commonly held myths about nonviolence even today: It is a recourse of the weak: The British could never bring the Pashtun territories under subjugation in a hundred years of violence. When Khan once asked Gandhi why his Pashtuns were staying the course when many Hindus lost their nerve and fell back on violence, he said, “We Hindus have always been nonviolent, but we haven’t always been brave.” It only works against a ‘polite’ opponent: The British were terrified of and therefore ruthless toward the Pashtuns, whom they regarded as “brutes, to be ruled brutally by brutes.” In the Northwest Frontier, as in Kenya, the empire showed its true colors. It has no place in war: 80,000 uniformed, trained and indomitable Pashtuns were the world’s first “army of peace.” It has no place in Islam: Malala, in his footsteps, pointedly referred to the tradition of peace and nonviolence that is in Islam, as in all world religions.
It means protest and non-cooperation: It includes that as well, but as with Gandhi’s constructive program, it often gains more traction with self-reliance, constructive work and “cooperating with good,” wherever possible. Yet today, there is scant material available on the life and times of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and he remains little known to large parts of the modern world, and even in India, whose freedom he fought for. Young Malala might have just done the world a greater service than she realizes by honouring his name at some of the world’s highest fora. Badshah Khan, apropos, was a strong votary for a unified India and had vehemently opposed the All India Muslim League’s demand for partition of the subcontinent. So when the Indian National Congress declared its acceptance of the partition plan without consulting the Khudai Khidmatgar leaders, he felt betrayed and very sad and told the Congress “You have thrown us to the wolves.” After partition, Badshah Khan pledged allegiance to Pakistan and demanded an autonomous “Pashtunistan” administrative within the country. The then Pakistani establishment’s anathema to it saw him frequently arrested by government forces between 1948 and 1954, and in 1956 for his opposition to the One Unit scheme under which the government announced the merger of the former provinces of West Punjab, Sindh, North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan into one administrative unit of West Pakistan. The 1960s and 1970s also saw him spending most of his time either in jail or in exile. Upon his death in 1988 at Peshawar under house arrest, he was buried in accordance to his will at his house at Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Literally tens of thousands of mourners thronged his funeral, marching through the Khyber Pass from Peshawar to Jalalabad. Despite the winds of war in Afghanistan and the heavy fighting at that time, both sides of the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet backed communist army as well as the mujahideen declared a ceasefire to allow his burial. Seen in retrospect, it was a cruel fate indeed that condemned Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to become a citizen of Pakistan, where this valiant comrade of our freedom struggle had to suffer long spells of imprisonment and incarceration, and ultimately had to seek asylum in Afghanistan.