FindArticles > Progressive, The > Feb, 2002 > Article > Print friendly

A pacifist uncovered - Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Pakistani pacifist

Amitabh Pal

It's tragic that India and Pakistan are almost constantly in a state of animosity and are now facing off against each other with nuclear weapons. It's also ironic, since both countries can claim pacifist pioneers. India has Gandhi, as most everyone knows. But few people know about Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a proponent of nonviolence and social change who lived in Pakistan.

Khan resided in what is now the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and he was affectionately known as the "Frontier Gandhi." As Gandhi was given the title of Mahatma, meaning "Great Soul," Khan was given the title Badshah, meaning "Leader" or "Kings."

A devout practitioner of nonviolence and social reform, Khan worked to spread his ideals in the region. Eluding at least two assassination attempts and surviving three decades in prison, he remained committed to nonviolence to the day he died in 1988 at the age of ninety-eight.

"For today's children and the world, my thoughts are that only if they accept nonviolence can they escape destruction, with all this talk of the atom bomb, and live a life of peace," Khan told an interviewer in 1985. "If this doesn't happen, then the world will be in ruins."

Asfandiyar Wali Khan, Ghaffar's grandson, remembers two basic lessons his grandfather gave him about the superiority of nonviolence.

"He said that violence needs less courage than nonviolence," says Asfandiyar, who resides in Peshawar, Pakistan. "Second, violence will always breed hatred. Nonviolence breeds love."

As a young man, Ghaffar Khan started a school for Pashtun children. Soon, he came under the influence of Haji Abdul Wahid Sahib, a social reformer. Before long, he had established contact with other progressive Muslim leaders in India, who urged him to work for the education and uplift of the Pashtuns. But Ghaffar Khan was still searching for answers. In 1914, he performed a fast that lasted for days. The fast strengthened his resolve to dedicate his life to social reform, and he spent the nest few years touring the region. Soon he learned about Gandhi and his movement, which provided an enormous boost to Khan and his work.

Khan founded a nonviolent movement in 1929 called the Khudai Khidmatgar--the servants of God. This movement, which eventually involved more than 100,000 Pashtuns, was dedicated to social reform and to ending the rule of the British in then-undivided India.

Khan's calls for social change, more equitable land distribution, and religious harmony threatened some religious leaders and big landlords. But he toured incessantly, traveling twenty-five miles in a day, going from village to village, speaking about social reform and having his movement members stage dramas depicting the value of nonviolence.

"I visited a really remote village recently and was taking pride in the fact that I was the first outsider to be there," says Asfandiyar, the central president of the Awami (People's) National Party, which claims to carry on Ghaffar Khan's work. "However, I learned that Badshah Khan had been there in 1942. Imagine the conditions at the time. He must have had to walk ten to twelve hours to get there."

The British treated Ghaffar Khan and his movement with a barbarity that they did not often inflict on other adherents of nonviolence in India. "The brutes must be ruled brutally and by brutes," stated a 1930 British report on the Pashtuns.

The British thought of Ghaffar Khan's movement as a ruse. To them, "A nonviolent Pathan [another name for a Pashtun] was unthinkable, a fraud that masked something cunning and darkly treacherous," writes Eknath Easwaran in Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains (Nilgiri Press, 1999).

The British thus reacted with a singular ferocity to the Khidmatgar desire for independence from British rule, subjecting Khidmatgar members throughout the 1930s and early 1940s to mass killings, torture, and destruction of their homes and fields. Khan himself spent fifteen of these years in prison, often in solitary confinement. But these Pashtuns refused to give up their adherence to nonviolence even in the face of such severe repression.

In the single worst incident, the British killed at least 200 Khidmatgar members in Peshawar on April 23, 1930. Gene Sharp, who has written a study of nonviolent resistance, describes the scene on that day: "When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their breasts bared and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as twenty-one bullet wounds in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic.... The Anglo-Indian paper of Lahore, which represents the official view, itself wrote to the effect that the people came forward one after another to face the firing and when they fell wounded they were dragged back and others came forward to be shot at. This state of things continued from 11 till 5 o'clock in the evening. When the number of corpses became too many, the ambulance cars of the government took them away."

The carnage stopped only because a regiment of Indian soldiers finally refused to continue firing on the unarmed protesters, an impertinence for which they were severely punished.

With his commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity, Ghaffar Khan was firmly opposed to the creation of Pakistan, which was founded as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. He also thought that the rights of the Pashtuns would be better respected in a large, decentralized, united India rather than in a smaller, more centralized Pakistan. After Pakistan's creation, he started demanding a separate region, or Pashtunistan, for the Pashtuns. He left it deliberately ambiguous whether he wanted this area to be within Pakistan or a separate country.

All this gave the Pakistani authorities the opportunity to accuse him of anti-national activities. They jailed and killed some of his followers. Khan was imprisoned again for more than a decade. The Pakistan government banned the Khidmatgar movement and razed its headquarters, but Khan continued his work.

"The Khidmatgar movement was one of self-reform and introspection," says Mukulika Banerjee, author of The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier (School of American Research Press, 2000). "It involved two crucial elements: Islam and Pukhtunwali (the Pashtun tribal code). Here nonviolence becomes an ideological system very compatible with Islam and Pukhtunwali, since these are reinterpreted."

The movement had "first of all, a religious basis," writes nonviolence scholar Joan V. Bondurant in Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Princeton University Press, 1988). "It took as its objective both local socioeconomic reform and political independence.... Its adoption of nonviolence was more thorough than that of the Indian National Congress inasmuch as the Khudai Khidmatgar pledged themselves to nonviolence not only as a policy, but as a creed, a way of life."

Khan stressed the compatibility of Islam and nonviolence.

"There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence," Ghaffar Khan is quoted in Easwaran's biography. "It is not a new creed. It was followed 1,400 years ago by the Prophet all the time when he was in Mecca." For Khan, Islam meant muhabbat (love), amal (service), and yakeen (faith).

Khan once told Gandhi of a discussion he had with a Punjabi Muslim who didn't see the nonviolent core of Islam. "I cited chapter and verse from the Koran to show the great emphasis that Islam had laid on peace, which is its coping stone," Khan said. "I also showed to him how the greatest figures in Islamic history were known more for their forbearance and self-restraint than for their fierceness. The reply rendered him speechless."

Khan interpreted Islam as a moral code with pacifism at its center.

"Badshah Khan told people that Islam operates on a simple principle--never hurt anyone by tongue, by gun, or by hand," says Begum Nasim Wali Khan, Ghaffar's daughter-in-law, who is the provincial president of the Awami National Party. "Not to lie, steal, and harm is true Islam."

But the movement was nonsectarian. When Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in Peshawar, 10,000 Khidmatgar members helped protect their lives and property. And when riots broke out in the state of Bihar in 1946 and 1947, Khan toured with Gandhi to bring about peace.

"Although the character of the movement was intensely Islamic ... one of the objectives of the organization was the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity," Bondurant observes.

In the early 1990s, Banerjee, a lecturer in anthropology at University College London, spent months in the frontier region with Khans family and interviewed seventy surviving Khidmatgar members. She says that while people initially joined the organization due to Khan's charisma and persuasiveness, later on it was due to the excitement of becoming part of something larger than themselves. And their commitment to nonviolence was stronger than their allegiance to Khan. When Gandhi asked some of them in 1938 if they would take up violence if Ghaffar Khan told them to, they replied with an emphatic no.

Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian American who is the director of Nonviolence International, has derived inspiration from Ghaffar Khan and has translated his speeches and work into Arabic.

"I was so happy to learn about him and meet some of his followers," he says. "He practiced Islam and nonviolence and showed that it was not only for the weak. He came from a group of people--the Pathans--who were warriors."

Awad says Khan was an eye-opener for a lot of Muslims. "He was a soldier of Islam but in a nonviolent way," he says. "He showed that even a strong person could be nonviolent."

Khan believed in equality for women and was emphatic about female education, Asfandiyar says. "If we achieve success and liberate the motherland, we solemnly promise you that you will get your rights," he pledged to women. "In the Holy Koran, you have an equal share with men. You are today oppressed because we men have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet."

The movement encouraged equal participation of women from the start. "Pathan women participating in nonviolent action campaigns would frequently take their stand facing the police or would lie down in orderly lines holding copies of the Koran," Bondurant writes.

Like Gandhi, Khan lived a simple life, and due to his extensive political activities and lengthy bouts of imprisonment, he often neglected his family. "He was a person who denied the luxuries of life first to himself and then wanted you to deny them to yourself," Asfandiyar says.

Hiro Shroff, an Indian journalist who met Ghaffar Khan in the 1950s, observed in a recent article for the web publication that "his total belongings did not weigh more than a few pounds. His belongings consisted of a bed sheet, a towel, and, I think, a spare set of salwar and kameez [clothing]. That was all."

Professor Satti Khanna of Duke University met Khan when he visited India in 1985 at the age of ninety-five for the centennial celebrations of the Congress Party, with which Khan and Gandhi were associated. Khanna interviewed him for a 1987 documentary he made on India's partition, entitled Division of Hearts.

"He was a presence rather than a person," Khanna remembers. "He had an emanation of profound integrity."

So why is Khan almost unknown? For one thing, he has gotten a raw deal in South Asia itself. Due to his differences with the Pakistani authorities, Khans name does not appear in official Pakistani history. Hence, he is little known in Pakistan outside the frontier area. Indeed, some of my Pakistani friends are barely aware of him.

"There's been a complete erasure of the man and the movement from Pakistani historiography," Banerjee says. "The younger generation even in that region hasn't heard of him."

If he is recognized at all, it is as a Pashtun nationalist, rather than as a proponent of nonviolence and social reform.

In India, Ghaffar Khan has also been handled unfairly. Most often, he is portrayed as an adjunct of Gandhi (hence the term "Frontier Gandhi").

But Ghaffar Khan started forming his project of nonviolence and social reform before he came into contact with Gandhi. And his nonviolence drew its inspiration from the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, in contrast to Gandhi, whose ideals were largely based on the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the writings of Thoreau and Tolstoy.

There are other factors that contribute to Khan's obscurity.

"Gandhi left behind an enormous amount of written work," Banerjee says. "With Khan, the whole thing dies with him, apart from his autobiography."

In addition, Khan chose to spend his life in Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than visiting the West, as Gandhi did.

But this shouldn't keep us from recognizing the remarkable journey embarked upon by Khan and his fellow Pashtuns--a community that the Taliban has recently given a terrible name.

Nonviolence, religious tolerance, women's rights, and social justice--certainly Khan could have done a lot worse than to spread these ideals. And he did it while deriving his inspiration from a religion some vilify as intrinsically intolerant.

Khan deserves a better fate than to languish in obscurity. He has a lot to offer, not least to the leaders of India and Pakistan.

Amitabh Pal is Editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive magazine. In this 1947 photo, Khan is the tall man in the center. Gandhi is to his left.

COPYRIGHT 2002 The Progressive, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group