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My religion is truth, love and service to God and humanity. Every religion that has come into the world has brought the message of love and brotherhood. Those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, whose hearts are empty of love, they do not know the meaning of religion.
—Abdul Ghaffar Khan

The more I see him the more I love him. I know of the greatness of Abdul Ghaffar Khan
—Mohandas Gandhi

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was one of the greatest practitioners of nonviolent resistance and humanitarians of the twentieth century but few people have heard of him—even those from the part of the world where he lived and worked and strived for peace, independence, and the dignity of the people. He has been called the "Frontier Gandhi,"1 in Afghanistan he was called Fakhr-e-Afghan (Pride of the Afghans), and was known to many as Badshah (leader or king) Khan.

Ghaffar Khan was born around 1890 during the period India was under British domination. There was no Pakistan at the time and he lived in what later became known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Like many of the others in the area (then as now), Ghaffar Khan was a Muslim and a Pashtun.2 His early schooling took place at a nearby mosque where he became more and more frustrated that his teachers seemed not to comprehend the nature of religion and emphasized memorization over understanding. He also disliked the way asking questions were discouraged in children.

After finishing school, the young Ghaffar Khan, upset by the lack of education and rate of illiteracy among his fellow Pashtuns, opened a school to teach children (he would later found two newspapers, one in NWFP and one in Afghanistan). He got to know and became influenced by the social reformer Haji Abdul Wahid Sahib, which no doubt expanded and strengthened his feelings and resolve to help his countrymen (and people, in general). He also became familiar with other progressive advocates and leaders (primarily Muslim) that helped cement his ideas of social reform and planted the seeds of a desire for independence from colonial rule.

Also important in his background was the local political dynamic of the region, with its warlords, clan infighting, and feuds that would last for years. He saw this as something that was destroying his people as well as making it impossible to unite toward independence from Britain.

Britain used it as an excuse to institute strong and often violent repressive measures against a group, including bombing. typical of the British assessment of the Pashtuns, Winston Churchill (who had been stationed there at the turn the century) wrote that "except at harvest-time, when self-preservation enjoins a temporary truce, the Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war.... Every large house is a real feudal fortress...with battlements, turrets [and] drawbridges. Every village has its defence. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud." Everyone had their "accounts to settle" and "nothing is ever forgotten, and very few debts are left unpaid." Praising the breech-loading rifle, he noted (with what he must have thought was wit) that it "opened a whole new vista of delights to every family or clan which could acquire it. One could actually remain in one's own house and fire at one's neighbour nearly a mile away" (www.tallrite.com).

All Pashtuns were violent and warlike, therefore uncivilized and deserving of domination. Whatever means the British used was "justified."

Another obstacle to the Pashtuns and their unity and independence as a people came from religious leaders and others who used the Qur'an as an excuse to maintain power and continue traditional structures of male dominance (things that are culturally based rather than religious—hardly the first time a religion was used for such purposes). This of course, flew in the face of the message Ghaffar Khan saw in the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad.

In 1919 he was introduced to Mohandas Gandhi during protests of the Rowlett Act—legislation that allowed detainment and even imprisonment for dissidents without benefit of trial. Having found brother of sorts, Ghaffar Khan would later become part of Gandhi's inner circle. A result of the action over the act was one of many imprisonments he was subjected to during his long life. But he was resolute in his ideas and determined to act on his beliefs and convictions.

In the 1920s, he joined India's Congress Party (at the time led by Gandhi), which expanded its influence to his home area of NWFP. His entrance into politics put him into the movement for the independence of India, which of course, made him a dangerous man (at the very least, an annoyance to be dealt with eventually) to both those who had the real power (the crown) and the local governments allowed to function within (under) the British system. This was something he accepted, letting nothing deter his "mission" in life. In 1921, he was arrested again for spreading nationalistic ideas (something those in power—whether local, colonial, or neocolonial, as history shows—greatly fear). He was kept, bound, in solitary confinement. He was released in 1924.

In 1929, he helped found the Khudai Khidmatgar movement (which eventually had numbers estimated as high as 100,000). The movement (meaning "servants of God") was a populist-nationalist movement that encompassed his ideas of social reform, unity, independence, and nonviolence. Members (who wore red garments—hence the other name for the group: the "red shirts") were organized not unlike an army, with leaders and subgroups and training (for organizational purposes, not as imposed hierarchical structures)—only this was an army of unarmed men—and women, something unheard of at the time.

Besides giving up all one's weapons, each member had to take an oath that, among other things, swore to serve mankind in the name of God, reject any means of violence, and dedicate at least two hours each day for social work. Equality of all people under God (it was a religous-based movement, as he felt it had a basis in the Qu'ran and the life of the Prophet), including non-Muslims and women and children, was an important part of the movement.

While Gandhi's movement espoused nonviolence and civil disobedience as policy and as a means to overcome oppression, the nonviolence of Ghaffar Khan's movement was far more at the core of the belief system. While others in the greater movement for the independence accepted the possibility that violence and even an army would be needed (at least in the future), the Khudai Khidmatgar denied any justification for the use of force.

The nonviolence he advocated was a matter of deep religious faith that this was the way to live one's life. He said it "affects all our life, and only that has permanent value" and the movement must "be what our name implies—servants of God and humanity—by laying down our own lives and never taking any life" (www.wcfia.harvard.edu).

Nowhere is this conviction and commitment to nonviolent protest better seen than during the massacre that took place on 23 April 1930 when crowds of protesters, upset at Ghaffar Khan being arrested again, were fired upon by British soldiers. They stood passively for almost six hours while being shot; those who fell being pulled back and treated, then replaced by more people. As many as two hundred were killed. It ended when a contingent of Indian troops finally refused to continue participating in the carnage. They were punished. Mass arrests followed and the movement was declared illegal. Further repression, arrests, and harassment continued.

Ghaffar Khan was offered the presidency of the Congress Party but declined, saying that "I am a simple soldier and Khudai Khidmatgar, and I only want to serve" (www.tribuneindia.com). And he continued to serve, though he resigned briefly in 1939 over the war policy of the Congress (returning when it was changed).

The movement managed to make a difference legislatively. Some of the "feudal privileges" that had been given to those in power under the British were dispensed with, reforms meant to help the lower classes and peasants socially and economically, those in office had to be held accountable for their decisions and actions and made those offices based on merit and through competition rather than nepotism, appointment, or assertion of power. Of course such things made the movement more of a target for the British and those who had gotten into power under them.

In 1946 to 1947, riots and violence broke out, leading up to independence and the notorious "partition" of India.3 Gandhi and the party accepted the separation of Pakistan from India (meant as an Islamic state, as opposed to India as a primarily Hindu state). This greatly saddened Ghaffar Khan, as he felt the best course would be a united secular India. It went against his hopes for the equality of man—which meant Muslim and Hindu. He also felt that the rights of all would be better protected under a unified nation. When the referendum for the NWFP to decide whether to join Pakistan came up, he asked the members of the movement to boycott it. It led, of course, to it joining Pakistan.

After partition, he often advocated the area to be considered a separate region (called Pashtunistan—spelling variants apply, see footnote 1), though remained somewhat vague as to whether it was to be within Pakistan, itself, or a completely separate state (many, then as now advocate for the latter). Again, he was accused of nationalist (in this case separatist) tendencies and agitation. He continued to be periodically harassed and jailed. Because of this conflict with the Pakistan authorities, he is not so well known in Pakistan—where, unlike Gandhi who spent time in the West, he spent almost all his life (along with Afghanistan).

This brings it back to his forgotten legacy. Without much contact with those outside of the region, awareness of Ghaffar Khan and his movement and ideals did not spread. Also, unlike Gandhi who left behind a substantial body of written work, he only left a single autobiography (My Life and Struggle), spending his time directly with the people he wanted to inspire and help (which is not a criticism of Gandhi). Being treated as an undesirable and basically written out of the official history and his being in the shadow of Gandhi (often seen as far less important to the independence movement) all conspire against him being known for the great humanitarian and pacifist that he was.

In the years following the partition he did what he could to continue seeking equality and social reform—when he wasn't being imprisoned. Pakistan expelled him in 1958. He went to Afghanistan and did not return until the early 1970s. As he got older, travel became more difficult, but true to his convictions, this tall man in his seventh and eighth decades—whose possessions supposedly weighed only a few pounds—would move throughout the province in a wheelchair.

After 1986, he was mostly in hospital, dying two years later at the age of 98. Of those 98 years, about half were spent in jail or forced exile. He was buried in Afghanistan per his wishes. It is said the procession was miles long.

From The Progressive (where I first read about this extraordinary man):

Nonviolence, religious tolerance, women's rights, and social justice—certainly Khan could have done 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.

I agree.

1While the title reflects his world view and his work, it also demonstrates part of the reason he has remained forgotten. Gandhi is such an overpowering persona in the history of India-Pakistan and the movement for independence from colonialism, that other figures tend to be overshadowed. It also reflects the tendency to suggest that it was Gandhi who was the mentor/inspirational figure. Some aspect of that is true but Ghaffar Khan came to his beliefs independently of Gandhi, rather than as a result of contact. Other reasons for his relative obscurity are addressed above.

2They are several spelling variants, I opted for the more prevalent one in current Western news sources. It can also be spelled Pushtun, Pukhtun, or Pakhtun (in some cases with two "o"s in place of the second "u"). In Hindu, it is Pathan (which was the word used by the British as well).

3A particularly brutal and bloody period that deserves more time and research than I can offer here at this time. Notable during the period of the partition were the efforts of some 10,000 members of the Khudai Khidmatgar who risked their safety and their lives to protect Hindus and Sikhs from being attacked in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP.

(Sources: The Progessive February 2002; www.tribuneindia.com/2000/20000305/spectrum/main2.htm opening quote from here; www.backakhan.8k.com; www.peace.ca/ghaffar.htm; www.isim.nl/newsletter/3/regional/7.html Gandhi quote from here; www.wcfia.harvard.edu/ponsacs/DOCS/s93johan.htm; www.personal.psu.edu/faculaty/k/s/ksd3/ess2.html; www.tallrite.com/LightRelief/afghanchurchill.htm)

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