The world needs to know about Abdul Ghaffar Khan
By Amitabh Pal , The Progressive
It’s tragic that India and Pakistan are almost constantly
in a state of conflict 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 a contemporary of Gandhi’s, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a proponent
of nonviolence and social change who lived in Pakistan.
Born and raised in what is now Pakistan’s North-West
Frontier, Khan (affectionately known as the "Frontier Gandhi") was
a devout practitioner of nonviolence and social reform who spread
his ideals throughout the region. Eluding at least two assassination
attempts and surviving three decades in prison, Khan remained committed
to nonviolence to the day he died in 1988 at the age of 98.
"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."
Khan was a Pashtun, a major ethnic group in
Afghanistan and Pakistan known for its fierce resistance to outside
rule. After fighting the British for decades, they took on the Soviets,
who tried and failed to conquer Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pashtuns
then gave rise to the Taliban, who overran the country and welcomed
Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the 1990s.
As a young man Ghaffar Khan took a different
path, starting a school for Pashtun children and espousing a belief
in the futility of violence. Under the influence of a social reformer
named Haji Abdul Wahid Sahib, Khan began contacting other progressive
Muslim leaders in India, and together they created a nonviolent
movement called the Khudai Khidmatgar—the servants of God—in 1929.
This movement, which eventually attracted more than 100,000 Pashtuns,
was dedicated to reform and to ending British rule over a then-undivided
India (including present-day Pakistan).
Khan’s calls for social change, more equitable
land distribution, women’s rights, and religious harmony threatened
some religious leaders and large landowners. But he toured incessantly,
traveling 25 miles in a day, going from village to village, speaking
about social reform and staging dramas depicting the value of nonviolence.
The British, who deeply distrusted the Pashtuns
and viewed Khan’s movement as a ruse, treated him and his movement
with a barbarity that they rarely inflicted on nonviolent resisters
in India. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, the British tortured
Khan’s followers, destroyed their homes and fields, and even massacred
them. Khan himself spent 15 of these years in prison, often in solitary
confinement. But once converted to nonviolence, these Pashtuns refused
to abandon peaceful resistance even in the face of severe repression.
WHEN INDIA GAINED its independence in
1947, Pakistan, which was largely Muslim, was partitioned off as
a separate republic. With his commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity,
Khan was firmly opposed to the split, arguing that Pashtun rights
would be better respected in a large, decentralized, united India
than in a smaller, more centralized Pakistan. After the 1947 split,
he started campaigning for a separate Pashtun region—to be called
Pashtunistan—which gave Pakistani authorities a chance to accuse
him of anti-national activities. Some of his followers were killed
and jailed, and Khan himself was imprisoned again for more than
a decade. The Pakistan government banned the Khidmatgar movement
and razed its headquarters, but Khan continued his work.
Khan’s movement had "first of all, a religious
basis," writes Joan V. Bondurant, a scholar of nonviolence, in Conquest
of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Princeton
University Press, 1988). Along with its social and political objectives,
"the Khudai Khidmatgar pledged themselves to nonviolence not only
as a policy, but as a creed, a way of life." That a Pashtun and
a Muslim might believe in nonviolence was not surprising, Khan insisted,
nor was the doctrine new to Islam; love, peace, and even female
equality were virtues espoused as far back as the Prophet Muhammad
himself. If men oppressed women, Khan said, they did so in violation
of the Koran.
Though motivated by a vision of Islam as a moral
code with pacifism at its center, Khan’s movement was nonsectarian.
When Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in the provincial capital of
Peshawar, 10,000 Khidmatgar members helped protect their lives and
property. And when riots broke out in the east-central Indian state
of Bihar in 1946 and 1947, Khan toured with Gandhi to bring about
So why is Khan almost unknown today? For one
thing, because of his differences with the Pakistani authorities,
his name does not appear in official Pakistani history. Hence, he
is little known in Pakistan outside the North West Frontier area.
If he is recognized at all, it is as a Pashtun nationalist rather
than as a proponent of nonviolence and social reform. And in India,
he is known primarily as an adjunct of Gandhi, despite the fact
that Khan created his movement before coming in contact with Gandhi.
This shouldn’t keep us from recognizing the
remarkable journey taken by Khan and his fellow Pashtuns—a community
to which the Taliban has recently given a terrible name. Khan 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. Reprinted from The Progressive (February
2002). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 421, Mt. Morris,