Abdul Ghaffar Khan

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Abdul Ghaffar Khan

It was the beginning of June, 2012 when residents of Andar District in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province took up arms against the Taliban and forced them to leave the area. Within a few months the locals had regained control of over 50 villages.[1] The residents said they wanted to reopen schools and clinics, which they did after the Taliban were forced to leave. Though the Taliban labeled the uprising a project of the US-backed government, the locals referred to it as a movement of and by the people. The resistance in Ghazni met tough opposition from the Taliban but the movement gained momentum, and was later replicated in other parts of the country such as in Faryab, Kunar, and Laghman provinces.

People’s participation in resistance is not a new phenomenon, neither in Afghanistan nor among the Pashtun people. Though historically many such revolts were armed, the Pashtuns were nonetheless among the first to launch a nonviolent campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — today part of Pakistan — during the first half of the twentieth century. The Pashtuns’ nonviolent movement in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, otherwise known as Badshah Khan or the Frontier Gandhi, who was not only a nonviolent philosopher but also a soldier, leader, and ardent practitioner.

The area where Pashtuns live is famous for militancy, and thanks to the difficult terrain, is naturally appropriate for insurgencies and armed conflicts. Badshah Khan belonged to an ethnic group famous for its unforgiving nature, whose members consider taking revenge and keeping arms an important and indelible part of their culture. According to Badshah Khan biographer Eknath Easwaran, the idea of a nonviolent movement of Pashtuns was a “fairy tale” for Mohandas Gandhi, who considered it far more difficult to make rigid Pashtuns follow the philosophy of nonviolence than ordinary Indians.[2] But as Gandhi believed that nonviolence is the province of the daring and the undaunted, surely no one on the face of the earth was more daring — surely the Pashtuns’ nonviolence was for real.

Jawaharlal Nehru, head of the Indian National Congress and the first prime minister of post-independence India, was astonished with the nonviolent movement led by Badshah Khan. According to Nehru, for men who loved their guns more than anything, who seemed to care less about life than anyone, and who took the slightest insult with the thrust of a dagger — for them to suddenly become the most enduring nonviolent soldiers of India, was no less than a miracle. The Pashtun nonviolent movement under the leadership of Badshah Khan also annulled the notion that nonviolence is the weapon only of those who are by nature peaceful, or themselves have neither the resources, the courage, nor the wherewithal to launch a violent campaign.

Early Life

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was later given the name Badshah Khan (King of Kings), was born to a rich family in the Utmanzai village of the Charsadda District of today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (modern-day Pakistan). Though there is no record of his date of birth, it is believed that he was born in 1890. His father, Bahram Khan, was a land owner in his village and a respected person in the area.

It is believed that the social status of Bahram Khan had a deep influence on his son Ghaffar’s life. It was source of social stigma at the time for parents in Utmanzai village to educate their children in British schools, so when his father sent young Ghaffar to study at a Missionary School in Peshawar, his neighbors would be prone to gossip about his receiving a British education. Yet the villagers would say that since Badshah Khan and his elder brother Jabbar, who later became Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had studied the Quran and other religious books, they were fit to go to British schools. “It won’t negatively influence them,” they concurred.

Badshah Khan, due as much to his ability as to his imposing social and physical stature, received an opportunity to be commissioned in the Scouts, an Indian group of soliders who were children of the élite class, considered equal to their British peers. Something that happened to him there, however, changed the course of Badshah Khan’s life.  When he was making preparations to join the garrison he came across an Indian who had joined the Scouts.  The Indian Scout was insulted by an English peer for having a British hairstyle and manner of dress. As a result, Badshah Khan chose not to join the Scouts and thus decided not to join the British Raj. Later on, he got an opportunity to go to Great Britain and study engineering there. Though he wanted to avail himself of the opportunity, his mother did not want him to go.  She feared he would not be able to keep loyal to his faith and might marry an English girl, as his elder brother, Dr. Khan, had done. Badshah Khan had to succumb to the love and persistence of his mother and gave up on the idea of going abroad.

After deciding to stay in India, Abdul Ghaffar Khan began to work to change the conditions of his people and to fight against the centuries-old social evils of his society. He started by organizing his people into a nonviolent army.

The Khudai Khidmatgar 

Eventually Abdul Ghaffar Khan successfully organized over a hundred thousand nonviolent soldiers. He was fighting for the freedom of India, but as he believed that hate begets hate he was fighting nonviolently. He believed that education was the only way forward for the betterment of his people. Ghaffar Khan’s nonviolent soldiers, known as Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) or more informally as "Red-Shirts" (after their uniforms), were a well-disciplined and organized force. Every single soldier had to go through rigorous training, take an oath of loyalty, and commit to remaining nonviolent before being able to join.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan also believed that centuries-old social evils such as fighting tooth-and-nail over small issues were the main factors of the backwardness rampant among the Pashtuns. He therefore not only opened a new front against the British in India but also embarked on social reforms by going from village to village and house to house to convince his fellow brethren to join his ranks and organize themselves.

Badshah Khan lived a simple life of voluntary poverty, not unlike a fakir. He handed over the rights of ownership of his properties and lands to his sons, and turned his full attention towards serving his downtrodden Pashtun brothers and sisters. A number of historians argue that Badshah Khan was not successful in his struggle, but after studying him thoroughly and scholastically it can be found that his struggle was much more multi-faceted than meets the eye, and its failure in one area in no way meant failure in all.

Although Badshah Khan spent over half of his life either in prison or under house arrest, he was still determined to change the fate of his people. He advised them to educate themselves and to abolish the negative and misguided traditions they held on to. Writer and journalist Asadullah Ghazanfar asserted that Badshah Khan’s opponents and supporters equally believed that he knew the fundamental problem of his people, which was communal in nature, more than anyone else. Badshah Khan died in 1988, at almost 100 years of age.  Ghazanfar believes that control of his inner being was the main reason for his long life.[3]

One might disagree with the political ideology of Badshah Khan and the nonviolent soldiers of the Khudai Khidmatgar, but one cannot ignore the fact that there are very few examples of a force with the same amount of organization and commitment to nonviolence throughout history.

Badshah Khan was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice in the 1980s. Only a very limited number of Western scholars, however, tend to focus on the work of this nonviolent Muslim thinker. Ignorance on the part of academics — especially the scholars of nonviolence — about Badshah Khan, his philosophy, and his legacy, will mean a disservice not only to this great leader but also to the philosophy of nonviolence.

History is written by those who rule, as the saying goes. One of the common prejudices of history towards nonviolence has been that compared to violent campaigns, nonviolent movements and the philosophies behind them have received little-to-no attention from historians. This has unfortunately meant that there are a large number of nonviolent practitioners and torch-bearers who have been intentionally ignored and not at all projected as much as they deserve.

I truly believe that nonviolence is still applicable and more effective than violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that society is in desperate need, both of a leader with vision and know-how like Badshah Khan, as well as committed, ordinary people like the Red-Shirts, who believe in nonviolence and can help make that vision a reality.

 [1] "Armed uprising against Taliban forces insurgents from 50 Afghan villages." Ben Farmer, The Telegraph Online, August 14, 2012.

 [2] Easwaran, Eknath. Nonviolent Soldier of Islam. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2009; page 25.

 [3] Interview with Asadullah Ghazanfar, a writer and journalist working for Radio Free Europe in Kabul, on August 18, 2012.

Ahmadullah Archiwal, Lokashakti Encyclopedia
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