ABDUL GHAFFAR KHAN…A PEACE LOVING PATHAN

  • I will never forget that afternoon in 1970s, when I was one of the thousands in Jinnah’s Park Peshawar, anxiously waiting for hours to listen to the speech of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was returning to Pakistan that day after his extended exile in Afghanistan. Finally when he arrived, he was sitting on the roof of a bus so that his admirers could see him from a distance. After coming down the bus he climbed up the stage and stood in front of the microphone. People welcomed him with a loud applause and a standing ovation. From a distance he looked weak and fragile. I thought he would be extremely tired as he was not only in his eighties but had also traveled a long distance from Kabul to Peshawar followed by thousands of his disciples.

                But when he spoke, the whole park reverberated. He was like a lion, strong and confident. In his speech he was candid and brutally honest. He had no reservations in openly criticizing Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Muslim league and their role in the creation of Pakistan. In my whole life I had never heard any political leader publicly criticizing Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. It was ironic that Abdul Ghaffar Khan was criticizing Jinnah in Jinnah’s Park.

                Later on, I discovered that because of his honesty and fearless speeches Abdul Ghaffar Khan had spent more than a quarter of a century, like Nelson Mandela, in British Indian and Pakistani jails. Before he died in 1988, at the age of 98, he spent a few more years under house arrest, as he openly spoke against the army regime of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. Like Habib Jalib, a popular socialist poet, he was not afraid of any dictator or army general. He always spoke his mind that got him in trouble most of his life. He had the courage to speak the truth because he was never afraid of death. He was a Pathan who loved democracy, freedom and peace and was never willing to compromise his principles and integrity. He was an extra-ordinary leader who had transformed revengeful and blood thirsty Pathans into peace loving human beings. Pathans loved him because he had won their hearts by his honesty and sincerity. They knew he was never reluctant to offer sacrifices for his people.

                Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 in a village named Utmanzai, nearly twenty miles north of Peshawar in a wealthy family. He was the youngest of four children of Behram Khan, who was a caring and a compassionate man. Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s mother was a generous and pious woman. Behram Khan was proud to be a member of Mohammadzai tribe as it was believed that they were descendents of Prophet Mohammad.

    When Abdul Ghaffar Khan was only seven years old his father told him that Mullah Mastan was preparing Pathans to rebel against the colonial British Army and Government because Pathans wanted to be free and independent.

    Mullah Mastan was a brave Pathan who felt proud to be part of a free spirited nation. He was perturbed that British had temporarily taken control of their land. To create a rebellion he traveled to distant villages to recruit his army. His fiery speeches stirred up the national pride in the hearts of Pathans and they volunteered to fight for their freedom. The British were surprised at the uprising. Eknath Easwaran, the biographer of Abdul Ghaffar Khan wrote, ‘…in the early summer months of 1897, Mullah Mastan began touring the villages of the north. He reminded the tribesmen of their humiliation and roused them to religious hysteria by proclaiming that the Prophet himself had given the word: the time had come for jihad , a holy war that would drive the British out of the province and reclaim the Delhi throne, after a lapse of three centuries, for Islam…Within a month, Mullah Mustan—Churchill’s ‘mad Fakir’ –had raised an army of ten thousand seething Pathans.(Ref 1 p 49)

    Pathans faced the British army and fought for independence offering sacrifices. For their religious devotion and commitment to freedom they were willing to offer their lives. “To the Pathans who threw themselves into the teeth of the canon and rifle fire, setbacks meant little. Time was with them—as was Allah. They knew they outnumbered the British. Hundreds of them died in the avalanche of the bullets and the bursts of cannon and land mines. But what was death? Only a promise to paradise.” (Ref 1 p 49) The story of Mullah Mastan must have left a deep impression in the psyche of seven years old son of Behram Khan.

    Abdul Ghaffar Khan received his schooling in Campbellpur and Peshawar where he made some British friends and was quite impressed by Reverand Wigram who was a kind and a generous man. When Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a teenager he was chosen by the school to be a soldier and become part of British army. For some families it was an honour but Abdul Ghaffar Khan turned that offer down as he believed British ‘turned brave Pathans into slaves.” (Ref 1 p 53)

    At one stage Reverand Wilgram, who was very impressed by the personality and intelligence of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, suggested to Behram Khan to send his son to England where his older brother Khan Sahib was studying medicine. The generous Reverand promised to pay all expenses. Behram Khan was agreeable but his wife did not want to send his youngest son to England. She was already grieving that her older son had adopted Western lifestyle and married a British woman.

                By the time Abdul Ghaffar Khan became a young man, he realized that growing up in Pathan culture was a mixed blessing. It had positive as well as negative aspects. He liked the honesty, sincerity and truthfulness of Pathans. He also realized that hospitality was one of the salient features of Pathan culture. Every village had a dera , a guest house, where every stranger was received with a warm pa khar rale [you are welcome, come on in] and was responded by satara mashe [don’t be tired]. The guests were not only offered a place to stay overnight but also chappal kebabs to eat and a cup of green tea, the qahwa, to digest their kebabs. Pathans were very loyal to their friends and faithful to their guests. But he did not like the cycle of violence that different Pathan tribes had been involved in. Pathans hated with the same passion, as they loved. They had a well developed culture of badal [revenge]. They considered taking revenge as a part of their honour. If one tribe killed a member of another tribe then the other tribe had to kill one person of the first tribe and this tradition of revenge went on for generations. The whole tribe felt a sense of shame until they took that revenge. Many Pathans did not feel any guilt when they killed their enemies. Taking revenge was considered a noble act and a reflection of justice.

                As a young man, Abdul Ghaffar Khan also became aware that Pathans cherished their freedom, as they believed that freedom was also part of living with honour. Because of such an attitude they never let British, who had ruled the rest of India, to conquer them. The British wanted to have political and military control of Khyber Pass as it was the gateway to India but Pathans never let them have that control for very long. They fought their war with the British on and off for two centuries. They used to attack the British army in ambushes at nighttime and then disappear in the mountains. Finally Britsh had to reluctantly acknowledge the fact that Pathans were one of the best guerrilla warriors in the world. Pathans had lived as free people for centuries. For their freedom they were willing to sacrifice their lives. “Life without freedom made little sense to a Pathan…for without freedom, how could there be honour?” (Ref 1 p 3)

                The military confrontation between British Army and Pathans had started in 1842 when ‘the sole English survivor of the forty-five-hundred man “:Army of Indus” rode into Fort Jalalabad.” After the first few painful and humiliating encounters with Pathans, the British started to demonize them, like Americans are doing now by presenting all Pathans as Taliban, members of Al Qaeda, and painted them as evil characters in the eyes of the world. Eknath Easwaran wrote, “Sir Neville Chamberlain was commander of the Punjab Frontier Force when he sent his dispatch to London during a punitive compaign against the Pathans in 1859. The words distill the attitude that most British held ever since. Less than civilized, subhuman, the Pathan was a ‘savage’, a ‘brute’, ‘cruel as a leopard’ a ‘treachorous murderer.” Britsh hated Pathans as they could not conquer them for a long time and each time they had some control over Pathans there was another uprising. They had not realized that Pathans ‘prefer death to dishonour’ (Ref 1 p 20)

    The British tried their best to crush the spirit of Pathans. They committed every brutal atrocity they could conceive. Their harsh and cruel acts became so inhumane that some Britishers who fought for human rights of the oppressed started to protest. Annie Bessant, who believed in ‘home rule’ for Indians challenged British hypocrisy in these words, “We loudly proclaimed that we had no quarrel with the Pathan nation, yet we burnt their villages, destroyed their crops, stole their cattle, looted their homes, hanged their men as ‘rebels’ if they resisted, while we drove out their women and children to perish in the snow.” (Ref 1 p 52)

    When Abdul Ghaffar Khan could not go to England for higher studies he traveled in different villages to study his community. He was struck by the poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. He thought the best way to serve his community was to promote education. He came to know that there was another reformer Haji Wahid who was also thinking on the same lines. Abdul Ghaffar Khan joined Haji Wahid and started opening schools in villages to promote education. Khan’s innocent act of public education was perceived as a threat by the British Government. Behram Khan did not want to see his son being persecuted so he arranged a marriage for young Abdul Ghaffar Khan hoping that he would settle as a family man and look after his farms and property.

    Abdul Ghaffar Khan got married but did not stop his activities as a reformer. He wanted to educate his nation so he found some volunteers and traveled from village to village to arrange for children’s schools. People loved his enthusiasm and started following his directions. Many Pathans who wanted to see their nation grow and progress saw Khan’s activities as the first step towards enlightenment. They believed ‘A Muslim renaissance was in the making.” (Ref 1 p 67) But before long Abdul Ghaffar Khan had to face resistance not only from the British but also from the fundamentalist clergy, the mullahs, who did not want Muslims to receive any secular Western education. They only believed in religious education in their madrassas. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was disappointed to see his own countrymen not appreciating his efforts to reform the community. He met with a number of mullahs and tried to convince them that if Pathans have to be successful in the twentieth century they have to get educated and learn modern sciences and technology, but the mullahs stated that Western education would interfere with their faith and religious practices. Once when Khan’s friend and fellow volunteer Aziz asked him about his recent dialogue with a mullah, Khan stated, “ If God himself could not make him understand, what could I do.” (Ref 1 p 67) Finally Abdul Ghaffar Khan started ignoring the mullahs and kept on doing his service to the community by promoting modern education quietly.

    After a few years of his marriage Abdul Ghaffar Khan had a son, but when the son was only two years old, his wife passed away. When Ghaffar Khan recovered from the loss of his dear wife, his father arranged another marriage for him. In spite of his family obligations, he did not ignore his social responsibilities. With passage of time his commitment to his cause increased. He was not only concerned about his own community of Pathans but also for all Indians.

                Finally Abdul Ghaffar Khan got involved in the national liberation movement and traveled to Delhi, Calcutta and Lucknow to meet the national leaders of Indian Congress including Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Abul Kalam Azad. But the person that impressed him the most was Mohandas Gandhi. He expressed his admiration for Gandhi in these words, “ …when I finally met Gandhiji, I learned all about his ideas of nonviolence…they changed my life forever.” (Ref 1 p 41)  Gandhi was also impressed by the dedication and commitment of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and traveled with him to different parts of the country to preach his philosophy of non-violence.

    In 1919 Gandhi planned a national strike, a hartal, to make a point to the British that Indians were serious about their struggle for freedom. Abdul Ghaffar Khan followed the lead. Thousands of Pathans gathered in Utmanzai to listen to Badshah Khan, their leader, for guidance. Badshah Khan followed the directions of his guru Gandhi and planned a strike. That plan was perceived as a sign of rebellion so “The Frontier government declared martial law, arrested Ghaffar Khan, and sentenced him—without a trial—to six months in prison.” (Ref 1 p 81). They not only arrested Ghaffar Khan but also many of his supporters including his father Behram Khan.

    In 1920 Abdul Ghaffar Khan attended the Indian National Congress meeting. He was quite impressed by the national freedom fighters and came back to Frontier with new inspiration. But his enthusiasm and renewed energy were eclipsed by the punitive attitude of British Government.  Chief Commissioner Maffy invited Behram Khan and asked him to stop his son from revolutionary activities. When Behram Khan talked to his son, Ghaffar Khan said, “ To my mind educating people and serving the nation is as sacred a duty as prayer.” Behram Khan was quite touched by his son’s sentiments and gave his blessing by saying, “ Son, if it is so sacred a duty, you must never give it up.” After that conversation with his revolutionary son, he sent his regrets to Chief Commissioner stating that his son was serving the community. Chief Commissioner did not agree with Behram Khan’s perception of his son and responded, “ This is not service, this is rebellion.” He ordered the police to arrest Ghaffar Khan. When the police officer was arresting him, the brave and outspoken Ghaffar Khan stated, “ First you take our country from us and now you won’t even let us live in it.” (Ref 1 p 85)

    In 1923, while Ghaffar Khan was still in prison, he received the sad news that his beloved mother, who always offered silent support to her son, passed away. He could not even attend her funeral.

    In 1924 when he was released, thousands of people came to welcome him back in the community. At that time he made a historical speech in which he told them the story of a lioness who had died leaving her cub with a flock of sheep. Growing up with sheep the cub started acting like a sheep too. Ghaffar Khan reassured Pathans that they were lions and had to live with their bravery and courage. He warned them that the British wanted to transform lions into sheep. After the release from the prison Ghaffar Khan continued his unfinished business of educating people with more resolve.

    In 1926 Ghaffar Khan’s father passed away. In his memory he went for Haj to Mecca with his second wife and children. During their visit his wife fell from the stairs and died. After the death of his second wife Ghaffar Khan declared, “…there would be no room for another marriage in my life of dedication to the service of my country.” (Ref 1 p 104)

    It is interesting that since Behram Khan had died, there was no one to pressure him to agree to another arranged marriage. Ghaffar Khan also wanted to follow his guru Mohandas Gandhi who believed in the life of celibacy to achieve spiritual enlightenment and public service. There was one difference though. Ghaffar Khan had adopted a celibate lifestyle after his wives passed away while Gandhi had declared his celibacy as a married man, not fully acknowledging and respecting the feelings of his wife.

    After returning from Haj Ghaffar Khan travelled one more time to Delhi and met with the national freedom fighters to gain more inspiration. On his return he decided to prepare an army of nonviolent soldiers. He called them Khudai Khitmatgars [servants of God]. Badshah Khan believed that Islam taught submission to God and a peaceful living. So he asked his disciples to submit to God by becoming servants of God and since God did not need any service they had to follow the motto “ service of God through the service of his people’ (Ref 1 p11) Although Abdul Ghaffar Khan was from a rich family and tribe, he left his life of pomp and show and whole heartedly dedicated his life to his people and adopted a simple and saintly lifestyle. People loved him so much that they started calling him Badshah Khan, the king of Khans. While Mohandas Gandhi became Mahatama, Abdul Ghaffar Khan became Badshah Khan. Pathans developed a lot of reverence for him and willing to sacrifice their lives for his mission, ideal and dream. Badshah Khan was so influenced by Gandhi and followed his footsteps with such honesty and sincerity that people started calling him Sarhadi Gandhi, the Gandhi of the Frontier Province. Badshah Khan was successful in creating the history’s first nonviolent army wearing brick red uniforms. Their nonviolence was profound. “It was directed not only against the violence of British Rule but also against the pervasive violence of Pathan life. “ (Ref 1 p 112) Khan was trying to transform Pathans into a peace-loving nation.

                Badshah Khan was very proud of his accomplishments but the British Government did not trust him at all. His reform was perceived as rebellion and his education as political indoctrination. They could see Gandhi who was a Hindu to be peaceful but they could not believe that Muslim Pathan who loved war and violence for generations to be peaceful. “In British eyes, Khan’s nonviolence was nothing more than a camouflage…Gandhi’s nonviolence was one thing, a bitter nuisance, perhaps, but consistent at least with the image of the peaceful Hindu. A nonviolent Pathan was unthinkable, a fraud that masked something cunning and darkly treacherous,” (Ref 1) When Khan continued with his political activities, his village was attacked and he, alongside his companions, was put in jail. British believed, “ The brutes must be ruled brutally and by brutes.” (Ref 1 p 19)  In spite of the hardships, Badshah Khan remained committed to his ideal. Like Gandhi, he had a dream of freedom and independence but he wanted to achieve those goals by non-violent means.

                Badshah Khan was a liberal Muslim. He believed in equal rights for women. He inspired them to come out of their homes and get involved in social, educational and political activities. He used to say to every conservative, traditional and fundamentalist Pathan, “ O Pathan, when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?” (Ref 1 p 105)

                After Gandhi started his famous Salt March in 1930, Badshah Khan also followed his nonviolent satyagraha with more vigor. That upset British Government to such an extent that they not only jailed Badshah Khan and his brother but also sent them to Bihar, far away from his followers, his Khudai Khitmatgars, accusing him of starting a ‘holy war’. Even after he was released in 1934, he was not allowed to come back to Frontier. Badshah Khan took that opportunity to visit Gandhi in his ashram and spent some time with his mentor. Gandhi asked Badshah Khan to travel with him to different parts of the country to work for Hindu Muslim unity.

                Gandhi knew that Badshah Khan was a secular man. He was a dedicated Muslim himself but he respected people of all religious and cultural traditions. He expressed his views in these words, “…the Holy Koran says in so many words that God sends messengers for all nations and people. All of them are Ahle Kitab---Men of the Book---and the Hindus are no less Ahle Kitab than Jews and Christians.” (Ref 1 p 145) Many Muslim reformers included Jews and Christians as Ahle Kitab as they were the followers of monotheistic tradition but Badshah Khan was far more inclusive than them. He even included Hindus in that group and respected their faith and tradition.

                Badshah Khan, like Gandhi, thought that division of India was unnatural. He believed that different religious and ethnic communities had been living in India for centuries like brothers and sisters. He did not want to sow seeds of religious rivalries, jealousies, prejudices and violence. He knew such violence was like jungle fire, once it starts, it is not easy to control. Many Muslims, especially members of Muslim League, were surprised that Badshah Khan, like Abul Kalam Azad ‘had opposed partitioning India to create a separate Muslim state.” (Ref 1 p 16)

                Badshah Khan was thrilled when Gandhi came for a visit to Frontier Province. Badshah Khan felt proud and showed off his homeland. Gandhi was impressed to see how Pathans loved Badshah Khan and were willing to sacrifice their lives for him. He was pleased to see Pathans adopting a nonviolent lifestyle and becoming aware that “Englishmen are afraid of our nonviolence. A nonviolent Pathan, they say, is more dangerous than a violent Pathan.” (Ref 1 p 160)

                Badshah Khan felt sad when he realized that Muslim League was insisting on partition of India. He was really upset when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared August 14th, 1946 a Direct Action Day after which there was violent confrontation between Muslims and Hindus and thousands of innocent men, women and children were brutally killed on both sides. Badshah Khan expressed his displeasure but when he realized that members of Muslim League were not going to change their mind and there was a danger of massacre, he asked Khudai Khitmatgars not to participate in the referendum that was going to decide whether Frontier would be part of India or Pakistan. Since Khudai Khitmatgars did not vote Muslim League won and Frontier became part of Pakistan. To avoid any bloodshed, Badshah Khan promised, “If Pakistan comes into being, my place will be in Pakistan.” (ref 1 p 177)

                For Badshah Khan freedom meant more than getting independence from British Rule. He wanted people to be educated and have their voices heard. He wanted a bright future for Pathans. He was hoping that after the creation of Pakistan, the North West Frontier Province, an awkward name given by the British, would be named Pukhtoonistan, to reflect their cultural identity, [similar to the names of other provinces of Pakistan : Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, reflecting the cultural identity of their people] and Pathans would be allowed to decide about their own future.

                Badshah Khan was disappointed when successive Pakistani Governments did, not respect his struggle for the rights of Pathans. They perceived him as a traitor, put him in jail, suppressed his journal Pushtun and his party of Khudai Khitmatgars. To continue the struggle for the rights of Pathans and create a secular PakistanIn NAP, National Awami Party was created in 1956 that chose Wali Khan, Badshah Khan’s son as a leader.

                Badshah Khan was a peaceful man who respected women and minorities. He had a liberal and secular interpretation of Islam. “Like Gandhi in Hinduism and Martin Luther King Jr. in Christianity, Badshah Khan demonstrated conclusively that nonviolence---love in action---is in perfect harmony with a vigorous resurgent Islam.” (Ref 1 p 180) Unfortunately Khan’s interpretation of Islam and Pukhtoonistan was not acceptable to others in Pakistan. While Amnesty International declared him as a prisoner of conscience, in his motherland he was perceived as a traitor and had to spend most of his life in exile or in jail. Ironically he was more respected in India, where he was invited in 1969 as a special guest to celebrate Gandhi’s 100th birthday, than in Pakistan, where he felt as an outsider all his life.

                Even in his old age he kept on fighting for democracy, freedom and human rights. He was put under house arrest by Zia-ul-Haq when he criticized army dictatorship in Pakistan. In 1988, he died at the age of 98. He wanted to be buried in Afghanistan so his dead body was taken to Kabul. Those days there was a violent conflict between Soviet Army and Pathan freedom fighters, the Mujahedeen, “On the day of his funeral, Soviet-held Afghanistan opened border to Pakistan…Pathan guerrillas declared one day’s ceasefire.” (Ref 1 p 12) Badshah Khan remained a symbol of peace all his life. Even his death brought a day of cessation of hostilities. Like Gandhi, he believed that nonviolence was not only a better way, but the only way to create a peaceful world.

                Badshah Khan was one of those reformers of 20th century who dedicated all their lives to serve their communities. Like Mandela, he spent more than a quarter of a century in jail. There are many in the world, who believe that, like Mandela, he also deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. Till his last days he spoke the truth and never compromised his sincerity, honesty and integrity. Even after his death he lives in the hearts of millions who remember him as a Pathan who loved peace and created the only nonviolent army in human history.

                                                    …………………………….. 

                                                                REFERENCE

    Easwaran Eknath…Nonviolent Soldier of Islam…Badshah Khan, A Man to Match   His Mountains

    Nilgiri Press California USA 1999

                                                                                                                Nov 2004

  •  
  • welcome@drsohail.com