Less than a week before the day India celebrates its Republic Day, less than a decade ago, on the 20th of January, 1988, died a forgotten colossus whose legacy remains a valuable key for a world locked in the clash of civilisations.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, was born in 1890, in Hashtnagar in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of what is now Pakistan, a region that was described by George Molesworth of the British Army in 1919 as one where every stone ‘has been soaked in blood’. I still remember the grainy, black and white images of a tall man with gentle compassionate eyes that flashed across TV screens the day he died. I was told he was a man of infinite peace but it is only now that I realise that he was also a man of infinite courage.
The rugged beauty of the mountains of the Khyber that links the NWFP to Afghanistan is home to the fiercely proud Pashtuns or Pathans. When these fierce warriors are not busy fighting off the British, the Russians or the Americans, they are immersed in their own tribal feuds where blood is the currency and honour the prize. But Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Badshah Khan as he later came to be called, had a different vision for his people.
Beneath the veneer of the aggressive, blood-thirsty Pashtun, Badshah Khan saw a race of generous and brave people blinded and disgraced by violence and ignorance. When just 20, he began his mission of uplifting his people by setting up schools for men and women. From that mission evolved the vision of freeing India from British Imperialism and thus was born a lofty philosophy, born as much to faith, as it was to feeling. Khan was a deeply religious man whose interpretation of his faith led him to the realisation that non-violence was a ‘weapon of the prophet’. He started a peaceful movement against the British with 1,00,000 of his followers called the Khudai Khidmatgars (God’s servants), all committed to the principle of non-violence and the cause of the nation. But to the British, the non-violent Pashtun was a confounding anomaly who they brutalised in an attempt to elicit a more familiar and violent reaction. In 1930, in Peshawar for instance, more than 300 Khidmatgars sacrificed their lives when British soldiers opened fire on a non-violent demonstration.
The Khidmatgars, the same Pashtuns who are today vilified as vandals and terrorists, bared their chests to receive the bullets replacing those that fell before them without ever raising an arm in protest (many more would’ve died if elite soldiers of the Garhwal regiment had not refused orders when asked to fire at the unarmed Khidmatgars ) But through the torture, the beatings and the pain, the man, the philosophy and the Khidmatgars endured, mirroring a similar movement in another corner of India led by a man he was to befriend like a brother, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. To Badshah Khan, his chosen path of non-violence was only natural. ‘There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence’ for that, he believed, had been the path of the prophet and the faith, more than 1,300 years ago.
Khan dreamt of a unified, secular India and had spoken extensively against the partition of India. When the Congress, of which he was a senior member, accepted the divisive concept, he expressed his sense of betrayal but maintained his close association with Gandhi. The new regime in Pakistan felt threatened by his ideas and repressed the Khidmatgars ruthlessly. And Khan, who ought to have been a national hero, spent most of his remaining years under house arrest. Abandoned by those he trusted, and persecuted by those who feared him, today Badshah Khan lies in a grave in Jalalabad, the man forgotten, his ideals forsaken. If the Nobel Committee had had the sense to celebrate the contributions of this peaceful soldier of Islam, maybe the afterglow of international recognition would have immortalised his beliefs amongst his people. And that could’ve changed the fate of one of the most volatile regions of South Asia. But that would perhaps be expecting a little too much of a Committee that awarded a foul-mouthed war criminal like Henry Kissinger with the peace prize and forgot about a Mahatma.