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 peace.
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, IL 61054.