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On Frontier Gandhi's death anniversary, a reminder of how the Indian subcontinent has lost its way
Peace and communal amity that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan toiled for all his life is a distant dream today.
Ajaz Ashraf*
On the 30th death anniversary of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan today, it is apt to remember him as the man who challenged the subcontinent’s pet stereotypes. He was a Pakhtun or Pathan from the North West Frontier Province, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where people are said to still subscribe to the code of revenge. Yet Frontier Gandhi, as Ghaffar Khan was popularly known, led a non-violent movement against the British in the province, his followers refusing to retaliate even as they were mowed down.
Ghaffar Khan embraced the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence because it resonated with Islam, thereby negating the idea that the religion of Muslims was inherently violent. He opposed the brand of homogenising political Islam, represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League in much the same way as Hindutva represents political Hinduism today. That is why he stood with the Congress in its battle against the Muslim League and communalism.
He believed the Congress had agreed to the partition of the country to gain power and, as a consequence, thrown the Pakhtuns “to the wolves”. Yet, the sense of betrayal did not prevent his followers from saving Hindus and Sikhs in the North West from Muslim assailants during the Partition riots.
Indeed, Ghaffar Khan is a reminder of how far the subcontinent has veered away from what it wanted to be.
Critics have doubted his commitment to non-violence. This is largely because, as Rajmohan Gandhi points out in Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns, he had agreed to the proposal of the fiercely anti-British cleric Maulana Obeidullah Sindhi to establish secret bases across the province. One base was even identified but the plan was aborted when Sindhi did not reach there as promised. No one really knows what the purpose of the proposed bases was but it is unlikely it was peaceful. Indeed, in 1981, Ghaffar Khan confessed: “In my youth I also thought [of] violence.”
But by 1919, when Ghaffar Khan was 29 years old, he had become a votary of non-violence. This was demonstrated when he organised a large peaceful public meeting in his Utmanzai village against the Rowlatt Act, which allowed the detention of a person without trial if found in possession of seditious material. Ghaffar Khan was arrested and sent to jail, the first of many spells of incarceration he endured in British India and then in Pakistan, totalling 27 years.
The defining moment for Ghaffar Khan and the Pakhtuns he led was the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930. By then Ghaffar Khan had already raised the Khudai Khidmatgar, or Servants of God. To become a Khudai Khidmatgar, one had to take an oath that included these words: “I shall never use violence, I shall not retaliate or take revenge, and I shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses against me.”
The Khudai Khidmatgar more than lived up to their oath. On April 23, Ghaffar Khan was on his way from Utmanzai to Peshawar to take part in a civil disobedience event when he was arrested and sent to the Charsadda jail. In protest, thousands of his followers surrounded the jail and many more marched in Peshawar and other places. To quell the non-violent insurrection, the British resorted to firing on the protestors. Yet, Rajmohan Gandhi notes in Ghaffar Khan, the Khudai Khidmatgar and their supporters, “who were chased down the streets and lanes of Peshawar, all them Pathans raised on the code of revenge, did not hit back. Even more dramatically, soldiers of the Raj’s Garhwal Rifles refused to obey their officer’s order to fire at a crowd of unarmed Pathans”.
This story of the brutal suppression of the Pakhtuns receives, at best, a passing mention in Indian school textbooks, perhaps because Peshawar is now in Pakistan.

A revolutionary life
Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders were released from prison in January 1931, but not the Pakhtun leader who had inspired his brethren to renounce violence and use civil resistance to challenge colonial rule. It was perhaps because of being singled out in 1931, as well as in later years, that Ghaffar Khan would say, “The British considered a non-violent Pathan more dangerous than a violent Pathan.”
Presumably, Ghaffar Khan’s non-violent movement surprised many, but he though the Pakhtuns were only following their religion. “There is nothing surprising in a Musalman or a Pathan like me subscribing to non-violence,” he said. “It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet, all the time he was in Mecca [before he migrated to Medina]…But we had so far forgotten it that when Mahatma Gandhi placed it before us we thought he was sponsoring a new creed or a novel weapon.”
He argued that non-violence was the “twin of patience”, which is stressed upon repeatedly in the Quran. Citing the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, Ghaffar Khan defined jihad as a Muslim’s duty to speak truth to tyrant rulers, among whom he obviously counted the British. He mocked people who raised the bogey of Hindu rule after Independence. “To those who come to warn me against a Hindu rule, I say, perhaps it may be better to be slaves under a neighbour than under a perfect stranger,” he said.
On Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence, Ghaffar Khan was freed from jail in mid-1931, only to be returned there that December to serve a three-year term. On his release in 1934, he spent time with Gandhi in Wardha. Gandhi said he had a number of Muslim friends who would sacrifice their all for Hindu-Muslim unity, but none of them was “greater than or equal” to Ghaffar Khan.
It was not long before the police arrived in Wardha to arrest Ghaffar Khan on the charge of making a seditious speech in Bombay, tearing him away from his children who had come to meet him after three years. As he walked to the van waiting to take him to jail, he said, “It is all God’s doing. He kept me out [of the jail] to use me outside. Now I must serve from the inside. What please Him pleases me.”
The Khudai Khidmatgar, which merged with the Congress during the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930-31 but retained its identity as a volunteer force, made deep inroads into the Frontier Province, going on to form the government after the provincial elections of 1937. Such was its dominance that the Muslim League could not even win one seat in the province.
The League, however, began to gain influence in the region after adopting the resolution demanding Pakistan in 1940, winning 17 seats in the 1946 elections. It was still no match for the Khudai Khidmatgar – contesting under the Congress’ banner – which retained power by winning 30 seats. This despite Ghaffar Khan campaigning for just a month. In 1946 as in 1937, the government was headed by Khan’s older brother Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, popularly known as Dr Khan Sahib.
In the mid-40s, even as it became clear that Pakistan would be created with the Muslim League as its party of government, Jabbar Khan did not hesitate to battle the party. Rajmohan Gandhi tells the story of Basanti, a pregnant Sikh woman who, after her family had been killed in riots in Hazara district, had been abducted and married to a Muslim man. The police recovered Basanti and sent her to Jabbar Khan. She asked to be sent to her Sikh relatives and Jabbar Khan agreed. The Muslim League agitated against the decision and made the woman’s return to Islam the principal demand of its civil disobedience movement in the Frontier Province.
When Jabbar Khan fined Hazara villages for rioting against Hindus and Sikhs, the League accused him of repression because no such fines had been imposed on Hindus who had rioted against Muslims in Bihar. To an angry crowd that descended on his house protesting against government crackdown on Muslim League supporters, Jabbar Khan said he would do what he considered his duty.

Betrayal of his ideals
As the Partition neared and communal riots erupted across the country, Ghaffar Khan accompanied Mahatma Gandhi to Bihar. They addressed people together. At one place, Ghaffar Khan said, “If India is burnt down, all will lose, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christian. What can be achieved through love can never be achieved through hatred or force...The Muslim League wants Pakistan. They can have it only through love and willing consent. Pakistan established through force will prove a doubtful boon.”
In the Muslim-majority Frontier Province, Ghaffar Khan invoked Islam to maintain communal amity. At Shabqadar, he said, “What gains will Islam and the Muslims reap from these riots and the slaughter of children, women and the aged?...These happenings are against the tenets of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet. To lay hands on an innocent poor man goes also against Pakhtun tradition.” Speaking about an old Sikh man who had been murdered even after expressing willingness to embrace Islam, he asked, “Is it done for the sake of Islam? I warn the League brethren that the fire they kindle will spread in wild blaze and consume everything in its way.”
But the violence, and realpolitik, convinced most Congress leaders to agree to the Partition Plan, with the Congress Working Committee overwhelmingly ratifying it. Only four leaders held out – Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narain. Years later, Ghaffar Khan recalled he had told the Working Committee, “We Pakhtuns stood by you and have undergone great sacrifices for attaining freedom, but you have now deserted us and thrown us to the wolves.”
He felt betrayed also because the Pakhtuns were only given the choice, to be determined through a referendum, of going with India or Pakistan and not of independence. Believing his participation in the referendum campaign could lead to Pakhtuns killing Pakhtuns, he and the Khudai Khidmatgar left the field to the Muslim League.
They, however, ensured that the province, unlike other parts of the subcontinent, did not witness large-scale riots in August and September of 1947. In his book, Rajmohan Gandhi quotes the Pakistan academician Sayed Waqar Ali Shah, “Despite their desertion by the [Congress], the Khudai Khidmatgar still held strength in the province and…protected the lives and property of the non-Muslims in the NWFP.”
The North West Frontier Province voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Pakistan. In his new country, Ghaffar Khan took to fighting for a better deal for the frontier region and, for this, spent years in prison. In the 1960s, he became an exile in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In 1969, Ghaffar Khan visited India for the centenary celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. He was accorded a rousing reception wherever he went. But he did not let that hold him back from speaking the truth: India had strayed away from Gandhi’s path.
Of this visit, Rajmohan Gandhi writes, “Whether by accident or by design, the Gandhi centenary saw communal riots in different parts of India, including in Gandhi’s Ahmedabad.” Ghaffar Khan fasted for three days for peace. He went to Ahmedabad and was disappointed to see that “Hindus work in Hindu areas alone”. After receiving the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, he repeated to the audience what a Muslim girl in Ahmedabad had told him: “Muslims were being asked by Hindu communalists to leave the country or live like untouchables.”
In his address to a joint session of Parliament, he was brutal in his assessment: “You are forgetting Gandhi the way you forgot the Buddha.”
It is time we revisited the ideals that Mahatma Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi represented and held firm to them.
This article is based on Rajmohan Gandhi’s Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns.
*Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.