Some Thoughts on Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Efficacy of Nonviolent Resistance
“The Holy Prophet Mohammed came into the world and taught us ‘That man is a Muslim who never hurt anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men.’” *
I just finished reading Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains by Eknath Easwaran, a small book about Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a prominent activist in the Indian Independence Movement, a committed Muslim spiritual teacher, and a tireless promoter of nonviolent conflict resolution Khan, called Badshah or Baacha Khan, meaning King Khan, by his followers. Baacha Khan joined Gandhi’s National Congress upon becoming familiar with Gandhi’s ideas about the necessity of resistance to occupation and the dignity an power of nonviolent resistance. Hi story was transformed, like many others, by the violence surrounding the partition of Pakistan from India.
He began his career at around the same time Gandhi was embracing similar precepts, in the Pashtun region that now spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Baacha Khan, a member of the Mohammedzai tribe, a relatively settled Pashtun tribe, was born to a wealth landowner, Khan, of a town named Utmanzai, about 20 miles north of Peshawar. He was educated in both the religious schools run by the mullahs and in a mission school where a Western style education was provided by Christian clerics.
Khan’s career began with promoting education through opening schools in the region, led to promoting political independence for India through resistance to the British. In time, he created a massive nonviolent resistance organization that paralleled Gandhi’s movement in central India, before the partition of Pakistan and India. His leadership focused on Islam as a way of peace, and he worked tirelessly to teach the warring Pashtun people a new way of life within their own culture as well as in relation to external conflicts. The partition immersed him in new battle for democracy, justice, and independence for the Pashtuns that filled the remainder of his life. Amazingly, despite spending years of his life in barbaric prisons where he was beaten and tortured, Baacha Khan lived to be 98 years old, ending his life, half of it spent as a social activist in Pakistan, in exile in Afghanistan.
Throughout Khan’s childhood, the British committed a series of atrocities against the Pashtuns along the border, which at that time was the border between India and Afghanistan. Even so, he quit high school just before final exams to join an elite British military contingent. Upon arrival at his post, he got an up-close and personal taste of British arrogance and contempt for his people, so he didn’t follow through there either. His father wanted to send him to England to medical school, like his older brother, or perhaps, to law school, but his mother refused to give up her youngest son. Instead, he started opening schools around the region, where young people could get a modern education without the Christian component.
Through opening schools, he became interested in furthering his own education, and in the politics of the region. A deeply religious man with a strong affinity for the common people, Khan grew more and more convinced that nonviolent conflict resolution was the only way to free the Pashtuns from destructive social patterns, and to free India from the British. When Khan learned about Gandhi through reading his first book while in prison for opening schools, he was very impressed and became, initially, a fan. Later they became close friends. They had a huge respect for one another’s work, and an understanding that they could learn from one another’s different approaches to understanding life. Khan’s source was deeply religious. He based his actions on the teachings of Islam. At the same time, he did not have a problem with practitioners of other religions. He believed that all religions should be respected as different ways of honoring the one god, Allah.
While resisting the British in India, Khan started schools, and published a monthly Pashtun newspaper. He organized a Progressive Youth Council and the Khudai Kidmatgars (Servants of God), a nonviolent army of about 1,000 men, who were trained to stand against their enemy, and take whatever punishment was given out without resistance. The Khudai Kidmatgars were given rigorous training, and organized in military style units with officers of different rank. Khan told them that this type of resistance would make them unbeatable. Warriors to begin with, they were. They were reviled as “communists” and terrorists by the British, who were more threatened by the nonviolent Pashtun warriors than by those who fought with weapons. British persecution turned an army of 1,000 into one of 15,000 men while their leader languished in jail. They were publicly humiliated, tortured, and massacred. As with today’s Taliban, every innocent man killed was replaced by a dozen of his peers.
Both Khan and Gandhi opposed the partition of India into two states. Shortly after partition, Gandhi was murdered, and Khan, now a citizen of the new country, Pakistan, started a new fight for the rights of the Pashtuns in their new country. This fight would last through the rest of his life, during which time he was repeatedly jailed and exiled for opposing the views of the ruling clique, just as he had been in British India. Shortly after partition, his political party was overtaken by the Muslim League, and though his brother continued to work within the system, the People’s Party went out of power for more than 50 years. They only recently were restored to power in the Northwest Frontier Province, most likely due to the Pakistani/U.S. military pogrom there due to The [U.S.] War on Terror.
Unfortunately, the work of Baacha Khan remains controversial in Pakistan to this day. His fierce advocacy for the rights of the people over those of the ruling class and his opposition to intervention by the Western colonial powers on their behalf made him a threat to the newly formed establishment. In the following quote from a Session of the Pakistani Parliament in December of 1948, just over a year after that nation was born, he addresses these issues. **
“… indeed I was of opinion and creed that India should not be divided because today in India we have witnessed the game””thousands, nay, lakhs of the young, old and children, men and women, were massacred and ruined. I admit that it was my honest opinion that India should not be divided; India should not be partitioned. But now that it is done, the dispute is over.”
And “I repeat that I am not for destruction of Pakistan. In destruction lies no use for Hindus, Muslims, the Frontier, the Punjab, Bengal or even Sindh. Advantage, there is only in construction. I want to tell you a very plain thing that I will not support any body in destruction.”
But “For about seven months I have been watching the administration of Pakistan, but I could not find any difference between this administration and that of the British. I may be wrong, but it is the common view. I alone do not say so; if you go and ask the poor, then my views will be confirmed. ”
He goes on to say that he devoted his life to getting rid of the British [occupiers]. Even so, if they were dishonest and greedy, one could not fault them. But when our own leaders behave that way it is a more serious problem.
Khan’s insistence on a measure of dignity and sovereignty for the Pashtuns also raised fears of a further division of the land. In the following quote from the same Session of the Pakistani Parliament in December of 1948, he tries to allay these fears.
“What does our Pathanistan mean, I will tell you just now? You see that the people inhabiting the Province are called Sindhis and the name of their country is Sind. Similarly the Punjab or Bengal is the land of the Punjabis or Bengalis. In the same way there is the North West Frontier. We are one people and ours is a land. Within Pakistan we also want that mere mentioning of the name of the country should convey to the people that it is the land of Pakhtoons.”
Khan spent his life fighting for the freedom and dignity of his people, and for peace. He spent more than half his adult life in jail, and eventually gave his land to his sons so that he would be free to travel and teach. Shortly after partition, he started a community to model his vision of a better society, a commune of sorts, near Peshawar where he worked in the garden and at household chores before going about his formal duties within the community. He was called a traitor, a divider and a communist, but he never ceased teaching the men around him to live in peace and dignity.
It would appear that Baacha Khan’s efforts were swept away by the tide of history. In “Pakhtoonistan,” which still has the formal title NWFP (Northwest Frontier Province), the Khudai Kidmatgars, who stood before the British infantry unarmed, have been replaced by the Taliban, who dance around heavily armed forces in the back of pickup trucks with kalashnikovs and hand held rocket launchers. They have the same spirit but their hearts have hardened.
However, Khan’s work has been emerging recently into a world that desperately needs to receive it. All of Khan’s teachings on nonviolent resistance, peace and reconciliation, and the dignity of the human spirit were rooted in his deep faith. All of his practical work in raising social consciousness, treating all men and women as equals, and producing bounty through sharing were rooted in his understanding of the teachings of Islam.
These ideas can be supportive to the Pashtuns again, and also for the Kurds, the Balouchs, the Palestinians and other fragmented and oppressed ethnic groups in the region. Unfortunately, the path is not clear. The problems that Khan encountered in Pakistan, essentially an unwillingness on the part of the political power elite to acknowledge the issues of a potential alternative social structure, create a an ever deepening chasm of misunderstanding and separatism within the country. Even so, it should be clear by now that no amount of violence will bridge that gap. This was clear to Abdul Gaffer Khan nearly 100 years ago.
From our perspective, there is another factor; a necessary, you might say, if not sufficient cause. That is the interference of powerful external agents who are heavily invested in maintaining a power structure in those regions that will support their own interests. Without these interventions, nature would bring about a balance of power. In that context nonviolent activism for the welfare of the people will form a basis for peace and reconciliation. This process appears to have begun across south America in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador. It would seem that the most significant action we can take to enable the emergence of peace and justice in these regions is to bring about the withdrawal of these powerful external players from the region. And we can share the story of Baacha Khan as a reminder of the intelligence, integrity and passion that is the birthright of these long oppressed peoples. Given an opportunity, they will make a better world.
Resources for this post:
- * Nonviolent Soldier of Islam Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains by Eknath Easwaran
- ** Debates of Bacha Khan transcript provided by the Baacha Khan Trust an the Awami National Party of Pakistan
- Other articles from the Baacha Khan Trust:
- Not Just Another Preacher by Zalan Moomand
- Abdul Ghaffar Khan By Dr. Syed Waqar Ali Shah
- Geonology of Baacha Khan by Ihsanullah
- Chronology of Baacha Khan by Ihsanullah
Note: Pashtun, Pathan, and Pakhtun are different forms of the name for the ethnic people who reside primarily along the Durand line, and in northwest Pakistan. Pashtun is the name you currently see in the press. Pathan is the old British name for these people, and still in use by English speakers in the region. Pakhtun is what they call themselves.
Note: Badshah and Baacha both mean King. Badshah is Hindi; Baacha either Urdu or a Pakhtun dialect. I use the term Baacha here to honor Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s roots.