Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns

Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns

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Book Specification

Item Code: IHL360
Author: Ghaffar Khan
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 9780143065197
Pages: 300
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.0 inch X 4.9 inch

Book Description


A former parliamentarian in India, Rajmohan Gandhi currently teaches in the USA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Apart from several biographies, most notably the critically acclaimed Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, his works include Understanding the Muslim Mind and Revenge and Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History, both published by Penguin India.


When in the mid-1980s I was studying Muslims prominent in the subcontinent's recent history for my Understanding the Muslim Mind, an obvious subject was the towering figure of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. I had first met him in 1945 or 1946, when I was a boy of about ten and he was visiting Delhi and staying, along with his older brother Dr Khan Sahib, in my father's Connaught Circus flat. The events of August 1947 soon made him an outsider, but I was able to meet him again, during his visits to India, in 1969 and 1987. However, as far as Understanding the Muslim Mind was concerned, I was not taking up any living person, which in the mid-1980s Badshah Khan very much was, despite being in the mid-nineties himself.

Now, after all these years, I feel thankful to be able to offer this portrait. A goad towards it was applied to me on 9 September 2001 when my wife and I were visiting-Badshah Khan's family in the countryside of the Peshawar/Charsadda valley. Asfandyar Khan, eldest son of Badshah Khan's second son Wali Khan and a political player himself in the Frontier and in Pakistan as a whole, said that he missed a biography of his grandfather that the subcontinent's newer generations would want.

In that conversation with Asfandyar Khan, which took place while Afghanistan was yet under Taliban control, we also discussed Indo-Pak relations, Kashmir and Musharraf, and religious extremism and terrorism as well. Two nights later, on the morning of 11 September, my wife and I flew back to Delhi. That evening, on TV, we saw the crumbling of New York's Twin Towers.

In the new phase ushered in by that event, Badshah Khan's life, it was obvious, had taken on additional meaning. I knew I had to write the biography.

Here it is, with all its imperfections. Whether it will fully satisfy Asfandyar Khan I do not know. I have written it for the subcontinent's newer generations, but also for the many everywhere who are being pressurized to believe in an unbridgeable gulf between Muslims and the rest.

Among those to whom I am indebted for this book are several descendants of Badshah Khan and of his older brother, Dr Khan Sahib, including Wali Khan and Mehr Taj, son and daughter of Badshah Khan. I will not name all the others, but I must refer to the wonderful hospitality and help, when in May 2003 I again visited the Charsadda valley and Islamabad, of Anwar Khan, grandson of Dr Khan Sahib, his wife Rashida, and their children. Several others interviewed by me and named in the text also provided valuable facts and insights. My sincere thanks to them.

I am grateful, too, to the University of Illinois at urbana-Champaign, which hired me as a visiting professor from the Fall of 2002 but allowed me to squeeze time out to research and write this study.

Finally, I offer thanks to two persons at Penguin, Kamini Mahadevan, who commissioned this study, and Malini Sood, who has edited it with patience and skill.

Rajmohan Gandhi

Copyright Acknowledgements

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following for permission to reprint copyright material:

Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi for Ghaffar Khan, My Life and Struggle, 1969.

Geoffrey Moorhouse for To the Frontier, London: Phoenix, 1984.

Camerapix, Nairobi, Kenya for Mohamed Amin, Duncan Willetts and Graham Hancock, Journey through Pakistan, 1982.

Cambridge University Press for J.S. Grewal, The New Cambridge History of India: The Sikhs of the Punjab, 1991.

The Progressive for Amitabh Pal, 'A pacifist uncovered (Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Pakistani pacifist)', February 2002.

Rajmohan Gandhi

Harold Gould

Hiro Shroff

Dilip Simeon

Michael Caroe

Sher Zaman Taizi for Bacha Khan in Afghanistan: A Memoir,June 2002.

Nilgiri Press, Tomales, Calif, for Eknath Easwaran, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, 1999.

J.N. Dixit for An Afghan Diary:Zahir Shah to Taliban, 2000.

Hindustan Times Press, New Delhi for Mahadev Desai, Two Servantsof God, 1935.

Oxford University Press, Pakistan for M.S. Korejo, The Frontier Gandhi: His Place in History,1993, and Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah, Ethnicity, Islam, and Nationalism: Muslim Politics in the North-West Frontier Province 1937-47,1999.

Princeton University Press for Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, 1973.

The Setting

Fifty years ago or thereabouts, Badshah Khan of the Peshawar valley was, for most people of the subcontinent and for the British who had recently vacated it, the Pathan, or, to use preferred contemporary (and rather more accurate) expressions, the Pakhtun or Pashtun.

In the 1940s and the 1950s—times that surrounded freedom's pain-filled glory—the word Pathan never failed to conjure up the image of this man coming from a region that classical India knew as Gandhara, an immensely tall figure with an absolutely straight back, a great nose, kindly eyes, and a permanent aura of nonviolent defiance. Exercising an undeniable right, a subsequent generation in Pakistan, India, and elsewhere chose, however, to forget him.

This process was aided by turbulence in Afghanistan, which always affects the Pathans of the Frontier. In the 1970s the Afghans, regarded by Badshah Khan as his kin, turned, as they had often done in their history, to infighting and a coup. Then began an absorbing sequence of occupation by the Soviet Union, resistance to that occupation, liberation, civil wars, and Taliban rule. It was not easy, during this long phase, to retain a focus on Badshah Khan's life. Even though he had lived until 1988, by when the end of Soviet occupation was a matter only of time, his leadership of the Pathans' struggle against the British and his post-1947 striving for Pakhtun dignity seemed distant achievements, unconnected with what was happening in Afghanistan and, as a result, in the NWFP, which harboured thousands of Afghan mujahedin and hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees.

But 9/11 recalled Badshah Khan to the public mind, and not on the subcontinent alone. The New York Times wrote (on 7 December 2001, in an Op-Ed piece by Karl E. Meyer) about 'The Peacemaker of the Pashtun Past', who not so long ago symbolized peace and tolerance and seemed an antithesis of a later Pashtun, Mullah Omar of Kandahar (a place frequently but erroneously confused with Gandhara), the fanatical Taliban leader, foe of the USA, and Osama bin Laden's host in Afghanistan.

Yet Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan—aka Badshah Khan, Bacha Khan, Baba, Khan Sahib, and the Frontier Gandhi—lived for more, than peace and tolerance; he lived also for justice. Which is how he became a political prisoner for about twelve years under the British, and for an additional fifteen years after the founding of Pakistan, into which his Peshawar valley and the rest of the North-West Frontier Province had been merged. However, the contrast with Mullah Omar is dramatic enough, from a variety of angles.

One,the struggle for which Badshah Khan mobilized his fellow Pathans was nonviolent.

Two,in him a passion to find an answer to the code of revenge to which Pathans appeared to be sworn seemed to equal a passion for independence from foreign rule. To this Muslim, forgiveness was part of Islam.

Three, non-Muslims seemed as important as Muslims to Badshah Khan, who said that he and his Pathans would protect the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians living in the overwhelmingly Muslim North-West Frontier Province. One man who had touched his life was a white Christian schoolmaster called Wigram; another was a Hindu called Mohandas Gandhi.

Four, Badshah Khan wanted Pashtun women to study work and lead; in 1932 he sent his daughter Mehr Taj who had just entered her teens, to study in England.

Five, this devout and loyal Muslim was also enthusiastic about his region's older Buddhist history.

Six, as against the politics of 'me first' and double standards, he asked his Khudai Khidmatgars ('Servants of God'), participants in his reform movement, to serve the society they wished to improve, and practise the values they espoused.

There is more, but what has been said may suffice to suggest Badshah Khan's topicality to any serious-minded resident of the twenty-first century's opening years. To a knowledgeable Indian, however, guilt rather than a sense of relevance is what the name Badshah Khan first triggers, for when in 1947 power was finally sighted by the Indian National Congress, the body long fighting to end British rule, promises given to Badshah Khan were promptly forgotten. He who in hard times had stood for Indian unity was dropped. The sacrifice of a faithful friend was part of the price of power. Quietly, swiftly, matter-of-factly, leaders in India paid the price.

Perhaps betrayal is part of every human enterprise, be it ever so noble. Still its memory hurts, especially when the one betrayed was kingly, true to his word, and long-suffering. Even now, in the year 2004, it is impossible for an Indian aware of the depth and length of Badshah Khan's ties with India and her leaders to recall their 1947 severance without tremors of shame.

Those tremors were responsible for some important Indian books on Badshah Khan, notably one by Tendulkar and another by Pyarelal. Yet the world has moved on, and though guilt will continue to influence any Indian study of Badshah Khan, we must look at him with the spectacles of today rather than those of 1947. The fact that Badshah Khan was let down will be squarely faced by this study. Yet today that fact may be less significant than the fact that Badshah Khan's life has the capacity to speak meaningfully to an inhabitant of our times—-to one who is young, or Muslim, or both, or neither.


On the subcontinent, the term 'Pathan' is sanctioned by widespread usage. The West has opted for the more proper 'Pakhtun' or 'Pashtun' (or 'Pakhtoon', 'Pashtoon' or 'Pushtun'), which seems the preference also of some scholars from the North-West Frontier Province (or NWFP or, simply, the Frontier). Though, strictly speaking, 'Pakhtun' and 'Pashtun' refer to adjacent tribes that are similar without being identical, and without their languages being identical, this study will take the liberty of switching freely, for the sake of simplicity, between 'Pathan', 'Pakhtun' and 'Pashtun', and of treating the three words as synonyms.

Traditionally Badshah Khan and his Pathans have been viewed by Indians in the setting of history's great triangular clash involving Indian nationalism, Muslim separatism and British imperialism. Claiming to view something different, some Pakistanis speak of Badshah Khan in the setting of a quadrangular clash involving Muslim nationalism, Hindu nationalism, British imperialism and Pathan separatism.

Whether triangular or quadrangular, the clash was superimposed on, and intertwined with, another clash, that between the imperial thrusts of Britain and Russia, resulting in the so-called Great Game between the Russian Bear and the British Lion, which was played out largely on the 'buffer' territory of Afghanistan. While Russia's Sovietization for seventy-plus years did not alter the nature of this clash, the British side became, after the onset of the Cold War, the American—British side.

Some Indian and Pakistani historians of the Frontier ignore the Great Game. Their natural concerns have focused on where the Frontier stood on two questions: the fight against the British and the call for a Muslim homeland on the subcontinent. But happenings to their west could not be ignored by Badshah Khan and his Pakhtuns, whose links to the people of Afghanistan were of the profoundest kind. To the Frontier's Pathans, the Great Game was a constant and forceful reality, and the question they always had to wrestle with was the nature of their relationship with the Pakhtuns across the 'border' sketched on a map in 1893 by a young British officer named Henry Durand, and hence known as the Durand Line.

After Pakistan was founded, with the Frontier province as one of its constituent parts, it became natural for Pakistanis to view Badshah Khan and the Pathans in the setting of Pakistan's uneasy relationship with Afghanistan, a relationship affected by the closeness that had often marked the India—Afghan link. Hence the frequent occurrence in Pakistani writings of the fear or bogey of an Afghan—Pathan—Indian axis.

Today, however, with images of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, of the Taliban and of 9/11, prominent on most minds, many will want to see Badshah Khan and his Pathans not so much in their encounter with Britain, India, Pakistan or Afghanistan, but in their face-off with modernity. Placing contemporary Pashtuns, whether resident in Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere, in the setting of the real or imagined clash between Islam and the West-dominated modern world, they may ask whether Badshah Khan has anything to offer to an understanding of this presumed clash.

Related to this clash is the discussion in which adherents and scholars of Islam are currently engaged. Does Badshah Khan contribute anything of value to the modern debate within the world of Islam?

Inhabitants of India and Pakistan, including those in the Frontier, may in addition ask whether, through his life, Badshah Khan suggests anything relevant for the future of the Indo-Pak and Hindu—Muslim relationships.


In the seventeenth century, Khushal Khan Khattak, perhaps the greatest poet of the Pakhtuns and a warrior as well, expressed this yearning for peace among his people:

In days gone by Pathans were Kings of Hind,
And still in deeds the Mughal they outdo;
But concord they know not, and they have sinned
Against God's unity; so come to rue:
Ah God! Grant them but concord, sweet refrain,
And old Khushal will rise, a youth again.1

During the twenty-six-year period between 1920 and 1946, many Pathans thought that an answer to Khushal Khan's yearning had finally been found. It was found, it seemed, in and through Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was born in 1890 in the family of Behram Khan, the khan or chief of the village of Utmanzai in Charsadda tehsil in the Peshawar valley.

Even in the twenty-first century Pathans are not wanting who see Ghaffar Khan as one in a troika of history's great Pathans, along with two personalities of a wholly different kind: Sher Shah Sur (the sixteenth-century King of Hind, who Khushal Khan had in mind) and Ahmed Shah Abdali (or Durrani), who warred and ruled in the eighteenth century. In his lifetime Ghaffar Khan was called Badshah or 'King' Khan by his people, who deemed his bearing and ideas noble.

Two decades before he died, Badshah Khan expressed his own longing. It was in prose but reminiscent of Khushal Khan:

I have one great desire. I want to knit the divided tribes of the Pakhtuns, spread out from Baluchistan to Chitral, into one community, one brotherhood, so that they can share their sorrows and sufferings and play a vital role in serving humanity . . .

The doors are shut upon us, none is allowed to reach us, and we have been presented as a collection of uncivilized, wild tribes.

The courage of our tribal brothers is described as wildness, passion for freedom as lawlessness, their proverbial hospitality as an irrepressible urge [for] begging, borrowing and pillaging . . . Like untended, wild daisies they bloom and fade away in mountain ridges . . .

I want to create for them a free world, where they can grow in peace, comfort and happiness. I want to kiss the earth heaped on the ruins of their homes devastated by brutal people. With my own hands I want to wash their blood-stained clothes. I want to sweep their lanes and humble mud huts . . . I want them to stand on their legs with heads erect, and then want to throw this challenge: 'Show me another decent, gentle and cultured race like them!'2

After Badshah Khan's death in a Peshawar hospital on 20 January. 1988, the Pathans' feeling for him was shown when about 20,000 of them accompanied his coffin through and beyond the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad in Afghanistan, where he was buried. In doing so, the Pathans also demonstrated their feeling for Pakhtun unity and disdain for an artificial border; without carrying either a Pakistani passport or an Afghan visa, they had crossed the Durand Line.

But Badshah Khan had foes, too. After having him arrested and removed to Sindh in April 1961, Ayub Khan, Pakistan's military rider at the time and a fellow Pathan, told a press conference in Rawalpindi that Badshah Khan had made 'unreasonable demands'. Added Ayub Khan:

Abdul Ghaffar Khan wanted the Frontier area to become a part of India. Having failed in that venture, he demanded a separate province in Pakistan, where he wanted to be the king. Later, he wanted to make this Frontier region a part of Afghanistan.3

To Pakistan's military ruler, Badshah Khan seemed, in 1961, a traitor, vainglorious, an Afghan agent, and unreasonable.


Aspects of Badshah Khan's appearance and personality, and of his conflict with the authorities of Pakistan, are conveyed in a portrayal by an American called James W. Spain who interviewed him in Karachi, then Pakistan's capital, in 1954. Badshah Khan was sixty-four at the time, and ill.

We found Abdul Ghaffar Khan lying on a rumpled bed. Tall and gaunt, he looked like a sick Jeremiah outside the gates of a King of Israel. He wore a simple, long garment of homespun, something like an old-fashioned night-shirt, and his grizzled head was bare. Above his prominent Pathan nose, dark eyes glistened and charged the otherwise dim and dingy room with a sense of urgency. He did not rise but offered his hand; he gripped mine so strongly that I was unable to withdraw it . . .

'I am loyal to my people. That is all I will be loyal to. You Americans should help us, instead of listening only to These people in Karachi. The Russians should help us . . .'

'Does this freedom you want have to be outside of Pakistan? Can you not be free within Pakistan?' I asked.

'This is a matter of no importance. What matters is that we be free to develop ourselves, to tear down our own Khans who have oppressed us, to make our own laws, and to speak our own language. For this they say I am an agent of Afghanistan. For this they call me traitor. It is false!'

To my great surprise he had slipped into English after our first few words. His vocabulary seemed not to exceed a few hundred words but he used them with extraordinary force and all the skill of a polished orator. He dropped my hand to spread forth his arms in an impassioned plea for freedom. He took it again to demonstrate the sincerity of his denial of being an Afghan agent. It was easy to imagine the impact he would have, speaking in Pakhtu, on an audience of the Pathans, great admirers of the spoken word.4

The pages that follow will attempt to understand the battles, inner and outer, that Badshah Khan, a son of the Muhammadzai tribe of the Pakhtuns,fought. But first we must look at the land, the history, and the psychology of the Pakhtuns.

'Badshah Khan's life has the capacity to speak meaningfully to an inhabitant of our times—to one who is young, or Muslim, or both, or neither;

Born into the Muhammadzai tribe, from the Charsadda valley in the Pakhtun heartland, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a passionate believer in the nonviolent core of Islam and sought to wean his peoplethe fierce warrior Pakhtuns or Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province—from their violent traditions and fight for a separate Pakhtun homeland that would no longer be a buffer between Russia and Britain in the Great Game

In 1929 came Mahatma Gandhi's call for nonviolent resistance against British rule and Badshah Khan, as he was known to many, responded by raising the Khudai Khidmatgas ('Servants of God'), an 'army' of 1,00,000 men who pledged themselves to the service of mankind and nonviolence as a creed. For this, and for his steadfast devotion to his principles, this

In this perceptive biography Rajmohan Gandhi offers fresh insights into the life and achievements of an extraordinary man, drawing close parallels with the life of Mahatma Gandhi, his 'brother in spirit'. He looks at Ghaffar Khan for people in the twenty-first century who live in the shadow of and Hindu-Muslim unity offers valuable lessons.

'A commendable, concise and readable biography'

—Mark Tully

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Maps vii



Copyright Acknowledgements


The Setting



The Pakhtuns



The Sons of Behram Khan 1890-1919



Fire of Hope 1919-37



Journey to Freedom 1937-46



Terminus Pakistan 1946^1-7



Biting Loyalty 1947-88



Badshah Khan and Our Times






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