Book Review – Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pukhtuns

Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pukhtuns
Rajmohan Gandhi Penguin/Viking 2004

Abdul Gaffar Kahn

Abdul Gaffar Kahn

Eknath Easwaran writes in his biography of Khan: “The definitive history of Khan’s life and movement remains to be written”. The current situation in the Pathan or Pakhtun area of Pakistan and Afghanistan makes a study of his life and culture particularly relevant.

There are a number of studies of Khan in existence:

  • D G Tendulkar’s Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Faith is a Battle has been considered as the ninth volume of his biography of Gandhi in eight volumes. (1967)
  • Pyarelal’s Pilgrimage for Peace: Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi among North West Frontier Pathans; by Gandhi’s former secretary and biographer.
  • Eknath Easwaran’s Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match his Mountains. (1984)
  • Khan’s own My Life and Struggle, narrated to K B Narang. (1969)
  • Mukulika Banarjee’s The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier is not a biography as such but an account of the rank and file members of the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God)founded by Khan.

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, Khan’s thinking can be summed up in the following six points:

  1. The struggle he mobilised was nonviolent.
  2. Forgiveness was part of Islam; a passion to find an answer to the code of revenge to which Pathans appeared to be sworn.
  3. Non-Muslims were as important as Muslims.
  4. He wanted Pashtun women to study, work and lead; an example of this is sending his daughter to study in Britain.
  5. Although being a devout and loyal Muslim, he was also enthusiastic about his region’s older Buddhist history.
  6. Against the politics of ‘me first’ and double standards he asked his Khudai Khidmatgar to serve society and practice the values they espoused.

Although often called the Frontier Gandhi, Khan has always linked his nonviolence to Islam. At a meeting in Bardoli he said:

“There is nothing surprising in a Musalman or a Pathan like me subscribing to nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet, all the time he was in Mecca… 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..”

Khan was certainly not a mere appendix to Gandhi. His nonviolence depended on his own thinking and he grounded his ideas of nonviolence on both Islam and the traditional thinking of his own people,what he called Pukhtunwali. Banerjee says that Khan’s nonviolence was based on this traditional code and Islam. Another author, Barbara Metcalf, refers to two ideas in Islam – “the lesser Jihad” which is related to the legitimate armed struggle against injustice, and to “the greater Jihad”, denoting the inner struggle of an individual to develop a true commitment to Islam and cultivating the necessary qualities which the Quran cherishes. The Khudai Khidmatgar therefore was neither Gandhian in inspiration nor a mere tactical manoeuvre but rather a creative ideological position. Pukhtunwali had its key-terms – shame, honour, refuge, and hospitality.

Another author, J P S Uberoi, has said;

“In order to be martyrs human beings have to possess the qualities of truthfulness, fearlessness, poverty and chastity.” Badshah Khan must have been converted to nonviolence in 1919-20. After 1920 he started telling Pukhtuns that their condition would never improve as long as they believed in “blood for blood”. “Violence creates hatred and fear,nonviolence generates love, makes one bold.”

Looking to the present, Rajmohan Gandhi writes:

“Placing contemporary Pakhtuns, 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?”

The Western world does not even consider this question. Yet Khan’s territory is again an area of intense fighting and many Western countries are involved. Rajmohan Gandhi concludes:

“Let us attempt to appraise him as a Pakhtun, as a subcontinental figure, as a Muslim and finally as a voice in today’s world”.

Piet Dijkstra

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Categories: Reviews & Arts, South Asia


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