The Gandhian in the West: Badshah Khan
On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, and in the context of the current Afghan humanitarian crisis, it’s time to put the spotlight on Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest follower — Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), also known as Badshah Khan.
Badshah Khan is known as Frontier Gandhi, a name he disregarded believing there was only one Gandhi. But what really captures the essence of this great man is the name Islamic Gandhi. It is a term increasingly used by contemporary scholars to exemplify that Islamic jihad is not violent if interpreted the Badshah Khan way. Khan demonstrated that truth and non-violence, revived by Gandhi as the spiritual core of India’s struggle for freedom, was, in fact, the essence of the Holy Koran.
He then took it upon himself to popularise non-violence among his people – the Pathans, whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.
In his own words: “It is my inmost conviction that Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabbat (selfless work, faith and love).”
These beliefs were born out of Khan’s deep comparative study of the Koran along with the Hindu scriptures and the Christian Bible during his early acquaintance with British Indian jails as a Gandhian satyagrahi. He concluded that jihad was necessarily a non-violent battle, not just with the external world but with one’s inner self.
It is this universal, inclusive and humanistic interpretation which has brought Badshah Khan’s relevance into sharp focus today, as the ultra-orthodox Taliban has emerged from the very same people Khan once led as late as 1988. He died at 98, 40 years after his friend and ally Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated.
Badshah Khan led the Pathans even after Partition, when the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal agencies went to Pakistan. He conducted a non-violent agitation against the Pakistan government for an autonomous Pakhtunistan within Pakistan. He spent 30 of 70 years as a leader in jail, more in Pakistani jails than in British India prisons. He finally went into exile in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Khan’s initiative began as social reforms in 1919, when the British chose to “divide and rule” that part of the Pathan homeland that had come to them under the Treaty of Gandamak (1879), signed with Amir Yaqub Khan of Afghanistan. The Durand Line of 1893 demarcated the border between the Kingdom of Afghanistan and British India, effectively dividing the Pathan homeland between the two countries. The British divided their half into the high mountains — the five tribal agencies — and the settled areas or what became NWFP. They deliberately neglected the tribal areas. Badshah Khan began by opening “Azad” schools for both boys and girls in villages because he believed that illiteracy was the chief reason for economic and social backwardness.
Already a satyagrahi in spirit and action by this time, Khan was first arrested in 1920 for participating in the non-cooperation movement. Soon after, he attended his first Congress Session in Nagpur but did not meet Gandhi then. Their meeting was ten years later, in 1931, when Khan’s reputation as leader of the Khudai Khidmatgar (servant of God) political movement, launched in 1929-30, captured the imagination of India and the Congress leadership.
Then, thousands of Pathans congregated in Peshawar to peaceably picket law courts, foreign cloth and liquor shops as part of the Non-Cooperation Movement. After arresting their leaders, a troop of English soldiers, opened fire unprovoked on the unarmed crowd. Hundreds died. This caught the attention of Gandhi and the Congress leaders as this supreme sacrifice by a people known to retaliate, was unbelievable.
Badshah Khan and Gandhi’s friendship began after Khan’s release from jail, and when he stayed at Sewagram Ashram (Wardha) with Gandhi. In 1938, at Khan’s behest, Gandhi visited NWFP in order to interact with the Pathan people, in particular the officers of the Khudai Khidmatgars. He toured market towns and villages and explained the true essence of Gandhian precepts. The tour ended with Gandhi inaugurating the first Khadi Exhibition in the NWFP, in Peshawar.
The Partition of India was followed closely by Gandhi’s assassination on January 31, 1948, upending the Gandhi-Badshah Khan plans for the upliftment of the NWFP. But the Badshah soldiered on for 40 years more, agitating in the Gandhian spirit for the rights of his people.
Sifra Lentin is the Bombay History Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations
The views expressed are personal