For centuries, the Pashtuns (also called Pathans) have been stereotyped as deadly, fearless warriors. Narratives associating them with violence have typecast them as belligerent, blood-thirsty tribes. While this has long given the Pashtuns an association with war and violence, one story is less known: that the greatest non-violent struggles against colonialism was led by a Pashtun, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and his one hundred thousand followers.
Even Gandhi, in all his wisdom, could not distinguish between racist, stereotypical portrayal from reality. He could not believe the example of the Khudai Khidmatgar ‘Servants of God’ – who refused to raise a finger in anger against the British. To paraphrase Gandhi:
That such men, who would have killed a human being with no more thought than they would kill a sheep or a hen should at the bidding of one man have laid down their arms and accepted nonviolence as the superior weapon sounds almost like a fairy tale.
Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Frontier Gandhi and Bacha Khan (king of the chiefs), towered over all other at a height of six foot four. But there was a kindliness in him that disarms his warrior appearance. As a young man, he had dropped out of school to join the elite military outfit of Pathans called ‘the Guides’. But on seeing how a British officer shouted down at his troops, he realised that he would also be treated as a second-class soldier in the army. This made him change his mind. But was this an early sign that he was tiring of violence in all its forms?
The Gentle Pathan
In his engaging book, “Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, a Man to Match His Mountains”, author Eknath Easwaran tells the history and context behind Ghaffar Khan, personifying the details from his childhood. Born in 1880, the young Pathan was known to get lost in thought, staring at the fields around him. He disapproved of the Purdah system, and was raised by a family of pacifists. His father had renounced all the vendettas of his clan, and claimed to have no enemies. His mother too deeply disapproved of war.
The North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) was the region bordering South Asia from the West of Asia. In the bloody Afghan conflicts of the Great Game between the United Kingdom and Russia, both Pathan and Briton had demonstrated ruthlessness. In the aftermath, the British frequently led military expeditions to quell tribal uprisings, and had sent about 40 expeditions by Ghaffar’s time.
Having seen the scale of destruction caused by violence in the region – both within the Pashtuns (among each other) and against the British, Ghaffar Khan dropped the path to arms early on. He was educated in a British convent school, and wanted schools that could spread reform among the Pathans. After turning down a chance to study in Britain, on his mothers insistence, he set up a school for children. He was just 20.
At 23, he married, had a son and settled into a domestic life. But he wanted more. According to Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography, as Ghaffar Khan sat by the fire with his son, “…he would stop cuddling [the child] and get engrossed in his own thoughts.”
In 1919, Gandhi sent out a call to the people of India to protest against the Rowlatt Bills (which would allow political prisoners to be tried without a jury and imprisoned without a trial). In his calls to oppose the British without violence, Gandhi put to words what Ghaffar had felt his whole life.
Ghaffar held a protest meeting against the Rowlatt Bills, following which he was imprisoned and interrogated by the British. Everyone associated with him was either arrested or questioned. Troops were sent to the school he had founded, clearing it out and firing at its compound walls. It was an early sign that Ghaffar’s nonviolent struggle would be more brutally repressed than any other in the subcontinent. Ghaffar spent six months in prison, where his shackles were too small for his feet, scarring them permanently.
He was arrested again after his release – without a trial. In prison, a guard taunted him, incredulous that such a huge man would profess non-violence. “What would you have done if you hadn’t heard of Gandhi?” he asked. As Eknath writes:
Khan placed his large hands around two of the bars and slowly pulled them apart. ‘That is what I would have done to you,’ he said without a smile.
He was sentenced to three years of hard labour.
His time in prison made him a local hero. His school flourished, and so did his message of literacy and tolerance. And, in 1929 he launched the Khudai Khidmatkar (KK). An army of non-violent volunteers recruited across religion and gender, they became known as the red shirts.
A year after their formation, a peaceful demonstration as part of the Salt March turned into the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre. During the march, Ghaffar was arrested, which provoked many more to join his cause. After ever-increasing arrests, crowds formed in protest, and an altercation between them and the British forces turned violent. But when the crowds sued for peace, the troops opened fire. It was a massacre and the KK embraced it. Gene Sharp describes non-violent Red Shirts as walking towards the line of fire, facing the bullets and falling from them in wave after wave.
Estimates of the death toll range in the hundreds, though British authorities say only 20 died.
The red shirts suffered like no other non-violent movement in India. In “Radical Islam and Nonviolence“, Robert C. Johansen describes the brutal repression Ghaffar Khan’s movement faced. The NWFP was sealed off from the world’s scrutiny, becoming an open field for atrocity. Thousands were flogged, with their homes burned and their food poisoned. Many were made to stand in icy streams as punishment. It was a repression unseen even in previous uprisings, and made Ghaffar write that the British feared the Pashtun’s nonviolence more than their violence. The rest of India seldom acknowledged or was aware of the atrocities in the NWFP.
Though independence was ultimately achieved, Ghaffar’s story ends tragically. A staunch secularist, he was heavily opposed to the Partition of India. Throughout his life, he had shared one trait in common with Gandhi – standing firmly behind their convictions. Yet, Gandhi conceded to the terms of Partition. As Ghaffar said to him “You have thrown us to the wolves.”
His opposition to Partition and later demands for an independent Pashtunistan did not go down well in Pakistan. Soon after independence, he was arrested again – this time by his own nation, who he said treated him worse than the British. He spent most of his remaining years in prison, under house arrest and for some years in exile in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, as under the British, he stuck to his non-violent resistance and the oath of the red shirts:
I shall never use violence. I shall not retaliate or take revenge, and shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses against me.
He died in 1988, towards the end of the Afghan-Soviet war. A ceasefire was declared for his body to be brought into Afghanistan (though this was marred by a bomb blast and some incidents of firing).
Unlike Gandhi, Ghaffar lived to opine on the nuclear age. His message remains pertinent today.
The present-day world can only survive the mass production of nuclear weapons through nonviolence. The world needs Gandhi’s message of love and peace more today than it ever did before, if it does not want to wipe out civilization and humanity itself from the earth’s surface.
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