Khan, Abdul Ghaffar: Can’t We Be Like Abdul Ghaffar Khan?

Can’t We Be Like Abdul Ghaffar Khan?

The significance of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the recent history of peace activism is his institution of the importance of discipline in peace- makers.

By Dr Thomas Michel S.J.

On 20 January 1988, Abdul Ghaffar Khan one of the 20th century’s great proponents of non-violent change, died at the age of 98 and was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. His funeral was the occasion of the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan in three decades and also occasioned a temporary cease-fire observed both by Soviet and Mujahidin forces in Afghanistan, in order to allow free access to his burial. Three years before his death, Abdul Ghaffar told an interviewer, “For today’s children and the world, my thoughts are that only if they accept non-violence can they escape destruction, and live a life of peace. If this doesn’t happen, then the world will be in ruins”.

Abdul Ghaffar was a Pathan, born in the North-west Frontier Province of British India. In 1929, he founded a non-violent movement called the Khuda-i-Khidmatgar, “the Servants of God”.

The movement, which eventually enrolled over 100,000 Pashtun (Pathan) followers, was dedicated to social reform and to put an end by non-violent means to British rule in the still undivided India. He was a close associate of Gandhi from many years until the latter’s assassination and is still remembered today in India as “Frontier Gandhi”. His calls for social change, equitable land distribution and religious harmony were seen as a threat by the British Raj as well as by some local politicians, religious leaders and landlords, and Abdul Ghaffar survived two assassination attempts and more than 30 years of imprisonment.

One historian describes Abdul Ghaffar’s movement as follows:

“The fullest practical expression of Gandhism anywhere in India appeared among the Afghan tribes along the north-west frontier, under the leadership of Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Noted for their feuding and raiding, these tribesmen were won to an active and almost universal program of social self-reform.

Feuding was stopped, discipline was imposed under the name of Service of God (Khuda-e-Khidmat). When nationalist campaigns for independence were launched, the Khudai-khidmatgars gave effective and faithful support. At all times, they remained firmly non-violent. Quranic encouragement of forgiveness as better than revenge became the foundation of a highly Muslim interpretation of Gandhi’s ideas”. (Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, III:344).

In the 1930s and 1940s, the British army tried to crush the Khidmatgar movement with extreme brutality, employing mass killings, torture and destruction of members’ homes and fields.

An Historian notes: “ The British treated Ghaffar Khan and his movement with a barbarity that they often did not inflict on other adherents of non-violence in India. ‘ The Brutes must be ruled brutally and by brutes,’ stated a 1930 British report on the Pashtuns. (Amitabh Pal, “ A Pacifist Uncovered,” The Progressive, February, 2002).

Abdul Ghaffar spent 15 of those years in prison, often in solitary confinement, but the Pathans refused to give up their disciplined non-violence even in the face of severe repression. In the worst incident, the British killed over 200 Khidmatgar members in Peshawar on 23 April 1930.

Abdul Ghaffar’s commitment to non-violence was even more sweeping than that of Gandhi’s Indian National Congress. It also differed from that of the Congress, in that the movement had “First of all, religious basis- it took as its objective both local socio-economic reform and political independence.

Abdul Ghaffar’s non-violent activism was firmly rooted in his understanding of Islam, which he summarized in the key words mohabbat (love), amal (service), and yakheen (certitude, faith). He interpreted Islam as a moral code with pacifism at its centre. He once related to Gandhi a discussion he had with a Punjabi Muslim who did not see the non-violent core of Islam:

“I cited chapter and verse from the Quran to show the great emphasis that Islam had laid on peace, which is its cornerstone, and I showed him how the greatest figures in Islamic history were known more for their forbearance and self-restraint then for their fierceness”.

Abdul Ghaffar’s daughter-in-law, Begum Nasim Wali Khan, was interviewed shortly after his death. “He told people that Islam operates on a simple principle-never hurt anyone by tongue, by gun, or by hand. Not to lie, steal and harm is true Islam”, she said. Although firmly based on the principles of Islam, the movement was non-sectarian. When Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in Peshawar, 10,000 Khidmatgar members actively helped protect their lives and property. When communal riots broke out in Bihar in1946-1947, Khan toured with Gandhi to bring about peace. “Although the character of the movement was intensely Islamic, one of the objectives of the organisation was the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity”, Bondurant observes.

In 1938,Gandhi asked some members of the movement if they would take up violence if Ghaffar Khan ordered them to, they replied emphatically “No”.

The principles of the Khudai-Khidmat are well-expressed in the oath taken by new members of Khudai-Khidmat:

* I am a Servant of God: as God needs no service, serving his creation is serving Him.

* I promise to serve humanity it the name of God.

* I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge.

* I promise to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty.

* I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity.

* I promise to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend.

* I promise to refrain from anti-social customs and practices.

* I promise to live a simple life, to practice virtue and to refrain from evil.

* I promise to practice good manners and good behaviour and not to lead a life of idleness.

* I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work.

* The significance of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the recent history of peace activism is his institution of the importance of discipline in peace makers. Working for peace and building peace run counter to many natural impulses. When one is a victim of oppression, the normal human instinct is to fight back, to respond to violence with more of the same. Forgiveness does not come easy or does patience, nor does the kind of forbearance that places long term goals ahead of immediate, spontaneous reactions. In his Islamic faith, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khidmatgars found the basis for self-discipline which enabled them to be strong, patient and forbearing even in the face of brutal violence.

Dr. Thomas Michel, S.J. is the Secretary of the Jesuit, Secretariat for Interi-religious Dialogue in Rome, Italy and Ecumenical Secretary for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He is also member of the JUST International Advisory Panel (IAP) (Courtesy: International Move ment for a Just World)

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