Ghaffar Khan Baba; the messenger of Peace and Nonviolence

auditorium hall view

ZAHEER ABBASZaheer Abbas

May 14, 2014

The violent socio-political climate prevailing in today’s South Asia calls for revisiting the values and actions of leaders who have been epitomes of peace and non-violence and have put the interests of their people and community before their personal gains. They are examples of ethical leaders who have swayed the masses with their unconditional love for humanity.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was one such leader. He was popularly known as Bacha Khan (King of Chiefs) among Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan; ‘Frontier Gandhi’, ‘Non-violent Soldier of Islam’ and ‘Prophet of Peace’ in the West, and ‘Khan Baba’ in India. He was an exemplary leader and social reformer who in coalition with Mahatma Gandhi launched a social and political movement to unite Pashtuns against domestic and external forces by making them aware of their rights, unique cultural strengths, and weaknesses. He initiated the ‘Khudai Khidmatgaar’ (servants of God) movement based on the values of benevolent Sufism with love for humanity, peace, and nonviolence as its governing principles. Many critics label the movement as merely being a political movement to aid Gandhi and Indian National Congress in its struggle to achieve independence from the British Empire. Such criticisms work towards the appropriation of his movement and fail to take into account the nuances which made his movement unique and widely popular. Ghaffar Khan’s movement was much more than his mere political support to Congress. It had a socio-political character and was different in many ways from Gandhi’s ‘Ahimsa’ or Non-Violence movement. His movement was grounded in an alternate narrative of religion (Sufi Islam) and culture (Pashtunwali) which he initiated long ago before he became an ally of the Indian National Congress. It was aimed at reforming the socio-cultural fabric of the Pashtun society and raise the collective consciousness of his people through education and political activism.

Those were crucial times for Pashtuns of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pashtun society was a traditional society. For centuries, religious and cultural norms reinforced through political processes led to the use of violence as the only social and political strategy for Pashtuns to remain in power and resist external pressures. Islamization of political processes resulted in legitimizing the power of the mosque over cultural wisdom. The Mosque in Islamic societies has always played a catalytic role in bringing or resisting social and political reforms. Majority of Muslims believe that religion is the ultimate source of guidance in all social and political affairs. This integration of theology with politics has been historically dangerous for the human development. It has served the interests of the clergy and the ruling elite by legitimizing their policies of violence and war in the name of divinity and calling it the “Will of God”. Ghaffar Khan was aware of this fact and he chose to use religion as a tool for social change rather than a tool for manipulation.

He wanted to make Pashtuns aware of their thousands of years old unique culture, civilization and history. He wished that Pashtuns should be united against internal and external enemies not through violence and warfare but through peace and non-violence. He didn’t wish Pashtuns to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers most of whom ruled Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent through force and bloodshed. His efforts were directed at raising the collective consciousness of Pashtuns. His focus was to promote positive aspects of the centuries old “Pashtu” which is not only a language but a collective of traditions, norms and social codes that have evolved over centuries and referred to as “Pashtunwali”. His philosophy of non-violence was embedded in the collective social support for the marginalized in the society (without hurting his/her ego and dignity), love for freedom, egalitarianism, hospitality and bravery. To Ghaffar Khan, a real Pashtun was the one who knew how to control anger, rage and suppress his feelings of revenge even for their worst enemies. A Pashtun should struggle against suppression and tyranny but it should be non-violent in nature. In his view, a person who wants his occupied land, property and legitimate rights back, should assert for his/her rights in a peaceful manner. He believed that violence may bring short term gains but is not a sustainable solution. Violence breeds violence and hatred whereas non-violence breeds love and compassion. In his understanding, believing and practicing non-violence needs more courage and determination than use of violence. He believed that a non-violent soldier could never be defeated because the opponent doesn’t have any weapon to deal with non-violence.

It wasn’t surprising that British Empire was much irked with the ‘Khudai Khidmatgaar’ movement. For a Pashtun it would have been an unimaginable act because of the cultural understanding of violence and revenge. Nonviolence was adopted as a way of life by ‘Khudai Khitmatgar’. On the contrary the Congress’ adoption of the principle of nonviolence was mostly for political purposes. Towards the end he was disappointed with Congress’ brazen dissociation from the politics of Pakistan. After the partition of India, Ghaffar Khan and his ‘Khudai Khidmatgar’ were not backed by Congress. Ghaffar Khan was very disappointed with this attitude and indifference of Congress. His last words to Congress were “you have thrown us to the wolves”. By ‘wolves’ he meant the feudal political elite of Pakistan who labeled him as ‘traitor’, ‘communist’ and an ‘infidel’.

British Empire and the Pakistani state since the very beginning had an overwhelming fear of Ghaffar Khan’s intentions. They were shocked to see thousands of soldiers of peace and love among the Pashtuns who were historically famous for war and bloodshed. However, history proves that his only motive was to struggle against tyranny and oppression through nonviolence. An unforgettable event which is an unfailing evidence of social action based on his philosophy was when more than 200 nonviolent unarmed Khudai Khitmatgaar faced bullets from British guns in a peaceful protest on April 23, 1930 in Peshawar city. The soldiers who fired were so moved by this tremendous act of courage that they defied the orders from their superiors to continue firing stating that they couldn’t kill their fellow brothers anymore. This was the courage that his followers had which an armed soldier doesn’t have. This is an unforgettable act of bravery and compassion in the history of South Asia. Sadly, today’s generation in Pakistan, particularly Pashtuns are largely unaware of Ghaffar Khan’s philosophy and sacrifice by his followers. This awareness is crucial for the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan today to think of alternate ways to face the adverse circumstances created by oppressive social and political structures.

Ghaffar Khan’s solution for sustainable human development and peace were based on key principles of Nonviolence, Education, Service (living for others), Equality and Faith. Much has changed in the Indian-subcontinent since it lost one of its greatest leaders. Politics has become marked with corruption, treachery and oppression. Violence has become increasingly systematized and is used to suppress any voices of dissent. It would be worthwhile for common masses, social and political institutions to engage with values propounded by Ghaffar Khan if we want a society worthy of being inhabited by our generations to come. To conclude in his own words “Today’s world is traveling in some strange direction. You see that the world is going toward destruction and violence. And the specialty of violence is to create hatred and fear among people. I am a believer in nonviolence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the world until nonviolence is practiced, because nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people. There is advantage only in construction. I want to tell you categorically I will not support anybody in destruction.”

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan “do-tank” that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Publish Date
May 14, 2014
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