Khan, Abdul Ghaffar

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KHAN, ABDUL GHAFFAR (1890–1988), Pakhtun leader, opponent of partition, proponent of a Pakhtun state. Jailed for twelve years by the British and for fifteen years by Pakistani authorities, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, born in 1890 in Utmanzai in the North-West Frontier province (NWFP), remains a symbol of the values of nonviolence and Pakhtun dignity.

Ghaffar Khan's towering figure was often seen alongside Mahatma Gandhi's smaller frame, both faithfully adhering to ahimsa (nonviolence) and opposing the partition of India. "Badshah" Khan endured long prison terms and solitary confinements, and was admired as much for his fearlessness as for his principles. He did not hesitate to urge his male Pakhtun followers to acknowledge their harshness to women, or to urge all of South Asia's Hindus and Muslims to live in friendship.

Living on both sides of the boundary between the NWFP and Afghanistan and distributed among numerous tribes, the Pakhtuns were never wholly subdued by armed expeditions launched by the British, who divided Pakhtun territory into insulated "tribal" preserves governed by chiefs loyal to the British and "settled" districts directly run by Britons. Ghaffar Khan's uneducated father Behram Khan, belonging to the Muhammadzai tribe, possessed lands in the "settled" part—in Utmanzai and elsewhere in the fertile Charsadda valley, watered by the Indus and Kabul Rivers and also by canals built by the British.

Though British occupation had offended the Pakhtuns, Behram Khan sensed its longevity and saw its advantages, and sent his boys Abdul Jabbar and Abdul Ghaffar (Jabbar was older by eight years) first to a British-run municipal school and then to the Edwardes Mission School conducted by a Reverend Wigram. Ghaffar Khan would always say that he learned the service of fellow humans from Reverend Wigram.

In 1912 Ghaffar married Mehr Qandh of Rajjar village, near Utmanzai. Two years later he made an unsuccessful bid, in company with a few others, to set up a secret anti-British base in the village of Zagai in the tribal territory of the Mohmand Pakhtuns. By this time Ghaffar had come close to Haji Fazli Wahid of Turangzai, a leading Pakhtun foe of British rule. He also visited the nationalist Muslim center of Deoband in the United Provinces, and he started a school, free of British influence, in Utmanzai.

In 1915, after having given birth to two sons, Ghani and Wali, Mehr Qandh died of influenza. Five years later, Ghaffar Khan married Nambata, also from Rajjar, who gave birth to a boy, Ali, and a daughter, Mehr Taj, but died in 1924. Two of Ghaffar Khan's four children—Ghani, later a poet and painter of renown, and Mehr Taj—were sent to the West for their studies.

Ghaffar Khan advocated both Pakhtun reform and Pakhtun autonomy. In 1919 Mahatma Gandhi, who had returned four years previously from his long struggle for Indian rights in South Africa, called for a nationwide nonviolent protest against the repressive Rowlatt "Black" Acts. The anti-Rowlatt rally in Utmanzai that Ghaffar Khan organized and addressed on 6 April 1919 marked the beginning of his nonviolent struggle for Pakhtun and Indian independence. It would bring him bitter prison terms in 1919, 1922 to 1924, 1930 to 1931, 1931 to 1934, 1934 to 1935, and 1942 to 1945. In 1928 he launched the journal Pakthun and the following year his "Red Shirt" Khudai Khidmatgar (Serving Volunteers of God) movement, which included a political dimension.

Though most Khudai Khidmatgars were Muslims, the organization included Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsis. During the 1930s and the early 1940s, the volunteers added up to more than thirty thousand. Each took a pledge to eschew violence and revenge, and to reduce feuds in Pakhtun society. Ghaffar Khan's nonviolence was doubtless connected to his association with Gandhi, whom he first saw in 1920, but even more to his longing to rescue the Pakhtuns from the custom of badal (revenge) and to the violence of British reprisals.

One of the dramatic episodes during the India-wide campaigns of the 1930s occurred in Peshawar's Kissa Khwani Bazaar. On 23 April 1930, during a crackdown in which a number of Pathans were killed, soldiers of the Raj's Garhwal Rifles refused to obey their officer's order to fire at a crowd of unarmed Pathans. In 1934 the presidency of the All-India Congress was offered to Ghaffar Khan, who claimed inadequacy and declined the honor, wary perhaps of being drawn too deeply into non-Pakhtun affairs.

After elections for provincial power held in 1937 and again in 1946, the Khudai Khidmatgars, who had merged into the Indian National Congress, formed ministries in the NWFP, headed by Ghaffar Khan's older brother, Dr. Khan Sahib, as Abdul Jabbar was then called.

On philosophical as well as practical grounds, Ghaffar Khan opposed the Pakistan demand articulated from 1940 by the Muslim League. His tolerant Islam sanctioned Muslim-Hindu coexistence. Moreover, he feared for the future of Pakhtun culture in a Punjab-dominated Pakistan. Preferring a wider polity, he allied with the Congress until the spring of 1947, when the Congress accepted the subcontinent's partition. Feeling betrayed, Ghaffar Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgars left the Congress, boycotting the NWFP plebiscite (which went in Pakistan's favor), calling for a state of Pakhtunistan (land of the Pakhtuns). In the years that followed, when he and his followers were persecuted and imprisoned, Ghaffar Khan repeatedly insisted that his Pakhtunistan would remain connected to Pakistan, but Pakistan's rulers considered him a secessionist. When not in prison he continued to advocate Pakhtun autonomy, nonviolence, and antipoverty policies. Some of his agenda was taken up by his son Wali Khan, who became the president of the National Awami Party that Ghaffar Khan helped found in the early 1950s.

From 1965 until his death, Ghaffar Khan divided his time between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he wrote his autobiography and where, in the town of Jalalabad, he built a home. Visiting India in 1969, the centenary of Gandhi's birth, he spoke candidly about the vulnerability of India's Muslim minority and what he saw as India's rejection of nonviolence. In 1987 India honored him with its highest award, the Bharat Ratna.

Ghaffar Khan's death in a Peshawar hospital in 1988 was followed by an unprecedented procession of thousands of Pakhtuns accompanying his coffin across the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad, where, by his choice, he was buried.

Rajmohan Gandhi


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