Date:11/07/2004 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2004/07/11/stories/2004071100170200.htm
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Badshah Khan and our times

In this biography, RAJMOHAN GANDHI offers fresh insights into the life and achievements of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, drawing close parallels with the life of Mahatma Gandhi, his `brother in spirit'. He looks at Ghaffar Khan `with the spectacles of today'. Exclusive extracts.


WRITING seven years before Badshah Khan's death, the Swedish scholar Jansson identified four `messages' from his life: intense Pakhtun nationalism, moral and social reform, non-violence, and Islam. As to what Ghaffar Khan may mean to us today, let us attempt to appraise him as a Pakhtun, as a subcontinental figure, as a Muslim, and, finally, as a voice in today's world.

Born the younger son of a khan in a feudal society where `impoverished tenants provided menial services and manpower to magnify the status of their Khan', Ghaffar Khan appeared to raise ordinary Pakhtuns `from ignominious depths of ignorance and obscurity to heights of enlightenment and glory'. According to Taizi, who served a Pakistani government that was suspicious of our subject, it was Ghaffar Khan's `stamina, struggles, patience, devotion and determined tolerance in the face of suffering that lifted Pakhtuns from the lowest level of serfdom to the high status of nationhood'.

We saw that his feeling for the Pakhtuns, probably the biggest passion of his life, emanated from almost every word, gesture and breath of his. For this love, sustained for a century, he was willing to walk miles, to give up the privilege and comfort of a khan's life and the joys of family life, to be locked up in small cells, to be fettered, to grind corn on heavy chakkis, to eat horrible food, to be slandered, and more. If ever a man lived, sacrificed, suffered and died for his people, Ghaffar Khan was such a man.

Had not his Muslim tradition, to which he was both instinctively ad thoughtfully loyal, forbade the appellation, Badshah Khan might have been called a prophet for his people. He cannot be called that, but through his austerity, bearing, unwavering commitment and unsparing frankness he brought to his times a hint of the prophets of yore.

Loving his Pakhtuns, he also saw them clearly, in their strength and in their weakness, and spent all of himself in striving to free them of badal or revenge. With many Pakhtuns he succeeded, at least for some time; the subcontinent, the Raj, Afghanistan and the world acknowledged that thanks to him a number of Pakhtuns had moved from a love of the rifle to a commitment to non-violence ... .

... .Like any `buffer' people elsewhere in the world, caught between bigger neighbours, the Pakhtuns have always been obliged to adjust to changing events. In shifting sands they were grateful to be led by a man who adhered to his principles. Even when they did not heed Ghaffar Khan, and persisted with their mutual jealousies and self-seeking, they loved him as they had not, for decades, loved another Pakhtun. Every new incarceration or exile that he suffered only increased this love, which at his death took the unforgettable form of a pageant across the Khyber. Free behind bars, and a general without a gun, he was also, in some ways, a king who did not need a throne.

The Pakhtuns' admiration for him was stronger than their compliance. Although the Khudai Khidmatgars have been called `arguably the best organized' rural force involved in the freedom struggle `in the entire subcontinent', they did not remain as selfless in politics, or as dedicated in social service, or as strong in numbers, as Ghaffar Khan desired. His admonitions on their shortcomings shamed them but did not change them.

Did the magnet that drew Badshah Khan to his Pakhtuns keep him away from other sections of humanity? Was he a nationalist rather than a universalist? We should note, before attempting to answer this question, that Badshah Khan's story reminds us of the importance, in almost every conflict, of ethnicity. Even where religion, or Islam in particular, appears to be the central question, closer study may reveal that ethnicity is not less crucial.

We noticed that Badshah Khan's references to the Pakhtuns' neighbours — Punjabis in Pakistan, Tajiks in Afghanistan, and Iranians — were not always magnanimous. But apart from the fact that defending the dignity of the Pakhtuns, a central goal for him, involved tensions and at times conflicts with Punjabis (and, in Afghaistan, with Tajiks), we should also note that reflection always prompted him to deplore, and also, as far as he was concerned, to disavow, any ill will towards the Pakhtuns' ethnic neighbours.

He did not call Punjabis or Tajiks `my people' but he did see them as equals and sometimes as brothers. Also, as Jansson points out, he used the term Pakhtun `in a very wide sense, comprising all those living in Pakhtun society or even in the NWFP'. All the same, we should acknowledge, as no doubt he would have done, that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the need for reconciliation across ethnic (or national) divides is at least as critical as the need for nonviolence in struggles for justice ... .

... . Equally, the story provided evidence of Ghaffar Khan's loyalty to the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We saw that this loyalty always bore the sharp edge of honesty and refused to condone injustice. He and his brother saved Hindu and Sikh lives in the Frontier; he brought succour and relief to Muslim victims in Bihar; he confronted Jinnah in Pakistan and, twenty years later, India's Parliament with uncomfortable facts of attacks on minorities.

His fight for the rights of the threatened, the weak and the poor, his sympathy for peoples across the subcontinent's borders, his scepticism about the effectiveness of guns and bombs, and his frankness towards both rulers and citizens make him an inspiring model. He and his older friend, Gandhi, present themselves to posterity, as they did to their contemporaries, as brothers in arms, wielding the weapons of conscience and courage.

* * *

In the wake of 9/11, the 2003 attack on Iraq, and continuing violence in Israel-Palestine and in Kashmir, others, too, have recalled Badshah Khan. Thus Dilip Simeon writes in New Delhi's Outlook magazine (`Fareedian Slips', 23 June 2003) of `Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan who did not need to bomb people to teach them liberal democracy or civic restraint'. Viewing struggles for human and democratic rights, Harold Gould, the American scholar, contrasts non-violent strategies that `brought down empires' in south Asia with the `walking bombs' in the Middle East and Kashmir `whose self-detonations invite devastating retaliatory assaults on their innocent fellow citizens'. Ghaffar Khan's life has a role in the `radical rethinking by radical Islamists' that Gould and other voices, Muslim and non-Muslim, ask for.

We saw that Ghaffar Khan the Muslim thought that `prayer in whatever language or form was addressed to one and the same God'. His daily life demonstrated this belief in the unity of humanity. We noticed the joy with which he showed the Buddha statues of Bamiyan to Kamalnayan Bajaj and Madalasa Agrawal, statues that the Taliban would later destroy. Comfortable with his Hindu friends, comrades and colleagues, Badshah Khan, we saw, also loved Westerners and Christians like the Wigram brothers and was even able to forgive a white political foe who had blocked some of his plans, Olaf Caroe.

In 1946, alluding to the potential for fanaticism in the Frontier region, he warned that `a dangerous situation is fast developing in the tribal areas', and a year later he said, `I feel it is my duty to warn you against future dangers so that I may justify myself before man and God on the Day of Judgment.' This was a quintessentially Muslim thought from one whose directness invited charges of apostasy from those made uncomfortable by it.

The naturalness of his Islam, his directness, his rejection of violence and revenge, and his readiness to cooperate with non-Muslims add up to a valuable legacy for our angry times. This legacy may be of help to Muslims and non-Muslims today in the task of overcoming divides between Islam and the West (and modernity), between Afghanistan and the subcontinent, between Islam and the subcontinent's Hindus, Sikhs and other non-Muslims. His bridge-building life is a refutation of the clash-of-civilization's theory.

But he was also a rock. No force or threat could shake his stand for Pakhtun dignity, which at bottom was a stand for the freedom and dignity of every human being. The Pakhtuns between the Hindu Kush and the Indus were his first love but also his links to humankind, and we can, if we wish, hear him, even if we are west of that mountain range or east of that river.

Ghaffar Khan, Non-violent Badshah of the Pakhtuns, Rajmohan Gandhi, p. 312, Rs. 325.

Rajmohan Gandhi is Visiting Professor, Program in South Asia and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Illinois, U.S.

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