Both of his parents were illiterate but very broad minded, loving couple who served every guest with equal respect regardless of origin.
At the age of 5, Ghaffar Khan was taught the Qur’an from the Mullah and his father, Behram Khan then sent his son to Peshawar for primary education and then to missionary school run by Christian missionaries. He was affected by the service the missionary teachers gave to the needy and got influenced by their spirit of selflessness.
In his last year of high school, Ghaffar Khan applied for a Direct Commission in the British Indian Army which was very prestigious in those days. However soon after when he was selected, Ghaffar Khan witnessed how the British constantly were insulting his friend who was a cavalry officer in Peshawar.
He didn’t want to serve someone who wasn’t respecting others and therefore left the army. His father arranged for him then to study engineering in London, but his mother refused to send her son to foreign lands where nobody returned from. Ghaffar who loved his mother dearly decided to stay and implement his dream.
Ghaffar Khan was ethnic Pashtun (Afghan) and became a political and spiritual leader not only recognized as a lifelong pacifist and a devout Muslim but well known for his non-violent opposition to the British’s sway over the entire country.
Because of his desire of peace and love for harmony and being a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, people called him by many names like Badshah Khan or Bacha Khan meaning the King of Chief’s and Frontier Gandhi.
Some Pashtuns wanted to stay reunited with India, while others favored the creation of Pakistan but Ghaffar Khan opposed such partition strongly.
Another challenge was that the common people were not interested in education and the British broke down the Pathan social structure with their laws.
Arrest and exile
In 1901, Pathan province was separated from Punjab and Frontier Crimes Regulation Act was introduced. Under this law, the police could start any fictitious case against anyone the British would dislike and they didn’t need any proof, evidence or witnesses. With their outrages laws, they managed to create communalism, disharmony and much more to keep the Pathans backward so that they could gain control over Afghanistan and Pakhtunistan. In this situation, Ghaffar Khan didn’t lose his vision that education was the key to remove Pathans out of the misery. For this vision he was sent to jail with fetters so small and tight that his ankles were cut and scared him for life. He also had to walk 4 miles in extreme heat with no food and water in addition that he was chained to a vehicle the whole time.
The British feared the Pathan strength and will so much that they felt threatened but this only strengthened Ghaffar Khan’s resolution.
As the schools started to develop, the British warned Behram Khan about his son, but when it didn’t work, they arrested Ghaffar Khan under section 4 of Frontier Crime Regulation and sentenced him to 3 years rigorous imprisonment. They kept him locked day and night, with the food shoved in through a barred opening in the door. Usually prisoners were kept in solitary cells for a week, but Ghaffar Khan spent 2 months and after that he was transferred to Dera Ismail Khan, meant for habitual prisoners where the conditions was awful. A few months later he was transferred to Dera Gazi Khan Prison.
After his release in 1924, Ghaffar Khan started to plan about a national newspaper and finally after many years of planning the first issue of Pakhtun was published in 1928 and became very popular. The British who kept and close eye on Khan couldn’t tolerate the popularity he got in India and Afghanistan, so they made up a conspiracy and announced Khan as infidel at the same time as they drew out king Amanullah from Afghanistan to exile in Italy. Now they started the destruction of Afghanistan that affected the Pathans deeply. He put much effort in collecting money in India to help the Pathans when he noticed the people’s nationalistic fervor. He wanted to reunite people and stand against the oppression and the year after, in 1929 when Ghaffar Khan was 30 years old, he founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (“Servants of God”).
The idea behind this was based on a belief in the power of non-violence and at the same time forged a close and spiritual friendship with Mahatma Gandhi and they admired each other as they worked together for the rest of their lives. Ghaffar Khan became a front man for women’s right, non-violence and strongly opposed the partition of India. Anyone who wanted to join had to take a wow to be non violent, renounce revenge, anger and hate from their mind towards the wrong doers and oppressors, treat every Pathan as his brother and friend and serve humanity in the name of God. This was significant for a person in Pathan society to do so, since at the time the society was all caught up in the web of revenge and counter-revenge that snaked its way through tribe after tribe and generation after generation.
The British torture and oppression only drove more people to join and Ghaffar Khan was arrested again in 1930 and sent to Gujarat prison in Punjab. As people protested peacefully, the British answered with driving trucks into a human wall of protesters, killing several people. They then ordered soldiers to shoot on unarmed men, and women.
The British army would surround the Khudai Khidmatgar’s, remove their clothes, beat them mercilessly, and once they were unconscious throw them into ditches. They were also made to stand naked on house tops with their faces and back sides blackened and their wife’s forced to watch this humiliation. They sodomized these brave men with tent poles, castrated them, they put sieges on villages, attacking homes, destroying food, blocking supplies, starving the women and children to death. All this did still not make the Khudai Khidmatgar’s break the Pathan wow, respect and love they had for their organization and great leader Ghaffar Khan.
The Muslim League leaders said they could not take the Pathans side since the Khudai Khidmatgar’s were opposing the British. The British, they said, was protecting them in order that they could fight the Hindus. Desperate for help, the Khidmatgar’s decided to ask the Congress for help. When the Congress promised all possible help if the Pathans on their part would join the freedom struggle for India, the proposal was put forth in the Frontier province, and was accepted by the Khudai Khidmatgar’s. When British heard of this, they came back with promises to reforms, more than what was given to any part of India. Ghaffar khan refused to be a hypocrite, and refused to break the promise made to the Congress and sent back his reply to the British; “You have no confidence in us, and therefore we cannot have any confidence in you”.
Ghaffar Khan continued to be repeatedly arrested, one time he was beaten so severely by an inspector named Kushdil Khan that two of his ribs were broken. Ghaffar Khan wrote later “he certainly did no credit to his name which means happy heart!” With long imprisonments, totaling 15 years, Khan got a good chance to study people from other religions and found out that every religion that had brought the message of love and brotherhood. He followed the way of life shown by the Prophet, who never hurt anyone by word or deed, but worked for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Gandhi once said to Ghaffar Khan;
“Non-violence is not for cowards. It is for the brave and the courageous. And the Pathans are more brave and courageous than the Hindus. That is the reason why the Pathans were able to remain non-violent.”
Political Views: Elections and Referendum
As the election time was getting close, Ghaffar Khan refused to take part in the elections and Gandhi agreed with him on it. The issue of the election in 1946 was; India or Pakistan, Hindu or Muslim, Islam or disbelief, temple or mosque. Unlike the other Muslims in India, however, the Pathans were politically awake, they had perception and nobody could mislead them in the name of Islam as they knew the real meaning of Islam because they had learnt this in their nationalist movement and to make sacrifices to serve their country. Nowhere else in India had the Muslims participated in this kind of Nationalist movement ever. Ghaffar Khan was intelligent enough to see through the tactics played by the British and Muslim league who did not like the Pathans for their steadfastly standing up against them.
Khan also knew that this was a tactical cruel move by Muslim League that had already bathed the country in blood; waiting to see what the Pathan would do now and in choosing to boycott the referendum, Ghaffar Khan and his Khidmatgar’s decided with their heart, since they did not want innocent Pathans to be butchered through instigated fights. Yet, the Pathans, the Khudai Khidmatgar’s chose to express their deep anguish in the only peaceful way they could, by boycotting. They remained steadfast in their path to follow Islam peacefully.
Ghaffar Khan married twice, once in 1912 and they got two sons, Ghani and Wali who later proved to be patriotic sons of Pakhtunistan. Six years after marriage his wife died and Khan got married again in 1920 and with her he got one son and one daughter. Unfortunately his second wife died in an accident in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Holy Harams and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Though he still was young and had four children, Khan was stricken with so much sorrow after his wife’s death that he never married again but dedicated his life to serve his country.
In 1985 he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. In 1987 he became the first person not holding the citizenship of India to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.
Khan and Gandhi worked in alliance until India gained independence in 1947 and nurtured deep love and respect for one another. On many occasions, when other members of the Indian National Congress disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi on any particular issue, Abdul Ghaffar Khan remained Gandhi’s strongest supporter.
Death of a hero
After India’s independence, the Pakistani government kept Ghaffar Khan in jail for 15 years in inhuman conditions that destroyed his health but never his spirit. He had to sit in his cell alone without any company and never got a proper medical care.
At the same time, the Pakistani government destroyed the Khudai Khidmatgar’s offices, murdered thousands of them, tortured them in a very inhuman ways in prisons, shaved half of their beard and mustache, dishonored their women and shut down the Pakhtun newspaper.
In the end when Ghaffar Khan became dangerously ill in prison, he was finally released. His doctor advised him to travel to London but the weather there was against him so they decided to go to America, but Pakistani government ensured that the American embassy denied him visa. Ghaffar Khan then decided to travel to Afghanistan and spent his days in Kabul and Jalalabad.
He traveled back to India after 22 years for Gandhi’s centenary celebration in 1969 and then for a last time in 1987 for a treatment. Tragically he had a heart attack and went into a coma. Ghaffar Khan never woke up after that. Upon his death in 1988, he was buried in Jalalabad after his will. Despite the heavy fighting at the time between the Afghans and Soviet Union, both sides declared a ceasefire to allow his burial.
This great man, who held no post, had the power to make one of the world’s most powerful nations, Russia, to call a ceasefire, the highest officials of nations and governments paid their respects. Even in his death, he remained the King of Kings. What can we learn from Abdul Ghaffar Khan? He was a man that was steadfast and never gave up on his dream and vision. He lived true to his principles till the day he died. Even though India got its independence day, not every region got its freedom, liberty and justice. How can the violence that was done be ignored? The genocide and the betrayal of the freedom fighters cannot be ignored nor forgotten.
I have one great desire; I want to rescue these gentle, brave, patriotic people from the tyranny of the foreigners who have disgraced and dishonored them. I want to create for them a world of freedom, where they can live in peace, where they can laugh and be happy.
I want to kiss the ground where their ruined homes once stood, before they were destroyed by savage strangers. I want to take a broom and sweep the alleys and the lanes, and I want to clean their houses with my own hands.
I want to wash the stains of blood from their garments.
I want to show the world how beautiful they are, these people from the hills, and then I want to proclaim: “Show me, if you can, any gentler, more courteous, more cultured people than these.”
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan