The even greater relevance of Frontier Gandhi and ‘Khudai Khidmatgars’ today
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose birth anniversary is being observed on Feb 6, continues to be relevant for this age and time when petty sectarian conflicts threaten peace and stability of South Asia
A legacy of the freedom movement in India remains the enduring importance of inter-faith harmony, important for peace, stability and prosperity. Some of our greatest leaders, each with a following of millions in an age when there was no social media or TV, were able to create a consensus on basic issues of enduring importance. One of these related to inter-faith harmony.
Mahatma Gandhi, Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan), Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were the most important pillars of this inter-faith harmony. Subhas Chandra Bose was another staunch pillar of inter-faith harmony, which was so visible in the Azad Hind Fauj he mobilized. Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were known for their firm opposition to communalism and sectarianism. They understood that inter-faith conflicts could cause enormous distress and destruction.
Some of these leaders did not engage very actively with religion. However, Mahatma Gandhi, while accepting the secular role of state, felt religion could play a positive role among masses and prepare a stronger base to achieve desirable socio-economic objectives. In the local context he put more emphasis on Hindu-Muslim unity as a base of national progress, and Badshah Khan was the leader who came closest to him in this approach.
Badshah Khan (also called Frontier Gandhi) was very close to Mahatma Gandhi, and they both acknowledged they were inspired by each other. Badshah Khan formed an organization, largely composed of Pashtuns, called Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God).
Although Pashtuns were known as people prone to violence, thousands of Khudai Khidmatgars in and around Peshawar, during the 1930s, presented one of the noblest examples of non-violent resistance to colonial rule and its atrocities, so much so that Gandhi considered his visits there to be like pilgrimages.
If minorities like Hindus or Sikhs were threatened, the Khudai Khidmatgars took great risks to protect them. When Hindu soldiers led by Chandra Singh Garhwali were asked to open fire on Khudai Khidmatgars by colonial rulers, they refused to do so, instead accepting imprisonment for several years for this refusal.
Such inspiring examples of inter-faith harmony were repeatedly witnessed during the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Leaders like Maulana Azad close to him presented interpretations of Islam and the Koran, which were very much in keeping with this spirit of harmony and peace.
Colonial powers saw this growing unity as a threat to their rule and went all out to promote leaders who had a sectarian and divisive agenda. Hence during the critical phase of the Second World War, support of the government was extended to leaders and forces who wanted to create divisions and conflict among various religious communities of India. This paved the way for the tragic partition of the country, that led to millions killed and uprooted.
Thus, the great Gandhian project of inter-faith harmony got badly disrupted due to factors beyond his control. But he continued to urge people not to be distracted by occasional references to violence in religious texts, saying that these need to be seen in a specific context and not as a general guidance.
He also urged people to form an understanding of other faiths on the basis of the perspective of devotees of those faiths, to have an attitude of understanding and an open mind. At the same time, he said, narrow interpretations should not be allowed to obstruct progress, harmony and justice in present times.
Badshah Khan remained a living embodiment of this thinking of Gandhi for a long time after the Mahatma left us. Even in very adverse conditions imposed by Pakistani authorities, he continued to attract millions of followers with his message of peace, justice and harmony. He combined this with an abiding and in fact growing concern for social and economic justice.
This came out when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went out of her way to invite him to come to India in his late years, to address the Indian Parliament and people who were missing his benevolent presence. He spoke passionately about inter-faith harmony as well as about social and economic justice. It was a great learning to see that despite the several years spent in Pakistani prisons (preceded by colonial regime’s imprisonments), he avoided bitterness and spoke with great kindness. His simplicity was even a step ahead of Mahatma Gandhi.
The present generation owes it to the legacy of such great leaders to strive relentlessly to create a South Asia based on their great vision of inter-faith harmony and socio-economic justice.
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine (Gandhian Ideas for Our Times)