Badshah Khan – The Frontier Gandhi

KhanKhan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890 – 1988)

Ghaffar Khan became known as Badshah Khan, or “King of Chiefs”, out of the deep affection and reverence he inspired in his people.  Khan was born in the Pakthun region of what was then Colonial British territory and is now Pakistan.

Badshah was a passionate believer in the nonviolent core of Islam. He was a devote Muslim all his life and was courageous in his own interpretation of scripture.

“It is my inmost conviction that Islam is amal, yakeen, huhabat – selfless service, faith and love.”

Badshah Khan was a leader of the nonviolent resistance to British rule alongside his dear friend Mahatma Gandhi6a01053603aa25970c01a3fcafffaa970b.  They both believed in Hindu-Muslim unity and saw the commonalities of love, compassion and peace in all religions.  He raised the Khudai Khidmatgars, a nonviolent army of ‘Servants of God’ to gain independence from British rule and work for social justice, service to humanity and peace.

This Muslim from the Pakhtun region of the Frontier accomplished something truly amazing. In an area where no one thought nonviolence could take hold, where most men carry firearms and revenge and blood-feud was still regarded as a Nv-army-gray_BG-615x522sacred duty – he was able to start a nonviolent army of Servants of God through his leadership and linking nonviolence to Islam. He forged a policy of peace in the midst of a violent culture.

“No word means more to a Pakhtun than honor so I will harness this honor and show my people that real honor and freedom lie in the power of nonviolence.”

Throughout his life he insisted that the Prophet’s chief demand of a Muslim was the service of fellow human beings.

khanfromP094_BGHe loved his Pakhtuns even though he also saw them for who they were and worked to reform the code of revenge of his people. Yet he also worked alongside Hindus, Jews and Christians for the common good and for liberation from Imperial Britain. And he remained loyal to Indians, Afghans, Pakistanis and Bengals (despite their disloyalty to him). He cherished his region’s Buddhist history and thought “prayer in whatever language or form was addressed to one and the same God.”  

“In the name of religion, people are attacked, homes are looted, houses burned. The religion of God is Love. Real religion is service of humanity.”

Ghaffar Khan spent a full one third of his 98 years as a prisoner – 1 out of every 3 days of his life. He spent nearly 35 years in solitary confinement, prison or house arrest for his efforts to humanize humanity. Once when he was being arrested he smiled and said “What pleases God pleases me.” He embodied Islam’s fundamental tenet of submission to God’s will.

Badshah Khan (C), Mahatma Gandhi (L) and India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal NehruHe was also committed throughout his long life to speaking up to interpretations of Islam that fostered intolerance or violence and questioned Muslim voices that he felt were using religion for politics, money and power. He warned the Frontier region of the dangers of fanaticism and taught nonviolence, freedom and dignity for all peoples.

He was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, though never won. (In 1984 Archbishop Desmond Tutu won instead).

Badshah Kahn’s legacy might be of value in our polarized and angry times – both for the Muslim community and non-Muslims alike.

“My religion is truth, love and service to God and humanity. Every religion that has come into the world has brought the message of love and brotherhood. Those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, whose hearts are empty of love, they do not know the meaning of religion.”

imal-and-badshah-khanCurrent day Kundai Kitmatgars revival in India:

In 2009 in New Delhi, Faisal Kahn founded a new Khudai Khidmatgars based on the principles of Ghaffar Kahn. The opening dedications was held on Badshah Kahn’s death anniversary of Jan 20th, presided over by Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, Tara Gandhi.

They are dedicated to fight for the poor, for minimum wage, for women’s education, women’s rights and human rights in the Muslim community as well as all of India. It was started by a Muslim, but is building on the alliance between Badshah Kahn and Mahatma Gandhi, calling on Muslims and Hindus to work together for social justice, love and peace.

Faisal Kahn wanted to start a grass roots organization where Muslims would feel welcome and could become involved in social justice. Many don’t feel comfortable joining Hindu led organizations. Faisal has been criticized by Hindus for starting what they call a Muslim organization and by Muslims for working with the Hindus – which actually seems like a fitting tribute to Badshah Kahn’s memory.

Book coverSummary of Rajmohan Gandhi’s Biography of Badshah Khan:

Parts 1-3 coming soon.




Pakistan After Partition:

1893_00After partition, Ghaffar Khan did meet with Jinnah a few times, trying to get his support for Pakhtun autonomy within Pakistan as well as a more democratic and open government.

But, by April 1948, Abdul Qaiyum Khan had convinced Jinnah that the KK’s wanted to assassinate him and Jinnah turned against Kahn.

In a press statement Kahn criticized the new Pakistani government, comparing the Muslim League’s monopoly of the Pakistani government with the relative openness of the Indian cabinet, that included foes of the Congress Party. He also pointed out how India had already framed their constitution.

He toured and gave speeches to large crowds, saying that there was absolutely no difference between the Pakistan leaders and the British bureaucracy – pointing out that Jinnah was not an elected leader of the Muslim nation, that he had been appointed by the British King.

On June 15th, 1948, Badshah and his son Wali were arrested and charged with ‘sedition.’ Ten months after independence, he was sent to prison for a 3 year sentence. About a thousand KKs were also jailed.

August 12th, supporters gathered at a mosque in Babra village to pray for arrested relatives and friends, and police fired at hundreds of men and women. Official Pakistani news sited 15 killed, but KK sources put the death toll at 150 with 400 wounded. The Pakistani government dubbed the Pathans gathered as “Hindus” and dubbed the mosque a “Hindu mosque” (as if a mosque can be Hindu and as if massacring Hindus is ok?).

After the Babra massacre, Badshah’s brother, Dr. Khan Sahib, and his son Ghani were also arrested.

In Sept 1948, Jinnah died of illness at the age of 72.

In prison, Kahn was in solitary confinement. He was getting very ill from imprisonment. Once he nearly died and was saved by surgery in Lahore hospital. His new teeth that had been made for him in prison did not fit him and he had to eat all his food without teeth.  During his time in prison, the superintendent would ask him if he was interested in joining the Muslim League and Kahn always said no.

His 3 year sentence turned into 5 ½ years.  Each time his sentence was up his detention would be extended by another 6 months using the British Prison Regulation 1818 which allowed for “preventative detention” – basically stating that sometimes it might be necessary to detain someone even if there wasn’t sufficient evidence to even charge them with a crime.

bachasmddrDue to the political instability of the country, the government thought the Khan brothers might be useful – so in January 1954, Ghaffar Khan was released – conditionally, more or less under house arrest.

Ghaffar Khan remained true to his dream of Pakhtun unity.  His brother, Dr. Khan Sahib he was offered a role in the Frontier and accepted. Eventually he became the Chief Minister of West Pakistan.

Badshah continued speaking up for democracy and nonviolence. In a speech to the Constituent Assembly after his release, he said:

“You know that I have always been an adherent of nonviolence.  I regard nonviolence as love and violence as hate.  I have ever been a law-abiding citizen, and so I want that our country, Pakistan, too should be a peace-loving country.” 

During the East Pakistan riots, the West Pakistan government implemented a plan called “One Unit” – in essence dissolving all the separate provinces (Punjab, Frontier, etc) and forming all of West Pakistan into One Unit.  Dr. Khan Sahib supported it. Badshah Khan ardently opposed the plan.  When his brother and Izlander Mizra (last Governor General and first President), couldn’t persuade Badshah to support One Unit, it was once again declared that the Khudai Khidmatgars might again ‘endanger peace and order.’

On June 16, 1956 Ghaffar Khan was arrested again and charged with ‘inciting hatred against the government.’ At trial Khan stated:

“My Lord, had I desired to create hatred against the government, there was sufficient material for a revolt in the oppression to which my people have been subjected.  But I, on the contrary, have always preached the doctrine of nonviolence… We consider the Punjabis, Bengalis, Sindhis and Baluchis to be our Muslim and Pakistani brethren.”

On January 24th, 1957 Ghaffar Khan was found guilty but only sentenced “until the rising of the court” which meant his prison sentence was over as soon as the court convened that day.  He was also fined, and in refusing to pay the fine his property was seized.

Ghaffar Khan was not one to back down, and three days later, on January 27th he joined the newly formed Pakistan National Party, a coalition of 6 opposition parties. In July he and other opponents to the government formed the National Awami Party.

khan sahibIn July his brother, lost the election and was not reinstated as the Chief Minister. Less than a year later in May, 1958, Dr. Khan Sahib was knifed to death. The assailant was caught, tried and hanged, but his motive or co-conspirators were never brought to light.

President Mizra and the chief of the army, General Ayub Khan, saw the assassination as a confirmation of the sickness of Pakistani politics. On October 7th, President Mizra abrogated the constitution, dismissed central and provincial governments and proclaimed martial law. It didn’t take long for Ayub Khan to send two generals to the president’s house to obtain his resignation. Mizra went into exile in London and Ayub Khan replaced him as president.

October 11th Badshah Khan was again arrested along with hundreds of others. Jail conditions under a military dictatorship were much harsher than his previous experiences, and 6 months later he was released due to “his old age and indifferent health.”

This time he was patient for 2 years, but in March 1961 he started stirring things up again. Under military rule, he spoke in mosques, cited the Holy Book and spoke more indirectly, saying that Koran says God destroys those who are tyrannical.

Less than a month later, Khan was arrested again for ‘indulging in anti-State activities.’ Every 6 months, his detention was extended. At the end of 1962 Amnesty International named him ‘Prisoner of the Year’ and demanded his release.

He became alarmingly ill and finally in Jan 1964 he was released and instead put under house arrest – the government didn’t want him to die in prison.

He had spent 15 of Pakistan’s first 18 years in prison.


8 Years in Exile:      

Four months later, the Pakistani government allowed his family to take him to the UK for medical treatment. To Khan’s surprise, his former foe, the former Frontier Governor, Sir Olaf Caroe, took him in as his guest, allowed him to rest there and treated him with ‘genuine admiration.’

After his recovery in the UK he wanted to visit California – but the Pakistani government had communicated their disapproval to Washington and Khan was never granted a visa. Khan was told that he could only travel to Iran, Lebanon or Egypt. He went to Cairo and from there he disregarded the Pakistani governments orders and went to Kabul in Afghanistan.

afghanistan_sm01In Afghanistan he was greeted at the airport by the Prime Minister and given a hero’s welcome by thousands of people.

The Afghan government put him up as a state guest and he was free – he could meet with anyone, say anything. He could write letters and he also dictated an autobiography. Every day he had visitors and was surrounded by members of government, students, tribal chiefs and divines. Foreign ministers and politicians from India and other countries also visited him.

Some spread word that touching Badshah Khan or kissing his hand brought merit. He was treated as a saint – though he sharply protested these “false teachings.”

The Pakistani minister was trying to lure him back to Pakistan, but Badshah felt only lingering death in prison awaited him there. He worked for Pakhtun unity in Afghanistan, though the Afghani government was not really interested in Pakhtun autonomy as much as adjusting the Durand line in their favor – and they also didn’t want to anger the Pakistani government too much.

In 1969 Badshah Khan was invited to India for Gandhi’s birth centennial by the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He went to India for 4 months but he was shaken by the state of Indian Public life. He was blunt in his public addresses and criticisms of Indian government, as well as asking for democracy in Pakistan.

The Gandhi centenary also saw riots in India, including in Ahmedabad. For 3 days, Ghaffar Khan fasted for peace, then he went to Ahmedabad and expressed his disappointment for Hindus and Muslims not working together and when he later addressed the Parliament he said:

“Your revenue is from taxes and duties on liquor. You are forgetting Gandhi the way you forgot the Buddha. Your government does all the things that Gandhi opposed the British for doing. Gandhi helped us in every difficulty and ordeal. He replaced fear with courage in Indians and gave nonviolence to the whole world. By forgetting him we hurt ourselves, not him.”

khan painting

Despite his criticisms, the Indian government gave him honors and awards as well as funds (that he tried to use for his Pakhtun cause, but failed) and when he left, he thanked everyone saying “I am no friend if I offer false praise.”

When he returned to Afghanistan, the authorities gave him a small brick house in Jalalabad, which he made his home.

In 1970, more violence and bloodshed broke out in East Pakistan over their independence. Khan had always felt close to the Bengals, as well, and he sent an offer to the Pakistani government that he would return to Pakistan in order to negotiate a peaceful settlement with East Pakistan. He never got a reply and in 1971-72 Bangladesh emerged out of the conflict.


Disappointing Return to Pakistan & Last Years on Both sides of the Durand Line:  

After the secession of Bangladesh, Bhutto became the new ruler in Pakistan and the National Awami Party, led by Khan’s son Wali Khan, gained a few seats in the parliament.

Badshah KhanIn December 1972, after 8 years in exile, Badshah Khan returned to Pakistan with some hope, as military rule and the One Unit had ended. However, Bhutto dissolved or demanded the resignation of the provincial governments and after that both Badshah Khan and Wali Khan again spent long spells in prison or under house arrest.

In 1977 there was the Zia military takeover in Pakistan, and in 1978 Badshah Khan once again left for his Afghani home in Jalalabad. However, just weeks after his arrival, there was also a coup in Afghanistan which was followed by the Soviet intervention / invasion in 1979.

He was vehemently opposed to the Soviet occupation and asked Indira Gandhi to arrange a meeting for him with the Soviet ruler, Breshnev. Indira did not think the Soviet government would appreciate such a request, so she didn’t ask.

By March 1982, Ghaffar Khan’s health was failing and the Afghani government was afraid he would die in Kabul, giving the mujahedin a propaganda weapon. The Afghan’s pressed India to take Khan in for treatment. Indira invited him, but he said he would only accept the invitation if she arranged his meeting with Breshnev, so that he could tell the Soviet leader to show mercy to the Afghans. Otherwise, he said, he didn’t want to live.

Indira yielded and spoke to the Soviet Vice President, also asking how the Soviets intended to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets did not arrange for a meeting and in November Breshnev died.

khan01_smallIn the last 20+ years of his life, he moved between the Frontier in Pakistan and his home in Jalalabad as if the Durand line didn’t exist for him.

In the summer of 1983 he made a statement linking Zia’s Pakistan with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the 93 year old Badshah was again jailed. However, less than a year later he was back in his home in Jalalabad.

In 1987 he returned to India where the 97 year old was given the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civil award.

Later that year he suffered a stroke, and on January 20th 1988 he passed away in Utmanzai. He was 98.

He had asked his family to bury him in the garden of his Jalalabad home, and his wish was granted. (He had also asked that his home be converted to a school for orphaned or destitute Pakhtun girls, which doesn’t seem to have been honored).

In Afghanistan, both the Kabul government and the mujahedin agreed to a cease fire for his funeral.

Tens of thousands of the Frontier’s mourning accompanied the coffin from Pakistan to Afghanistan, across the Durand line. Tens of thousands more were waiting for them in Jalalabad.



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