In present times, when intolerance and violence seek to take deep roots in our society, the teachings of Abdul Ghaffar Khan are more relevant than ever. He was born on February 6, 1890 in the Northwest border city of Utmanzai, located in today’s Pakistan. His father was a Pathan tribal chief.
In early age, he inclined towards activism of eradicating poverty and spreading education. He realised quick that the British Raj treats their community as a second class citizen. Frontier Gandhi began his political activism in 1919 by protesting the Rowlatt Act. It was at this time that he met Gandhi. In the following year, he also joined the Khilafat movement, a campaign launched by Muslims of India to influence the British government not to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate.
In 1921, he was made the president of a district Khilafat committee in his native North-West Frontier Province. He played a prominent role in the formation of ‘Anjuman-e-Islāh-e Afghānia’ (Afghan Reform Society) and the youth movement in 1927. In 1929, Khan Saab organized the Pathans with red uniforms – they were called the Red Shirts movement, popularly known as Khudai Khidmatgar. It envisaged a non-violent nationalist movement in support of Indian independence and tried to mobilize Pashtun political consciousness.
He attended the Karachi session of the Congress in 1930, by which time he had become a close comrade of Gandhi. The Khudai Khidmatgar actively supported the Congress’ action for independence. On April 23, 1930, he called a mass meeting of people to act on civil disobedience and they marched to Peshawar.
On the way, Khan Saab was arrested and put in the Hazaribagh jail in Bihar. Once he was freed from jail, he went to the Sabarmati Ashram. When Gandhi found out Khan Saab had lost too much weight, he thought of allowing meat on the ashram grounds, for him to recover from his weakness, but Khan Saab was reluctant to accept this offer.
Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a staunch believer in a united India, but he rejected the partition plan because he felt he should not be part of creating a country based on religion. He was also afraid of Pashtun autonomy because he had a hunch his community would victimise the Punjabis and others. Subsequently, Khan Saab put forth the idea of an autonomous Pashtunistan within the federation of Pakistan but this was not accepted.
He continued his activism and was arrested several times between 1948 and 1956 for his opposition of the one unit scheme which sought to merge the four provinces of West Pakistan into a single province. He visited India on the occasion of the centenary celebration of Indian National Congress in 1985, along with Wali Khan and his grandson Zulfiqar Ali Khan. Later, he was honoured with India’s highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna. He was the first non-Indian to receive this honour.
A true world citizen, he passed away on January 20, 1988.
In the current global atmosphere, not only South Asia but the world can draw a lesson from him, particularly the Muslim world. I have seen there is a non-recognition of Muslim social leaders like him by the community itself. I can see a lot of strength and energy one can draw from the life and actions of Khan Saab. His philosophy is based on service and compassion for humanity.
Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai described him long time back, “I have the privilege of having a number of Muslim friends, true as steel and ready to sacrifice their all for Hindu-Muslim unity, but I do not yet know one who is greater than or even equal to Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan in the transparent and the ascetic severity of his life, combined with extreme tenderness and living faith in God.”