Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Anunfeigned servant of mankind

The liberal lion’s mighty roar might have fallen silent, but his dream shall never die. He belongs to each of us, and now he also belongs to the ages.

by Anwar A. Khan

There prodigious leaders who have been hailed from all over the world, of which some towering exemplaintroit Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, Prof Muzaffar Ahmed and Comrade Moni Singh… from Bangladesh, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan from Pakistan, Mohandas Gandhi from India, Baha’u’llah from Persia, Martin Luther King Jr. from America, the Dalai Lama from Tibet, Nelson Mandela from South Africa. But one of the humanity’s brightest lights went out on 20 January 1988 at the age of 98. He is Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a blanked-out politician of perfect finesse of South East Asia.

Khan with Gandhi  

He was born on 6 February 1890. Being a secular Muslim, he did not believein religious cleavages. American president, Calvin Coolidge, once said, “A nation that forgets its heroes will itself soon be forgotten.” When we look back at our history, almost every country in the world has undergone some bod of extraneousmilitary control, colonisation, monumentalferocity and bloodbathmerelygrounded on regional, religious or spiritual, ethnic, or racial contravene. 

And while most of the leaders, who have led such warfare and occupations, have been tearing and despotic, there have also been a few, very few, leaders who have gone against the status quo, and only believed in and flackedpassive resistance. In the present times, when unwillingness to recognise and respect differences in opinions or beliefs and furiousness seek to arrogateinscrutableetyma in our bon ton, this King Khan’s (Bacha Khan) didacticisms are to a greater extentgermane than ever.

The liberal lion’s mighty roar might have fallen silent, but his dream shall never die. He belongs to each of us, and now he also belongs to the ages. No words can ever do justice to this irrepressible, larger than life presence who was simply the best; the best non-violent politician; the best advocate you could ever hope for; and the best person to stand by your side in the toughest of times. He will also be remembered, by those who knew him, as an extremely warm and caring human being whose service was a brilliant reflection of his love and devotion to general people. 

We will always be grateful for the many gestures of kindness and generosity he extended to us during our glorious Liberation War in 1971, for the concern he showed for all of us, and for his devotion to all those in need whose lives were better because he stood up for them. From Kabul, at the age of 81, he strongly raised his voice almost every day against the devilish Pakistani regime and their brutal acts carried on us. We used to hear his statements condemning the unrighteous dissembles of President Yahya Khan Military Junta through Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Akashbani Radio and BBC news media. This very upright and elderly politician was deeply saddened to hear what magnitude of evil acts was going on in the soil of Bangladesh in 1971 using the name of our holy religion-Islam, by the diabolical Pakistani mass killers.

He was larger than life, and his passing has left an enormous hole in all peace-loving people’s hearts. He had offer comforting words, a hand on the shoulder, a listening ear. His loss is humanity’s loss, indeed. Pope Francis in one of his Christmas messages, mentioned three icons of peace and non-violence from the 20th century; Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (popularly known as Bacha Khan). He was a political and spiritual leader known for his nonviolent opposition, and a lifelong pacifist and devout Muslim. A close friend of Mohandas Gandhi, Bacha Khan was nicknamed the “Frontier Gandhi” in British India. Bacha Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (“Servants of God”) movement in 1929, whose success triggered a harsh crackdown by the British Empire against him and his supporters, and they suffered some of the most severe repression of the Indian independence movement.

Khan strongly opposed the All-India Muslim League’s demand for the partition of India. When the Indian National Congress declared its acceptance of the partition plan without consulting the Khudai Khidmatgar leaders, he felt very sad. After partition, he pledged allegiance to Pakistan and demanded an autonomous “Pashtunistan” administrative unit within the country, but he was frequently arrested by the Pakistani government between 1948 and 1954. The Khudai Khidmatgar was founded on a belief in the power of Gandhi’s notion of Satyagraha, a form of active non-violence as captured in an oath. He told its members: “I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.” 

Ghaffar Khan forged a close, spiritual, and uninhibited friendship with Gandhi, the pioneer of non-violent mass civil disobedience in India. The two had a deep admiration towards each other and worked together closely till 1947. But the Congress party refused last-ditch compromises to prevent the partition, like the Cabinet Mission plan and Gandhi’s suggestion to offer the Prime Ministership to Jinnah. As a result, Ghaffar Khan and his followers felt a sense of betrayal by both Pakistan and India. Ghaffar Khan’s last words to Gandhi and his erstwhile allies in the Congress party were: “You have thrown us to the wolves.”

He is credited with his tireless advocacy of peace in the region he belonged to. He held liberal views and championed for women’s rights which made him much popular among the masses. He was strongly against the partition of India and dreamed of creating a united, independent and secular India. 

His passion towards education, for both girls and boys, and the creation of schools in villages especially created quite a melee; his work was not seen as positive reinforcement but taken instead as ‘rebellion’ – an opposition. And, yet, despite being constantly persecuted, Bacha Khan incessantly defied their ill-intentions and retaliated with selfless devotion and preaching of nonviolence. Khan is his own unique person and should never have to be referred to or viewed in someone else’s shadow. Though he and Gandhi shared similar visions, they were undoubtedly two quite distinct individuals. 

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan –or Badshah Khan or Bacha Khan, as he is lovingly known, he was a towering figure in Indian, and later Pakistani, history. He was punished by the British for demanding freedom from foreign rule. After independence, he was punished in the new state of Pakistan for questioning its elites and their policies. The Frontier Gandhi had embraced the philosophy of non-violence. It accused Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of disloyalty to Pakistan. It is a tragedy that this great freedom fighter spent more time in prison in the independent state of Pakistan than he had even under British rule. 

He said, “Every religion that has come into the world has brought the message of love and brotherhood. And those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, those hearts are empty of love, those who do not know the meaning of brotherhood, those who harbour hatred and resentment in their hearts, they do not know the meaning of Religion.” He was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1967. He was also awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 1987, making him the first non-Indian to receive this honour. We live in times fraught with intolerance and bigotry. The life and teachings of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan seem more relevant than ever before. The Great Human of the World…We salute him. I take this opportunity to salute the memory of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his followers.

Bangladesh honoured Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan like humanist posthumously with friends-liberation-war-award for his contributions to the 1971 Liberation War. Once he said, “I hereby affirm, and publish for all the world to witness, my moral opposition to the use of violence to settle disputes. Consequently, I refuse to participate in, or cooperate with, any group, organization, or agency of government that would require me to engage in any act of violence against a fellow human being. Furthermore, I hereby pledge and affirm, from this day forward, to organize my life and livelihood in such a way as to promote peacemaking as a practical ideal.” Ghaffar Khan or “Bacha Khan” (meaning “King Khan” in Pashto) was one of the pillars of Indian resistance against the British, who continuously fought against injustice and worked for social uplift. 

In the present times, when intolerance and violence seek to take deep roots in our society and country, Khan’s teachings and life remain more relevant than ever before. He was a strong votary of the idea that change need not come from the barrel of the gun, it can start from within too. It is about time the world learns from the struggles of this great man. Abdul Ghaffar was the product of a particular society. If studied in this perspective, one can imagine that his mission was not easy, simple and indulgent, and that his achievements were much more significant than his contemporaries who had risen out of enlightened societies. 

Leaders normally stand out on the pedestal of their society. Those leaders are seldom born who raise their society from the ignominious depths of ignorance and obscurity to the heights of enlightenment and glory. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was one of the rare breeds of leaders. He blew new life in the dormant people heretofore groaning under the burden of the worst type of feudalism. It was his stamina, struggles, patience, devotion and determined tolerance in the face of suffering that lifted Pukhtuns from the lowest level of serfdom to the high status of nationhood. That was the reason that not only the British and later Pakistani rulers opposed him tooth and nail, but also the feudal lords and parasitic clergy. Therefore, his name will glitter eternally through the pages of the world history.

When upheavals bubbled in Bangladesh after the general elections of the-then Pakistan in 1970 because of mischievous and loathsome acts by Yahya Khan military junta, Bacha Khan offered his services for mediation. He was then in Kabul and proposed to the Pakistani regime that he would go back to Pakistan to lead a Jirga of a few elders from Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan to meet the Pakistan’s majority party leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and settle the contravention through negotiations, but there was no response from them. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party and Qayum Khan of the Muslim League, supported by some Army officers, were determined to grab power, although the majority had voted for the Awami Leauge of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib. Jamaat-e- Islami exploited the Urdu speaking community of Indian refugees and the Bangla-speaking Pakistanis formed al-Badr and al-Shams killing squads and carried out genocide murdering 3 million unarmed people, raping three hundred thousand of our sisters and mothers and displaced one million of our people. When all these strategies failed to cow down Mujib, Pakistan Army launched an operation in the-then East Pakistan. What then happened is an open secret.

Bacha Khan repeated his proposal that Pakistan should not use force there and try to settle the matter through negotiations. During discussion, Bacha Khan mentioned that there were some selfish people who did not like peace in the country. He used to say “The selfish has no sight!” It means that selfish people are driven so rashly by their selfish designs that they do not see the gloom and doom ahead. He had spent 30 years of his life in prison, and fought against oppression, intolerance and violence for more than 70 years.

Those leaders are seldom born who raise their society from the ignominious depths of ignorance and obscurity to the heights of enlightenment and glory. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was one of the rare breeds of leaders. Bacha Khan was too big a stalwart of peace, non-violence and freedom movements to remain obscure forever. Although he had never personally held the reins of power, but when he died on January 20, 1988 national flags in three countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India were brought to half-mast to mourn his death, their mutual differences notwithstanding. Heads of all the three countries were present at different stages of his funeral.

He was a man with no lust, no greed, no hatred, and no violence. His life was dedicated only for people’s welfare irrespective of religions. He is truly the Light Bearers of this planet. He kept glowing from his true being. It is awe-inspiring to hear of a human that is still not living the life that the creator gave to us all in these troubled times. He was taller than six feet, but his heart was larger than his height. He is a very inspired and loving human that resounds with my heart. His statements marked by firm determination or resolution condemning the brutal Pakistani forces and their local cohorts applied on our people; his deep love for the suffering people and to close off all atrocities to us in 1971 war in no time in Bangladesh which were relayed through Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Akashbani Radio, BBC radio, VOA… almost on daily basis, are still ringing into my ears.

-The End –

The writer is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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