Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

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Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
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Ghaffar Khan with Mahatma Gandhi‎

Leader of the non-violent independence movement in British India's Northwest Frontier, known as the Frontier Gandhi.
Alternate name(s): Badshah Khan
Place of birth: Utmanzai, Charsadd], British India
Place of death: Peshawar, Pakistan
Movement: Indian Independence Movement
Major organizations: Khudai Khidmatgar, National Awami Party

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Pashto/Urdu: فخر افغان خان عبد الغفار خان/خان عبدالغفار خان) (c. 1890 – January 20, 1988) was a Pashtun Indian political and spiritual leader known for his non-violent opposition to British Rule in India. A lifelong pacifist, a devout Muslim,[1] and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he was also known as Badshah Khan (also Bacha Khan, Urdu ("King of Chiefs")), and Sarhaddi Gandhi ("Frontier Gandhi"). In 1985, he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. In 1987, he became the first non-citizen to be awarded India's highest civilian award (Bharat Ratna).


Early years

Ghaffar Khan was born into a generally peaceful and prosperous family from Charsadda, in the Peshawar Valley. His father, Behram Khan, was a land owner, farmer, and the chief of the Mohammedzais ("sons of Mohamed") tribe of the Pashtun (Pathan) people. Ghaffar was the second son of Behram to attend the British run Edward's mission school—an unusual arrangement since it was discouraged by the local mullahs. At school, the young Ghaffar did well in his studies and was inspired by his mentor Reverend Wigram to see the importance of education in service to the community. In his tenth and final year of high school, he was offered a highly prestigious commission in The Guides, an elite corp of Pashtun soldiers of the British Raj. Ghaffar refused the commission after realising even Guide officers were still second-class citizens in their own country. He resumed his intention of University study and Reverend Wigram offered him the opportunity to follow his brother, Khan Sahib, to study in London. While he eventually received the permission of his father, Ghaffar's mother was not willing to lose another son to London along with his culture and religion as the mullahs warned her. Thus, Ghaffar began working on his father's lands while attempting to discern what more he might do with his life.

Ghaffar "Badshah" Khan

Bacha Khan leads Mahajireen to Kabul. Peshawar Street 1920 (Mela Ram & Sons)

In response to his inability to continue his own education, Ghaffar Khan turned to helping others start theirs. Like many such regions of the world, the strategic importance of the newly formed North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as a buffer for the British Raj from Russian influence was of little benefit to its residents. The oppression of the British, the repression of the mullahs, and an ancient culture of violence and vendetta prompted Ghaffar to want to serve and uplift his fellow men and women by means of education. At 20 years of age, Ghaffar opened his first school in Utmanzai. It was an instant success and he was soon invited into a larger circle of progressively minded reformers.

While he faced much opposition and personal difficulties, Ghaffar Khan worked tirelessly to organize and raise the consciousness of his fellow Pushtuns. Between 1915 and 1918, he visited every one of the 500 settled districts of the Frontier. It was in this frenzied activity that he had come to be known as Badshah (Bacha) Khan (King of Chiefs).

He married his first wife Meharqanda in 1912; she was a daughter of Yar Mohammad Khan of the Kinankhel clan of the Mohammadzai tribe of Razzar, a village adjacent to Utmanzai. They had a son in 1913, Abdul Ghani Khan, who would become a noted artist and poet. Subsequently, they had another son, Abdul Wali Khan (17 January 1917-), and daughter, Sardaro. Meharqanda died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In 1920, Abdul Ghaffar Khan remarried; his new wife, Nambata, was a cousin of his first wife and the daughter of Sultan Mohammad Khan of Razzar. She bore him a daughter, Mehar Taj (25 May 1921-), and a son, Abdul Ali Khan (20 August 1922 – 19 February 1997). Tragically, in 1926 Nambata died early as well from a fall down the stairs of the apartment tin which they were staying.[2]

Khudai Khidmatgar

In time, Ghaffar Khan's goal came to be the formulation of a united, independent, secular India. To achieve this end, he founded the Khudai Khidmatgar ("Servants of God"), commonly known as the "Red Shirts" (Surkh Posh), during the 1920s.

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.[3]

The organization recruited over 100,000 members and became legendary in opposing (and dying at the hands of) the British-controlled police and army. Through strikes, political organization and non-violent opposition, the Khudai Khidmatgar were able to achieve some success and came to dominate the politics of the North West Frontier Province. His brother, Dr. Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan (known as Dr. Khan Sahib), led the political wing of the movement, and was the Chief Minister of the province (from the late 1920s until 1947 when his government was dismissed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League).

Relationship with the Indian National Congress

Ghaffar Khan forged a close, spiritual, and uninhibited friendship with Mahatma 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.

The Khudai Khidmatgar agitated and worked cohesively with the Indian National Congress, the leading national organization fighting for freedom, of which Ghaffar Khan was a senior and respected member. On several occasions when the Congress seemed to disagree with Gandhi on policy, Ghaffar Khan remained his staunchest ally. In 1931, the Congress offered him the presidency of the party, but he refused saying, "I am a simple soldier and Khudai Khidmatgar, and I only want to serve."[4] He remained a member of the Congress Working Committee for many years, resigning only in 1939 because of his differences with the Party's War Policy. He rejoined the Congress Party when the War Policy was revised.

On April 23, 1930, Ghaffar Khan was arrested during protests arising out of the Salt Satyagraha. A crowd of Khudai Khidmatgar gathered in Peshawar's Kissa Khwani (Storytellers) Bazaar. The British ordered troops to open fire with machine guns on the unarmed crowd, killing an estimated 200-250.[5] The Khudai Khidmatgar members acted in accord with their training in non-violence under Ghaffar Khan, facing bullets as the troops fired on them.[6]

Ghaffar Khan was a champion of women's rights and nonviolence. He became a hero in a society dominated by violence; notwithstanding his liberal views, his unswerving faith and obvious bravery led to immense respect. Throughout his life, he never lost faith in his non-violent methods or in the compatibility of Islam and nonviolence. He viewed his struggle as a jihad with only the enemy holding swords. He was closely identified with Gandhi and he is known in India as the `Frontier Gandhi'.

"O Pathans! Your house has fallen into ruin. Arise and rebuild it, and remember to what race you belong."—Ghaffar Khan[7]

The Partition

Ghaffar Khan strongly opposed the Partition of India. While many Pashtuns (particularly the Red Shirts) were willing to work with Indian politicians, some Pashtuns desired independence from both India and the newly created state of Pakistan following the departure of the British. Targeted with being Anti-Muslim, Ghaffar was attacked by fellow Muslims in 1946, leading to his hospitalization in Peshawar.[8]

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 Bacha Khan and his followers felt a sense of betrayal by both Pakistan and India. Bacha Khan's last words to Gandhi and his erstwhile allies in the Congress party were: "You have thrown us to the wolves."[9]

When given a choice between Pakistan and India, most voters chose Pakistan by a margin of 9 to 1 in 1947. A loya jirga in the Tribal Areas garnered a similar result as most preferred to become part of Pakistan. Khan asked his supporters to boycott the polls.

In February 1948, Khan took the oath of allegiance to the new nation of Pakistan. Shortly afterwards he addressed the Pakistan constituent assembly and announced his support for Pakistan, while at the same time his Khudai Khidmatgar movement pledged allegiance to Pakistan and severed all links to the Congress Party.

Arrest and exile

Under the new Pakistani government, Ghaffar Khan was under house arrest without charge from 1948 till 1954. Released from prison he gave a speech again on the floor of the constituent assembly, this time condemning the massacre of his supporters at Babra Sharif.

"I had to go to prison many a time in the days of the Britishers. Although we were at loggerheads with them, yet their treatment was to some extent tolerant and polite. But the treatment which was meted out to me in this Islamic state of ours was such that I would not even like to mention it to you."[10]

Despite his bitterness at his treatment he confounded his opponents and Indian supporters, who had long agitated for Ghaffar Khan's release, when to cheering crowds he supported Pakistan's claim to the disputed territory of Kashmir and went on to claim that he had twice offered his services in Kashmir on Pakistan's behalf.[11]

In early 1956, he broke with his brother Dr. Khan Sahib and merged his group with leftist and Nationalist parties from other provinces forming the National Awami Party.

As part of his new party he actively campaigned against the formation of a single province in West Pakistan, despite appeals to the government to drop his opposition and serve the government as part of a national village aid programme.[12]

Re-arrested in 1956 for his opposition to the One Unit scheme, he remained in prison till 1959. Upon being released he went into exile in Kabul. In 1969, he was invited to India to attend the 100th birthday of Gandhi, his first visit after independence.

In 1962, Abdul Ghaffar Khan was named an "Amnesty International Prisoner of the Year." Amnesty's statement about him said, "His example symbolizes the suffering of upward of a million people all over the world who are in prison for their conscience."

His autobiography, My life and struggle: Autobiography of Badshah Khan, was published in 1969.

He visited India and participated in the centenary celebrations of the Indian National Congress in 1985; he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, in 1987.

Ghaffar Khan died in Peshawar under house arrest in 1988 and was buried in Jalalabad according to his wishes. Although he had been repeatedly imprisoned and persecuted, tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral, marching through the historic Khyber Pass from Peshawar to Jalalabad. A cease fire was announced in the Afghan Civil War to allow the funeral to take place, even though it was marred by bomb explosions killing 15.[13]

Political legacy

His eldest son Ghani Khan was a poet. Another son Khan Wali Khan is the founder and leader of the Awami National Party and was the Leader of the Opposition in the Pakistan National Assembly. His third son Ali Khan was non-political and a distinguished educator, and served as Vice-Chancellor of University of Peshawar. Ali Khan was also the head of Aitchison College, Lahore and Fazle Haq college, Mardan.

Portrayal in film

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was briefly portrayed by Dilsher Singh in Richard Attenborough's 1982 epic Gandhi.


Ghaffar Khan's involvement in the politics of Partition was highly controversial in Pakistan. His family's close association with the Indian National Congress and Gandhi, in particular, led to him being viewed with suspicion by many in the Pakistan's political establishment. During the 1940s, he was strongly against the partition of the subcontinent and the creation of a Muslim homeland of Pakistan. Consequently, he was heavily criticized following 1947 in his native Pakistan for being anti-Pakistan.

His own political programme was also sometimes viewed as confusing and ambiguous, a fact pointed out by many critics[14] including his son, who was critical of the policy of non-violence in the face of so much government oppression.[15]


  1. Talbot, Phillips. An American Witness to India’s Partition. Sage Publications, 2007. ISBN 9780761936183
  2. Kyber Gateway.
  3. Nonviolence in the Islamic Context by Mohammed Abu Nimer, 2004 Retrieved June 7, 2008.
  4. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Sunday Tribune: The Tribune India, Sunday March 5, 2000 Retrieved June 7, 2008.
  5. Habib, p. 56.
  6. Johansen, p. 62.
  7. Eknath Easwaran, A Man to Match his Mountains: Bacha Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam (Nilgiri Press, Petaluma, 1984), 25.
  8. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, A Follower of Gandhi, January 21, 1988, New York Times.
  9. Pakistan: Partition and Military Succession Documents from the U.S. National Archives Retrieved June 7, 2008.
  10. Badshah Khan, Budget session of Assembly on March 20, 1954.
  11. The Frontier Gandhi, TIME Magazine, Monday, Jan. 18, 1954.
  12. Old episode recalled by Syed Afzaal Husain Zaidi DAWN newspaper 9-28-2005. Retrieved December 21, 2006.
  13. January 23, 1988 edition of the New York Times Retrieved June 7, 2008.
  14. Adeel Khan, Pakhtun Ethnic Nationalism From Separation to Integration (University of New England, Armidale, Australia) Asian Ethnicity, Volume 4, Number 1, February 2003 (Carfax Publishing: Taylor & Francis Group).
  15. Ghani Khan Interview. Available at Harrapa Retrieved June , 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Eknath Easwaran 1999. Non-violent soldier of Islam: Ghaffar Khan: a man to match his mountains. Nilgiri Press, Tomales, CA. ISBN 1-888314-00-1
  • Gandhi, Rajmohan. 2004. Ghaffar Khan: non-violent Badshah of the Pakhtuns. Viking, New Delhi. ISBN 0-670-05765-7
  • Habib, Irfan. "Civil Disobedience 1930-31" Social Scientist Vol. 25 No. 9–10 (Sept.–Oct. 1997 ) pp. 43–66
  • Johansen, Robert C. 1997. Radical Islam and Nonviolence: A Case Study of Religious Empowerment and Constraint Among Pashtuns. Journal of Peace Research 34 (1): pp. 53–71.
  • Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. 1969. My life and struggle: Autobiography of Badshah Khan (as narrated to K.B. Narang). Translated by Helen Bouman. Hind Pocket Books, New Delhi.
  • Lal Puri, Girdhari. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: A True Servant of Humanity, pp 188-190.
  • Mukulika Banerjee. 2000. Pathan Unarmed: Opposition & Memory in the North West Frontier. School of American Research Press. ISBN 0-933452-68-3
  • Pilgrimage for Peace: Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi Among N.W.F. Pathans. Pyarelal Nayyar, Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1950.
  • Tah Da Qam Da Zrah Da Raza. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Mardan [NWFP] Ulasi Adabi Tolanah, 1990.
  • Thrown to the Wolves: Abdul Ghaffar. Pyarelal, Calcutta, Eastlight Book House, 1966.

External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


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