Nonkilling Leadership Lessons from Abdul Ghaffar Khan

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Ghaffar Khan with Mahatma Gandhi, 1940.‎

This Course is based mainly on Professor Syed Sikander Mehdi's (University of Karachi) paper Building Nonkilling Muslim Societies: Relevance of Abdul Ghaffar Khan prepared for the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple, Honolulu, Hawai‛i, November 1-4, 2007. The Course is part of the Program on Nonkilling Leadership Development at the School of Nonkilling Studies.


Human killings in Muslim societies abound. Since the end of the Second World War and especially since the end of the Cold War, humans in these societies are being rou-tinely slaughtered and maimed by their own government forces, by the forces of the warlords and by foreign troops. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that more Mus-lims have been killed in wars, conflicts and violence in the post-Cold War era than the combined total of the non-Muslims killed during the same period. Furthermore, differ-ent kinds of killing are taking place. On the one hand, there is the murder of men, women and children through the direct use of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and several other Muslim societies, and on the other hand, there is the slow murder of the people because of unavailability of basic human facilities and denial of fundamental human rights. And killing of minds—a sort of genocide of human intellect and human spirit—has been going on in these societies and the world takes very little notice of it.

Worse still, the wholesale slaughter of humans and genocide of the mind and spirit in contemporary Muslim societies are being justified on one pretext or the other. While the powerful media and public opinion leaders including the clash theorists and policy-makers in the developed world are busy crafting arguments in support of demonizing, tribalizing and Red Indianizing the Muslims living in these societies, the Muslim socie-ties themselves are being driven to the ghettoes of exclusion and medieval caves by their tyrannical rulers and power elites and by the puritan Muslim protagonists bran-dishing swords in hands, while romanticizing bigotry and villainizing other faiths and cultures. Both justify human killing. Under these circumstances, is it possible to build up nonkilling, humanistic, progressive, democratic and enlightened Muslim societies? Can such a scheme of things fit into the nonkilling world of Glenn Paige? Can the re-publics of fear, humiliation and shame (what these Muslims states are in at the mo-ment) be transformed into republics of hope, pride, and peace? Answer to these and other related queries ask for visiting Paige’s nonkilling world.

Paige’s nonkilling world, one may point out here, is not a dream world; it is a world which can be real. It is a realizable world, but one has to have a new way of looking at things in order enter this world, to rediscover the culture of peace which was very much there in the different worlds in different eras, to go back to the campaigners of nonviolence, peace and nonkilling and listen to them and plunge into peace action. Likewise, nonkilling, humane, democratic and enlightened Muslim societies are possi-ble, but for this, the politics of the blame game has to be given up. Concerted and fo-cused efforts have to be made for qualitative political and social change. The peace he-roes of Islam and the Muslim societies must be rediscovered and their relevance for building nonkilling Muslim societies must be examined, assessed and appreciated.

It is in this context that this short essay touches upon certain unique features of Ghaffar Khan’s nonviolent struggle during British colonial rule in India and after parti-tion in Pakistan. It highlights the importance and relevance of his role and message for contemporary Muslim societies in particular.

Born in 1890 in Hashtnagar, now known as Asghatnager or “eight towns” in the vil-lage of Utmanzi, Ghaffar Khan is perhaps the greatest Pathan of all times. Undoubtedly he is the most prominent apostle of nonviolence after Gandhi in modern India and one of the outstanding nonviolent leaders of the twentieth century. However, awareness about his life, nonviolent struggle and sufferings is still rather limited and his remarkable contri-bution to peace is still widely unrecognized. It is only in recent years following the pro-tracted war and violence in Afghanistan after entry of Soviet troops in Kabul in December 1979—with unending upheavals and acts of terrorism, especially in the Pakhtun belt cut-ting across Afghan-Pakistan borders—that the post 9/11 panicky world is turning to him for salvation. Being alarmed because of the upsurge of Muslim anger and militancy around the world, the concerned power centers, leading international research institutes focusing on Islam, Muslim societies and terrorism and on peace and nonviolence in these societies in particular look at Ghaffar Khan as the saviour of the future.

Ghaffar Khan, son of Behram Khan, belonged to a very powerful and resourceful family of Utmanzai. He learnt the early lessons of history and politics from his father and learnt more from the narratives of the heroics of his forefathers. The very fact that his grandfather, Saifullah Khan, always sided with his oppressed brethren whenever the British had any clash with the tribes or tried to subjugate them had a profound impact upon him. What also made him proud and prepared him to endure all kinds of suffer-ings and not to compromise on principles was the shining example of his father’s grandfather, Obaidullah Khan, who was hanged by the Durranis, the rulers, for his enlightenment and patriotism.

Popularly known as Bach Khan, Ghaffar Khan entered the challenging world of nonviolent action at an early age and launched a fearless movement against the British colonizers. He traveled the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, addressed small groups and big crowds, took part in rallies and demonstrations, mobilized the masses on numerous occasions, and refused to be either purchased or intimidated by the colonial lords. He was frequently arrested, sent to jail or confined in his own house. After India’s partition in 1947, he was harassed, victimized, humiliated and arrested by successive Pakistani governments. The total number of years he spent in the British In-dian jails and Pakistani jails and in confinement at home is thirty long years, but he re-mained defiant and uncomprising on principles. Little wonder that he ruled over the minds and hearts of the Pathans and other freedom- and democracy-loving people in In-dia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. Even after his death, he continues to rule. Certain important features of his nonviolent struggle are:

­* Ghaffar Khan had a religious family background. He was a practicing Muslim, but he never hated other religions or the people of other faith. He used to read the Bible, Gita and Qur’an and even during the period when the area was in the grip of communal violence, he helped, assisted and guided the people of differ-ent religions and frequently went to the riot-torn areas to help the affected people. ­* He was never intimidated by the religious zealots. He condemned religious bigotry and always said that Islam is a religion of peace and humanism and the best way to serve Allah was to serve his people. ­* He was very critical of the bad traditions of the Pathan society and often rep-rimanded the Pathans for glorifying wars, fights and revenge. ­* He not only emphasized the importance of education for both men and women and for boys and girls, but also actively campaigned for opening schools in the villages and cities. ­* He was a champion of women’s rights and encouraged women to actively participate in political, social and economic activities. ­* He was a fearless freedom fighter and struggled all his life against all sorts of slaveries. He mobilized the great Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) force and trained them to wage their struggle nonviolently. ­* He was also an active campaigner for democracy and people’s rights. He de-manded equal opportunity for all and for equitable power and resources-sharing in the independent, sovereign state of Pakistan. ­* He was a people’s man. The people had full trust in him. They knew that he would not betray their cause and Bach Khan never betrayed their expectation. ­* He was a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity. As a matter of fact, he was a promoter of the idea of universal love and harmony and peace.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was very critical of the power elites in Pakistan and condemned state terrorism, increasing religious bigotry and sectarian violence. He chal-lenged the tyrannical rule of the successive governments and condemned the govern-ment for its involvement in the Afghan crisis. He was opposed to military rule in Paki-stan or elsewhere and always said that the people were supreme and sovereign. He strongly favoured peaceful relations between India and Pakistan, between Pakistan and Afghanistan and between the former Soviet Union and Pakistan. He always strongly supported the movements for peace in Pakistan, in its neighborhood, in the Muslim so-cieties and in the world at large.

Ghaffar Khan is highly relevant to this age of terrorism, rising religious militancy, proliferating insecurities and widespread dehumanization. His entire political life spread over eighty years or so is a remarkable record of peace action, fearless and humanistic approach to the critical issues of his time, tremendous consistency in political thinking and action, and willingness to sacrifice and suffer for the cause of the common good. The killing fields of the Muslim societies can clearly be converted into peace zones and productive zones, and the failed and failing Muslim states and the terrorizing states may become more just, more peaceful, and more humane if they follow the footprints of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and listen to the Gautama Buddha of the twentieth century. He was laid to rest in Jalalabad in Afghjanistan in the year 1988, but the Khan who is also known as the Frontier Gandhi must be very restless in his grave—watching with great sadness the killing of humans in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond.