Volume 10 Number 2
Book Review: Understanding Frontier Gandhi
04 March 2007

His life has “the capacity to speak meaningfully” to everyone. Here's a book no one should miss reading.

In this engaging biography of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known during the days of the freedom struggle, as the Frontier Gandhi or Badshah Khan, Rajmohan Gandhi gives many anecdotes and fresh insights into the life and personality of a great legend of our times.

Around fifty years ago this Badshah of the Peshawar valley, “an immensely tall figure with an absolutely straight back, a great nose, kindly eyes and an aura of non-violent defiance” was the real face of the Pathans, Pakhtuns or Pashtuns.

The New York Times published an article on 7 Dec 2001, reminding the world post 9/11 about “The
peacemaker of the Pashtun Past, who not so long ago symbolised peace and tolerance and seemed an antithesis of a later Pashtun, Mullah Omar of Kandahar, the fanatical Taliban leader and Osama Bin Laden’s host in Afghanistan.”

Badshah Khan spent twenty-seven years in prison (twelve years under the British and an additional fifteen years in Pakistan) fighting for justice for his people.

Rajmohan Gandhi brings out how dramatically different Badshah Khan was from Mullah Omar:
  • He was totally committed to non-violence

  • He passionately strived to find an answer to revenge. He believed forgiveness was part of Islam.

  • His attitude to non-Muslims set him apart. He would protect the interests of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians living in the overwhelmingly Muslim North-West Frontier Province.

  • He wanted the Pashtun women to study, work and lead. In 1932 he sent his teenage daughter Mehr Taj to study in England.

  • He was proud of his region's older Buddhist history. When Kamalnayan Bajaj, and his sister Madalasa, children of his old friend Jamnalal Bajaj, visited him in Kabul, he joyfully took them to view the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, which were later sadly destroyed by the Taliban.

Three months before Independence and the Partition of India when communal passions were being roused, Ghaffar Khan spoke from the depth of his heart:

“We are passing through critical times… Some people mislead you in the name of Islam. I feel it is my duty to warn you against future dangers so that I may justify myself before man and God… What gains will Islam and the Muslims reap from these riots and the slaughter of children, women and the aged? These happenings are against the tenets of the Holy Qur’an... I warn the League brethren that the fire they kindle will spread in a wild blaze and consume everything in its way.”

Addressing India’s Parliament in 1969, Khan said, “You are forgetting Gandhi the way you forgot the Buddha”. He was horrified that no one had been punished for rioting or killing in the communal riots that had disfigured the cities including Ahmedabad, Jabalpur, Ranchi, Rourkela, Jamshedpur, Indore and Malegaon. “Your laws are only for show,” he added.

In the wake of 9/11 and the continuing violence in Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir and other parts of the world, one may reflect on the relevance of Khan’s life now. “His fight for the rights of the threatened, the weak and the poor, his sympathy for peoples across the sub-continent's borders, his skepticism about the effectiveness of guns and bombs, and his frankness towards both rulers and citizens make him an inspiring model.”

He gave expression to Islam's fundamental tenet of submission to God's will…(his) inner obedience over a long and hard lifetime makes him a true and exemplary Muslim. Unfazed by criticism, some of which was undeserved, extreme and offensive, “Badshah Khan was content to have his Muslimness confirmed in his own heart, in his prayers, in his practices, and in the
Holy Book he treasured.” Rajmohan asserts, “Ghaffar Khan's story, which is that of a Muslim and of a universal voice, speaks usefully to the twenty- first century.” He sought, “to replace revenge with justice and reconciliation.”

One of those motivated by Ghaffar Khan's realistic non-violence was the Palestinian-born academic and activist, Mubarak Awad who started a network called 'Non-violence International' to promote social change and international peace…“Khan's life has a role in the radical rethinking by radical Islamists… His bridge-building life is a refutation of the clash-of-civilization theory.” His life has “the capacity to speak meaningfully” to everyone. Here's a book no one should miss reading.

Reviewed by VC Viswanathan
(Ghaffar Khan – Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns, by Rajmohan Gandhi Penguin/Viking, 300 pages, hardback, Rs. 325)