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Who Was Badshah Khan?


Michael N. Nagler


If you were among the millions who watched Malala Yousafzais inspiring speech to the UN last week, (now on YouTube and highly recommended), you may have heard this courageous teenager who was shot by the Taliban for promoting girls education refer to one Badshah Khan as a great inspiration for her own courageous and determined commitment to nonviolence.  Who was he?

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, later known as Badshah, or King was born in 1890 in the town of Utmanzai, not far farom Peshawar in what was then the Northwest Frontier Province of India.  His father was a khan, or village headman, widely respected for his honesty and somewhat independent approach to the Islam of the Mullahs of his day and to the code of badal, or revenge that was a prominent cultural feature among the Pashtuns (sometimes spelled and pronounced Pathans).

Ghaffar Khans early years ran a roughly parallel course to Gandhis: he was passionately devoted to the uplift of his people, had a deeply spiritual bent (all Pathans are devout Muslims)and at first accepted British rule as a matter of course but saw the light when deeply offended by certain insults that are the inevitable concomitant of domination.  Inevitably, too, his village work, which mostly took the form of establishing schools,put him on a collision course with both the mullahs and the British authoritiesfor similar reasons: educated people are harder to oppress. It made him realize that his educational work was not just service, but rebellion a point that must have gone home powerfully with Malala Yousafzai. (And should go home with us: recent comments by GOP spokespeople about the dangers of educating women begin sounding like domestic Taliban).

Shortly after meeting Gandhi in 1919 I am making a very long story very short  here Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgars or Servants of God to expand his revolutionary work.  Their dedication to himand to nonviolence flummoxed the British, who responded in the only way they knew how at that time: with brutal repression.But they could never hold them down.  After perpetrating a terrible massacre in 1930 in Peshawar they saw the ranks of the Servants swell from several hundred to eighty thousand an improbable fact if you are not familiar with nonviolent dynamics. 

The Servants and their adored leader, who had come to be known, over his objections, as the Frontier Gandhi were shot, tortured, humiliated, and (in his case) jailed; but not before they had played a signal role in liberating their country and helping Gandhi give an ocular demonstration to the world of the power of nonviolence.

Khans incredible life is one of the great untold stories of our time.  His contribution to that demonstrationevaporates five myths that are commonly held about nonviolence:

  1. that it is a recourse of the weak: The British never brought the Pathan territories under subjection in a hundred years of violence.  When Khan once asked Gandhi why his Pathans were staying the course when many Hindus lost their nerve and fell back on violence, the Mahatma said, We Hindus have always been nonviolent, but we havent always been brave.

  2. that it only works against a polite opponent: the British were terrified of and therefore ruthless toward the Pathans, whom they regarded as brutes, to be ruled brutally by brutes. In the NW Frontier, as in Kenya, the Empire showed its true colors.

  3. that it has no place in war: 80,000 uniformed, trained, and indomitable Pathans were the worlds first army of peace.

  4. that it has no place in Islam: Malala, in his footsteps,pointedly referred to the tradition of peace and nonviolence thats in Islam, as in all world religions.

  5. that nonviolence means protest and non-cooperation: It includes that wing, but, as with Gandhis constructive programme, it often gains even more traction with self-reliance, constructive work, and cooperating with good, where possible.

Yet, outside of Eknath Easwarans great biography, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam and a few other resources (there is a documentary called Frontier Gandhi Badshah Khan a torch for peaceby Teri McLuhan) there is scant material widely available on Khan and he remains little known in the West.  Young Malala Yousafzai may have done the world a greater service than she realizes by honoring his name at the august body of the UN General Assembly.

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