Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Frontier Gandhi, has always posed an equal challenge to both cynics and optimists. The cynics find it hard to dismiss a man who created an ‘army’ for non-violent resistance from among the Pashtun tribes of the North-West Frontier Province, in Pakistan. Optimists were hard put to explain why this should not be regarded as a stray miracle.
Who was this man and why is his legacy so compelling today?
Teri C. McLuhan’s film The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a torch for peace does an excellent job of answering this question. It also raises the bar on an old and complex question – how may we be realistic about non-violence as a method of political action.
In this case, the question has a bitter edge because the theatre of Frontier Gandhi’s life is now one of the most violent and volatile areas of the world – Afghanistan and Pakistan. The inaugural screening of McLuhan’s film in Mumbai, co-hosted by Gateway House on November 27, ended on the kind of quiet that follows a deeply poignant collective experience.
Born into an aristocratic Pashtun family in 1890, Ghaffar Khan was drawn into the struggle against the British rule at an early age. He grew up in the Khyber Pass region, where bloody tribal feuds had been a way of life for many centuries. Through a rich assortment of archival footage, McLuhan’s film introduces us to a proud martial people whose men have traditionally carried weapons as other people wear jewellery.
By the time Ghaffar Khan was a young man, the Pashtun tribes had been fighting the British rule with guns for over half a century. It was partly the repeated failure of these violent revolts that set Ghaffar Khan in another direction. He did not discover non-violence through Mahatma Gandhi but he often said that his friendship with the Mahatma reaffirmed faith in this way of life.
The implication of McLuhan’s film is that Ghaffar Khan’s journey on the path of non-violence was due largely to his deep faith in the Koran and a determination to strengthen his people through social reforms – particularly in gender relations and inter-faith harmony.
This is not surprising because McLuhan, a Candian-American film maker based in New York, was drawn into this exploration in the late 1980s by Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan: A Man to Match His Mountains, a biography written by Eknath Easwaran an Indian-born California-based spiritual teacher. The inside front cover of the book carried this quote from Mubarak Awad, then director of the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence, in Jerusalem: “This book is a must for every Muslim. The life of Khan can change and will challenge many readers in the Middle East.”
While this book was McLuhan’s starting point, her 22-year journey to research the film took on a life of its own. She did not just dig up vital archival film footage and interview with members of Ghaffar Khan’s family. She went looking for the last surviving members of the legendary ‘army’ that Khan assembled in 1929 – the Khudai Khidmatgar, or the ‘servants of God.’
Having found scores of these soldiers of non-violence – some of them over a hundred years old – McLuhan brought them together, probably for the first time in decades. Many showed up in their old uniforms of red-coloured home spun cloth. For the Pashtuns, red is the colour of courage and sacrifice. Local spinning of yarn and weaving of cloth was a crucial element of the Khudai Kidmatgar – since self-sufficiency in the basic needs of life was an important value for them.
The film quotes from the archives of the British secret service to show that while the British were quite at ease in dealing with the armed revolts, they weren’t sure about how to deal with this unique ‘army’ and its ability to mobilize ordinary people.
Detailed interviews with the aged Khudai Kidmatgar bring alive both their dogged determination and the torture they suffered in British jails. One of the most endearing moments of the film is a conversation with four women who were part of the movement and their joy in living to tell the tale.
Ghaffar Khan spent one-third of his 98 years on this planet, in jail. Like Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan passionately opposed the division of the sub-continent. Once it became a fait accompli, Ghaffar Khan did pledge allegiance to Pakistan but demanded a autonomous administrative unit of ‘Pashtunistan’ within the country.
Consequently, he was repeatedly imprisoned by the Pakistani government; and was under house arrest in Peshawar even at the time of his death in 1988.
Those who might have dismissed Ghaffar Khan as an irrelevant relic of the early 20th century were proved wrong by the tens of thousands of people who joined the funeral procession from Peshawar in Pakistan to Jalalabad in Afghanistan – where he chose to be buried. The film graphically depicts masses of mourners surging across the border without passports or visas – as authorities on both sides stood by making no effort to enforce the usual controls.
Even as the ground was being dug to lay down a legend, the votaries of violence made one more attempt to have the last word. Two bomb explosions during the funeral ceremony killed 15 people. This was despite the fact that both the Soviet army and the mujahideen – the then warring parties – had declared a ceasefire for the duration of Khan’s funeral.
From Badshah Khan’s point of view, even this would not have undermined his creed. When asked what non-violence is, he had a one word answer: patience.
The journey of documenting Badshah Khan’s life – and putting her own life in danger in the process of making the film – has made McLuhan completely confident about both patience and the power of persistence. That confidence is coming in handy as she faces a stone wall in efforts to find a distributor who will take the feature length documentary to audiences across the world. McLuhan feels this is because the film runs counter to the pervasive stereotype about Islam and violence.
Ghaffar Khan drew on his spiritual Islamic moorings to show that non-violence could be both a way of life and a political weapon. He found a resonance in Gandhi, who came to the same conclusions through his anchor in Hindu spirituality.
McLuhans’ film leaves both the cynic and the optimist in us equally ill at ease. There is no doubt that in the hands of those who have both courage and persistence, non-violence is a weapon that has shown results. It leaves the individual viewer open to a grim challenge: what would it take to cultivate such courage and staying power?
(Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.)
Courtesy – Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations
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