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2 October 2021, Gateway House

The Mahatma and the Badshah

This Gandhi Jayanti we talk about Gandhi’s greatest follower - Khan Saheb Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly called Badshah Khan or Frontier Gandhi. His inclusive and humanistic interpretation of Islamic Jihad is important, especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.

Bombay History Fellow

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On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 152nd birth anniversary on October 2, and in the context of the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan due to the Taliban takeover, it’s time to put the spotlight on Gandhiji’s greatest follower – Khan Saheb Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), known amongst his many Pathan followers as Badshah Khan or Khan of Khans.

Badshah Khan is known in India as Frontier Gandhi – a name he disregarded because he believed there was only ONE Gandhi. But what really captures the essence of this great man is the name ‘Islamic Gandhi’. It is a term increasingly used by contemporary scholars[1] to exemplify that Islamic Jihad (Holy War) is not violent if interpreted the Badshah Khan way. Khan was a leader who demonstrated by his actions and the actions of his one lakh Pathan followers – the Khudai Khidmatgars (lit. servants of God) – that Truth and Non-Violence (Ahimsa) as revived by Gandhiji as the spiritual core of India’s struggle for freedom is, in fact, the essence of the Holy Koran.

Gandhiji’s teachings (Truth and Non-Violence), and its techniques of fighting without weapons were concepts which Khan internalized and conflated with the essence of not just Islam but all religions. He then took it upon himself to popularize non-violence amongst his people – the Pathans – whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.[2]

In his own words: “It is my inmost (sic) conviction that Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabbat (selfless work, faith and love).”[3] These beliefs were born out of Khan’s deep comparative study of the Koran along with the Hindu scriptures and the Christian Bible during his early acquaintance with British Indian jails as a Gandhian Satyagrahi.. It was after this that he concluded that Jihad was necessarily a non-violent battle not just with the external world but with one’s inner self.

It is this universal, inclusive and humanistic interpretation which has brought Badshah Khan’s relevance into sharp focus today, as the ultraorthodox Taliban (Pushto for students) have emerged from the very same people Khan once led as late as 1988. He died at 98, 40 years after his friend and ally Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated.

Badshah Khan led the Pathans even after the Partition, when the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Tribal Agencies became a part of Pakistan. He conducted a non-violent agitation against the Pakistan government for an autonomous Pakhtunistan within Pakistan. He spent 30 of 70 years as a leader in jail, more in Pakistani jails. He finally went into exile in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

This is particularly remarkable given the two-millennium long history of the Pathans – known to be the fiercest warriors ever, their character honed by their rugged mountainous homeland, which controlled the high mountain passes into the Indian subcontinent that so many foreign invaders sought to cross. This hard life and constant insecurity led to a way of life ordered by a tribal code of honour – Pukhto or Pashtunwali. Its rules range from the benign, like hospitality to all, to badal or avenging a wrong which brings personal, family or tribal dishonour. The latter is responsible for internecine blood feuds between tribes for generations.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan is probably the first known Pathan who tried to break this vicious cycle of violence. His initiative began as social reforms in 1919, when the British chose to ‘divide and rule’ that part of the Pathan homeland that had come to them under the Treaty of Gandamak (1879) signed with Amir Yaqub Khan of Afghanistan. The Durand Line of 1893 demarcated the border between the Kingdom of Afghanistan and British India, effectively dividing the Pathan homeland between the two countries.[4] The British, for strategic purposes, further divided their half into the high mountains – the five Tribal Agencies[5] which were ruled with a heavy hand – and the settled areas or what became the North West Frontier Province.  They deliberately neglected politically, economically and developmentally the Tribal Agencies. It was a strategic buffer zone – a no man’s land.

Initially, Badshah Khan began by opening ‘Azad’ schools[6] for both boys and girls in villages because he believed that illiteracy amongst his people was the chief reason for their economic and social backwardness.

Already a Satyagrahi in spirit and action by this time, Badshah Khan was first arrested in 1920 for participating in the Non-Cooperation movement[7] (1919-1922) in the NWFP. Soon after, he attended his first Congress Session in Nagpur but did not meet Gandhi then. Their meeting was ten years later, in 1931, when Khan’s reputation as leader of the Khudai Khidmatgar political movement[8] launched in 1929-30, captured the imagination of India and the Congress leadership.

This happened because of the extraordinary events of the Peshawar or Qissa Khwani Market, massacre of 1930. Then, thousands of Pathans congregated in the NWFP provincial capital of Peshawar to peaceably picket law courts, foreign cloth and liquor shops as part of the Non-Cooperation (Civil Disobedience) Movement of 1930. After arresting their leaders (Khan included), a troop of English soldiers unprovoked began opening fire on the unarmed crowd. Hundreds died. According to an eye-witness report: “When those in front fell down…those behind came forward with their breast bared and exposed themselves to the fire…”[9] Two platoons of the Royal Garhwal Rifles put down their guns and refused to fire on the crowds.

This caught the attention of Gandhi and all the Congress leaders, as this supreme sacrifice by a people known to retaliate, was unbelievable.

Badshah Khan and Gandhi’s friendship began after Khan’s release from jail, and when he spent time at Sewagram Ashram (Wardha) with Gandhiji. The inter-war years of the 1930s witnessed far-reaching political happenings in India and major geo-political shifts globally.

Inspite of this, in 1938, Gandhiji at the behest of Badshah Khan decided to go on a long tour of the NWFP. The tour began in Peshawar and he travelled through the many market towns and villages of this region, interacting with locals and the foot soldiers of the Khudai Khidmatgar. His aim was to help them understand the true essence of the Gandhian concepts of Truth and Non-violence. The tour ended with Gandhi inaugurating the first Khadi Exposition in the NWFP, in Peshawar.

Political events, unfortunately, overtook the Gandhi-Badshah Khan plans for the upliftment of the NWFP. The Partition of India, which was followed closely by Gandhi’s assassination on 31 January 1948, upended all this. But the Badshah soldiered on in the footsteps of his inspiration for 40 years more, agitating in the Gandhian spirit for the rights of his people. His persona and stature undiminished, as even in his death, the Durand Line border between Pakistan and Afghanistan seemed to melt away. A 24-hour ceasefire was announced (Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation then) and it was opened for visa-less travel for a day, to allow thousands of mourners and his body to travel from Peshawar to Jalalabad, where he was buried in the garden of the home where he had spent the last few years in exile.

A part of this article was first published in Hindustan Times.

Sifra Lentin is Fellow, Bombay History, Gateway House.


[1] Rowell, James L., ‘Abdul Ghaffar Khan: An Islamic Gandhi’, Political Theology, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2009.

[2] All indigenous Pushto speaking people from the Frontier Provinces, its tribal agencies and kingdoms, and the Pushto-speaking people on the Afghan side of the Durand Line (currently the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) are known as Pathans.

[3] Pyarelal, A Pilgrimage For Peace: Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi among the N.W.F. Pathans (Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1950), p. 36.

[4] A further ratification was undertaken in 1919 by the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of Rawalpindi.

[5] The five Tribal or Political Agencies were Malakand, Kurram, Khyber, North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

[6] The establishment of these schools were popular among Pathan hill tribes as it was a ‘middle-road’ between the insular madrassa teachings and what was viewed as ‘proselytizing’ Christian schools. Khan himself had experienced both kinds of schooling – and was in fact influenced by Rev. Wigram, his high school principal, to open schools for tribal children.

[7] The Non-Cooperation movement of 1919 was launched by Gandhi after the British government went back on their promise of home rule for India after the First World War ended. Instead, the draconian Rowlatt Act was imposed on the country. Later, this Movement merged with the Khilafat Movement launched by the Ali brothers, which agitated for the restoration of the Turkish Caliphate and the Islamic holy places.

[8] Abdul Ghaffar Khan launched the Khudai Khidmatgar movement with his elder brother Dr. Khan Saheb (Khan Abdul Jabber Khan), a medical doctor educated in England. Dr. Khan Saheb became the second chief minister of British NWFP after the Frontier National Congress, an affiliate of the Indian National Congress, won the provincial elections of 1937. Along with Badshah Khan he opposed the Partition of India and led the boycott of the 1947 NWFP Referendum. He became the first chief minister of West Pakistan after Partition.

[9] Pyarelal, A Pilgrimage For Peace: Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi among the N.W.F. Pathans (Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1950), p. 30.