The Pashtun "Frontier Gandhi"
by Salim Mansur
Few westerners have heard of the Pathan (or Pakhtun) leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) – also affectionately known as Badshah Khan. He was an unlikely political warrior sworn to non-violence who emerged from the midst of a highly volatile culture that has produced the Taliban.
In the period before the partitioning of British India in 1947, Badshah Khan became the undisputed political leader of the Pathan tribes, joining forces with the Indian National Congress under Mahatma Gandhi for India's independence. As Gandhi's Muslim associate, Badshah Khan was instrumental in demonstrating the moral and spiritual strength of a non-violent campaign for freedom and advancing the struggle for social improvement of society's least fortunate.
Badshah Khan raised an amazing army of non-violent soldiers – Khudai Khidmatgar, or servants of God – exceeding some 100,000 volunteers from among Pathan tribal warriors, for the political and social upliftment of his people. He demonstrated in practical terms the Pathans were as devoted to the ideas of peace, unity, freedom and progress as any other people. His movement became the most serious threat to British rule on the strategic northwestern frontiers of the Indian subcontinent.
In physique and intellect Badshah Khan was a powerful presence, a natural-born prince among his people. He strode out of the Hindu Kush mountains into undivided India's history as a modern-day Biblical prophet and illuminated the other face of Islam – of genuine peace, tolerance and embrace of others – that gradually became obscured by the divisive and bigoted politics of Muslim separatism in India.
Britain's divide and rule policy was consistent with imperial policy of empires through the ages. Muslim separatism in India was a beneficiary of this policy and it eventually led to the bloody upheaval of 1947.
Badshah Khan was not alone among Indian Muslims to oppose the divisive politics of Muslim separatism, but he was the most charismatic. He suffered the consequences along with other leaders of the Congress of being frequently arrested and imprisoned by British authorities.
After 1947 Badshah Khan faced the torment of Pakistani authorities, regularly jailed and isolated from his people. But he never displayed bitterness or gave support to politics that would be divisive and unleash violence. He remained until his death a servant of God.
Recalling Badshah Khan is to keep faith with the alternate future he showed for his people – the Pathans on both sides of the Durand Line and other Afghans – of peace and dignity.
Teri McLuhan, author, filmmaker and daughter of Canada's much celebrated intellectual, the late Marshall McLuhan, has produced a hugely inspiring film biography of Badshah Khan called the Frontier Gandhi.
McLuhan's documentary is a work of love and devotion to the cause Badshah Khan symbolized. It brings on screen the story of an extraordinary man and his brave followers mostly forgotten, especially among the present generation of Afghans battered by unending conflict for over three decades.
Canada has given much blood and treasure to help the Afghans. But here is a gift of enduring value for Afghan children to discover the legacy of Badshah Khan and keep alive the promise of his life's struggle. If only someone in Ottawa would have the imagination to send McLuhan's film as a gift to Afghanistan with love from the children of Canada.