The Danish Peace Academy

Nonviolence in Islam : The case of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

By Holger Terp 2004


Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Born 1890 Dead 1988
Indian Muslim, teacher and social reformer from Punjab, the Pride of Afghan, inspired by the pacifism and the morale of Islam; later also inspired by Mohandas Gandhi's ideas on civilian disobedience and nonviolence. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born and was functioning in the northwestern border area between India and Afghanistan in what is now Pakistan.

Name shaper: The name Abdul was given to the aristocratic Pashtun boys. He was called Ghaffar as a child. As an adult he became known as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the first Khan being a title. The same applied when Khan was called Badshah Khan, in which case Badshah means King. Indians and Pakistanis also relate to Khan as Khan Saheb, mend or master.

When he was just a young man Khan started a school for Pashtun children and made contact to other Muslims who were in favour of progress in the rest of India. In 1914 Khan began his social work and following the First World War he got contact to Mohandas Gandhi in 1919, and - like many other Indians - he was protesting against the Rowlatt Act.

Arrested first time in 1919. In the folIowing years he becomes a member of the Kalifat movement who is trying to strengthen the spiritual links between the Indian Muslims and the Turkish Sultan.

1921 Khan is elected Local Leader of the Kalifat Committee in the Northwestern border area. Khan founds the reform movement Anjumen-e Islah ul-Afaghena in 1921, the farmers' organisation Anjuman-e Zamidaran in 1927 and the youth movement Pustun Jirhah in 1927. Also Abdul Ghaffar Khan founds the nationalistic magazine Paktun in May 1928, and the Khudai Khidmatgar movement (God's Servants) in 1929, which developed and used a Muslim version of the Hindu Satyagraha used in the struggle for Indian independence of Great Britain. In April 1930 the Khudai Khidmatgar movement had 500 peace soldiers, and by the end of that year it had 300,000.

In August 1931 Gandhi seeks to pacify the British Viceroy about Khan: "I wish you would trust Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The more I see him, the more I love him. He is so sincere, he has no spiritual reservations, and he tells me that to him non-violence is not politics; it's a mantra."

According to the editor of the Magazine "Friends of India", Ellen Hørup, this was what made a lasting impression at the Karachi Congress opening ceremony in 1931:

»Abdul Ghaffar Khan who presented a company of his Red Shirts. They were no longer peasants who truddled off in their own clothes, which they themselves had coloured in all kinds of red nuances. March. Discipline. Uniform, everything was soldier -like. The officers' distinctions and the wide leather belt the British way.«.
»The Red Shirts and their leader are Muslims. They belong to one of those races, whom the British call warlike. But Abdul Ghaffar Khan has converted his 300,000 troops, who he claims to muster, into nonviolent Gandhists. With their shouting, “Inquilad Sindabad" (Live the Revolution) they weaken the discipline among those of their fellow countrymen who are enrolled in the army - and in every way, which is peaceful, they prevent the police in using violence against the people of the country.«

Immediately after the second Round Table Conference on India's independence in 1931 the British instigate a massive persecution of the members of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement and the Indian Congress Party. 5,000 members of the Khudai Khidmatgar and 2,000 members of the Congress Party are arrested in the spring of 1932 when India is practically declared in a state of war by a regime of terror.

During 1932 the Khudai Khidmatgar movement changes tactics and involves women in the movement. This causes the police to be 'kind of in a dilemma', though not so much since five police officers in Benares have to be suspended due to 'horrific reports about violence used against young female volunteers'. The oppression, the British police regime and bombings make the imprisoned Gandhi start a fast to death.

The British bomb a village in the Bajadur Valley in March 1932 and arrest Abdul Ghaffar Khan and more than 4,000 of his Red Shirts. The British bombardments in the border area continue up till 1936-1937 because, “India is a training field for active military training which can be found nowhere else in the Empire", thus concludes a British court already in 1933.

The case emerged publicly because that same year there was "disagreement between the Indian Government and the British War Office and the Air force Ministry about some defence expenses, and a tribunal was set to reach a settlement between the parties". The British tribunal seems to have 'forgotten' similar Royal Air force bases in Iraq.

The British bombardments in the border area between India and Afghanistan get consequences in international politics since the participants in the disarmament conference would not allow a British reservation in a proposed treaty on prohibition against air raids. This meant that the treaty was never signed.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan is jailed several times on account of non-violence and protests against the violent oppression administered by the British. For instance he is sentenced a two-year jail term in 1934 for mentioning the British Military's gunning down of 200 protesters; he is demanded released in connection with negotiations on the Indian constitution reform, the Government of India Act 1936.

Often there was much political and religious disagreement which resulted in direct violence between Hindus and Muslims in the periods between wars. The Muslims in India had their own party, the Muslim League; however, there were many Muslims in the Indian National Congress, too. Radical Hindus tried to get the Muslims to leave the Congress Party, however, both Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Mohandas Gandhi were trying to achieve political unity between the two religions - and the cement which kept the two very different religions on the road to Indian home rule, was, according to Gandhi, nonviolence.

The British colonialists administered the Divide-and-Rule tactics with great success in India. This is clearly seen, among others, in the Communal Award Act according to which Hindus and Muslims from 1932 onwards are to cast their votes separately.

In October 1938 the formation of a local division of the Congress Party in Hyadrabad is prohibited, and the authorities are trying to create a confrontation between Hindus and Muslims. Many thousand members of the Congress Party are arrested. In other Indian states the oppression and the need is so great that the inhabitants are fleeing to other states.

In 1942 Sir Stafford Cripps draws up a British proposal for the independence of India because the British are seeking Indian support in World War 2. At the end of the War they (the British) would accept a constitution drawn up by the Indian People, which in reality would mean independence for India.

After World War 2 the National Congress wants a united India whereas the Muslims from 1940 demand a separation of the country in an independent Pakistan and an independent Hindustan, which happens in 1947. While the Indian National Congress in 1940 discussed its feelings about World War 2, Ghaffar Khan stepped back from the Party's Working Committee with the following salute:

»Some recent resolutions of the working Committee indicate that they are restricting the use of non-violence to the fight for India's freedom against constituted authority.... I should like to make it clear that the non-violence I have believed in and preached to my brethren of the Khudai-Khidmatgars is much wider. It affects all our life, and only that has permanent value... The Khudai-Khidmatgars must, therefore, be what our name implies, servants of God and humanity by laying down our own lives and never taking any life.«

Abdul Ghaffar Khan is jailed 1942-1945. The partition of India into two states creates great problems in the northwestern border area.

War breaks out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in 1947.

Mohandas Gandhi is killed in 1948 during an attempt to make peace between Pakistan and India

Pakistan systematically oppresses and destroys the Khudai Khitmatgar because the movement has too great a political influence and because it wanted an autonomous Republic. In July 1957 Khan founds the National Awami Party.

Ghaffar Khan spends altogether 52 years in prison in India and Pakistan. In 1962 Abdul Ghaffar Khan is awarded "Amnesty International s Prisoner of the Year ". In 1964 Khan becomes a Political Refugee in Afghanistan for six years, and during this time he is not a role model for the CIA.

Abdul Khan published the magazine "Pashto Magazine" in Pakhtoon.


Translated by Britt Bartenbach.


Go to the front page of the Peace Academy
Back to the Index