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Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan. A Man to Match the Mountains By Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, 2002 (Second Edition)
At a time when Islam is becoming increasingly and thoughtlessly associated with terrorism, and has come to replace the “menace of Communism”, one author has reissued his book on the “Muslim Gandhi”.
The banner on the rear cover of this book announces boldly in red type: From a Tradition of Blood Revenge Comes One of History’s Greatest Peacemakers. The book sucks you in from the opening page as the reader constantly has to redraw the crude stereotype of the North West Frontier “tribesmen” whose picture painted by themselves, the British imperialists and the modern press of Pushtun (Pathan) warlord perpetuate. The author certainly sees this book as a corrective to the Western view of Islam as a dangerous, savage and deadly enemy force. “Wherever civil war or ethnic violence rages, but especially in the Middle East, Badshah Khan offers a path to peace. A devout Muslim, he showed in his life a face of Islam which non-Islamic countries do not normally see, proving that within the scope of Islam exists a noble alternative to violence.” To the British in 1930 when the movement of non-violence emerged on the NW Frontier the Raj was totally taken aback. A nonviolent Pathan was unthinkable. “The brutes, “ argued a government report, “must be ruled brutally and by brutes.” It was conceivable to the British that Hinudism could produce Ghandi: it was inconceivable that Pathan style Islam could produce a nonviolent movement. The Imperial masters were mistaken.
Badshah or Ghaffar Khan was born to a well off rentier family from the North West Frontier, a province created by the British Raj as a buffer state against Afghanistan. Khan’s brother went to England and qualified as a medical practitioner. Badshah almost went to Imperial mother country, too, to study engineering but stayed in his native province because of his mother’s imprecations.
The author describes the rise of independence movements in the Indian sub-continent, and the dynamics that fed the movement. Badshah Khan was progressively drawn to involvement in the struggle for independence and sought inspiration from the nonviolent tradition of Islam, which he claimed had been present in that creed but had been forgotten. “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off the oppressor’s yoke. But we had so far forgotten it that when Ghandhiji placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed.” Badsha Khan set about setting up his own nonviolent army, Khudai Khidmatgars or “Servants of God” in 1929-30. As with Gandhi, the ”simple life” went hand in hand with nonviolence and anti-imperialism, and non-violence as a method was directed against Pathan violence as much as British violence. When the Pathans wanted weapons he would say “I am going to give you a weapon…It is the weapon of the Prophet…that weapon is patience and righteousness…If you exercise patience, victory will be yours.” They needed patience and forbearance and astounding courage. After the Afghan wars of the nineteenth century the British only knew two ways of dealing with Pathans en masse: one was divide and rule, and the other was the machine gun and rifle volley. For two years after the formation of the Khudia Khidmtagars, Pathans died without fighting back violently, and Badshah Khan’s movement swelled to eighty thousand, many showing astonishing bravery in the face of British atrocities. He was arrested and then banished. He chose to spend his exile at Gandhi’s ashram and the two men became close. In the end British India did not stay together as we know, and Gandhi died of violence. Badshah Khan lived well into his nineties, dying in 1988, having spent thirty years on and off in prison. He never faltered either in his opposition to foreign rule nor in his resolve of the power of nonviolence.