Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ghaffar Khan- Peace 02-01-27

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: A Pashtun Martin Luther King Jr.

Mirza A. Beg
Written on Jan 21, 2002
Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Jan.27 2002

Monday, January the 21st was a national holiday to commemorate the birth of one of Americas’ revered sons Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He embodied for America, the moral force of peaceful resistance to evil and injustice. The tradition of civil disobedience against unjust laws and traditions is long and luminous. Many Sufis through the centuries defied temporal authorities through the spiritual force of faith. In modern times, the one person who embodied the spiritual force of peaceful resistance was Gandhi. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was Gandhi’s friend. When we honor Dr. King we honor his creed and his soul mates.

While discussing Dr. King’s birth anniversary, I asked my friends at “Challenge 21” a civic organization in Tuscaloosa, if they had heard of the Pashtun leader, Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The answer was no. The pity is that even the Pashtuns do not remember him any more. He loved them and served them with courage and honor till his last breath. He passed away in 1988 at a ripe old age of 98. These days the war-like Pashtuns occupy center stage in the news. It is worthwhile to remember a great soul that came from the fiercely independent tribal region inhabited by Pashtuns that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those who loved him gave him the title of Khan thus he became Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

Ghaffar Khan was born in the village of Uthmanzai in 1890. In 1893, the British imposed a treaty on the Afghan king defining the border along the high mountains between British India and Afghanistan (the Durand line). Uthmanzai fell on the British side (now Pakistan) of the border barely a few miles from the famed Khyber Pass. His father Behram Khan, chief of the small Mohammadzai tribe was aware of the unwritten tribal law of the Afghans called, “Pashtunwali”. It celebrates a strict code of vengeance at the slightest insult to one’s honor. He raised his two sons to regard others with respect and honor.

The Pashtun area in North West British India was called the “Frontier”. The area of the great game of the Kipling fame. This land of fiercely independent and egalitarian warriors was a headache to the British rulers. To break the Pashtun spirit, some of the meanest administrators were sent to the region to mete out swift frontier justice.

After high school, a handsome 6 foot 3 inches tall Ghaffar Khan, son of a tribal chief, was given a position in the British military. He resigned within days. He could not punish his own people on behalf of the oppressor. He realized his people were backward, mired in poverty, apathy and violence because of lack of education, and ignorance of their own religion. He started schools in his and surrounding villages. Ghaffar Khan’s fledgling schools caught the ever-watchful eyes of the British, who did not want an awakened peasantry on the Frontier. The local mullahs and the landlords did not want it either. The British, the mullahs and the landlords harassed him. The schools were forcibly closed.

Dispirited he went into seclusion for forty days of fasting and introspection. He came out a lean emaciated man, still not sure of a course to follow, but resolute with an inner strength. He understood the meaning of Islam was to submit to the will of God, to engender peace. He realized that God does not need service, to serve God’s creation is to serve God.

He wrote, ”I have one great dream, one great longing. Like flowers in the desert, my people are born, bloom for a while with no body to look after them, wither and return to the dust they came from. I want to see them share each other’s sorrow and happiness. I want to see them work together as equals. I want to see them to take their rightful place among the nations of the world, for the service of God and humanity.”

About 1915, as Gandhi’s ideas spread throughout British India, Ghaffar Khan found a kindred spirit about 20 years his senior. He met Gandhi and the two became life long friends. Gandhi coming from Hindu tradition and Ghaffar Khan from Muslim beliefs found a common thread, a divine strength to resist evil and tyranny through a resolute spirit and love of humanity. Ghaffar Khan traveled through Pashtun villages in next three years and started an organization called “Divine Servants”. He taught the quick-tempered and straightforward Pashtuns, the true meaning of “Will”, strength of character and willingness to suffer for truth, the greater Jihad.

His example of piety, simplicity and honesty brought more than a hundred thousand followers to his cause, who for the first time defied British tyranny non-violently. The British could not believe it; to them a non-violent Pashtun was a contradiction.

They arrested and imprisoned him without trial with the dregs of humanity. They saw him take all the punishment the British could impose in silence and dignity. His prison mates, the thieves, the murderers could not understand him. He explained that they are paying a price for their crime, he was paying a price for his ideals. He was happy paying the price, for he loved his ideals. The prison atmosphere changed, the small fights and complaints of the prisoners stopped, they even stopped bribing the guards for small favors. This upset the system. He was released.

In the next thirty years his organization grew, he gained respect of his friends and enemies, but he kept paying the price. He spent cumulatively about 15 years in various jails, often banished from the Frontier region. Once in a while when released from jail the Pashtuns flocked to him calling him their king “Badshah Khan”.

He emphasized education for girls as well. In a speech he promised women, ”You will have equal share and place with your brothers in this country. We are like two wheels of a chariot, unless our movements are synchronized, our carriage will never move”.

The non-violent struggle of the masses caught the imagination of the civilized world. The British Empire weakened after the World War II was ready to grant Independence to India. The sectarian Hindu and Muslim leaders spread the virus of religious differences among the masses. Violence between the two communities broke out throughout Northern India. The weary British left India to two successor republics, Hindu dominated India and Muslim dominated Pakistan. The resulting convulsion created havoc for the fleeing Muslims from India and Hindus from Pakistan. Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were morally opposed the partition and narrow-minded sectarianism. They were heart broken.

Gandhi fell to a Hindu assassin’s bullet within six months of India’s freedom. Ghaffar Khan found Pakistan sectarian and often dominated by military dictatorships. He spent the next thirty years, often in jail or in exile. He never compromised his ideals, and kept working for the dignity of the Pashtuns through love and service till his frail body released his indomitable soul.

Gandhi in Hinduism, Ghaffar Khan in Islam and Martin Luther King in Christianity demonstrated that non-violence and love for humanity is perfectly congruent with faith. They require great courage and can not be defeated by force.

Mirza A. Beg can be contacted by email at mab64@yahoo.com

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