A non-violent giant

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Badshah Khan: A Man to Match his Mountains by Eknath Easwaran, Penguin Books; pages 274, Rs.295.

MAHATMA GANDHI had many firsts to his credit. To me his most astounding achievement was to convert the gun-toting, revenge seeking Pathans to his unique weapon - non-violence. Gandhiji could not have done so by himself. He needed a faithful agent to lead them in his satyagraha campaigns. That faithful agent was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Gandhi called him Badshah Khan. Others referred to him as the Frontier Gandhi.

This is a book that should be in every home. Crisply written, expertly organised and gripping. What a story! And how well Easwaran tells it. Gandhi was a human magnet that attracted the best human material to conduct, guide and participate in our freedom struggle.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 and died in 1988. He spent more than 25 years in British Indian and Pakistani jails. His life is a saga of heroic dimensions. The author's melancholy conclusion is that the history of Badshah Khan and his Khudai Khidmedkers, "stands as one of history's most extraordinary and neglected moments". Easwaran calls the 6'6'' tall Khan, "a Muslim St. Francis". It is so apt.

Both Gandhiji and Badshah Khan should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize more than once. That they were not, is a condemnation of the manner in which selections are made by the Nobel Prize Committee.

This book first appeared in 1984 in America, under the title, Non-violent Soldier of Islam.

And this brings me to the current debate on The Prophet's Islam and the Islam of Osama bin Laden. Gandhiji, according to this book, discussed Islam at great length with Badshah Khan. The Pathan had a most moving and magnanimous understanding of his great religion. He saw no conflict in his triple identities - his Pathaniat, Hindustaniat and Insaniat (humanity) was an organic whole. No frills. No windy explanations. Let me quote:

It is my inmost conviction that Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat - selfless service, faith, and love.

Dr. Khan Sahib, Badshah Khan's elder brother, had married an English woman. Dr. Khan Sahib was twice Premier of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Hence not only his political life, but his personal life was under close and constant scrutiny.

Gandhiji was curious to find out more about Islam from his devout but broadminded and compassionate Pathan pupil. One day Gandhi asked him about his English sister in-law. Was she converted to Islam? Here is the grand, high minded reply of the Frontier Gandhi.

You will be surprised that I cannot say whether she is a Muslim or Christian... she was never converted - that much I know - and she is completely at liberty to follow her own faith. I have never asked her about it. Why should I? Why should not a husband and wife adhere each to their respective faiths? Why should marriage alter one's faith?

The literature on this very great man, a moral non-violent giant, is very meagre. The only other book on him is D.G. Tendulkar's biography. That came out over thirty-five years ago. Tendulkar is a chronicler, not an inspired writer like Eknath Easwaran, whose subtle grasp of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan's non-violent vision of humanity makes this a very exceptional and special book.

Let me end on a personal note. Between 1969 and 1988 I was in his presence many times mostly at Mohamad Yunus' (1916-2001) house. I will never forget the first encounter. Indira Gandhi was on a state visit to Kabul. Badshah Khan was also in the Afghan capital. The two had not met since 1947. It was decided that she would go to see him. This he would not countenance. So he was to come to meet "Indu" at King Zahir Shah's guest house. I was to receive him and bring him to the Prime Minister. When I got to the staircase, I saw the great Khan walking up. I must have been 30 seconds late. He was not. Now the epic admonition, delivered in chaste Urdu: "Aap Ko mere aane se pehle yahan hona chahiata"- You should have been to receive me. You are late."

On October 2, 1969, he came to Delhi to be the star attraction for the Gandhi Centenary. Indira Gandhi was at the airport to receive him, with her Cabinet colleagues. So was Jayaprakash Narayan. The three drove in an open car from the airport via Connaught Place to Rajendra Prasad Road where he was staying. No luggage, only a little bundle and a staff. He washed his own clothes. For a man of 79 he just about exhausted everyone. He delivered the Nehru memorial lecture on November 14, 1969, without once mentioning Nehru's name. He never forgave Nehru, Patel or Rajaji for agreeing to the Partition of India. He felt betrayed.

Buy this book. Read it again and again.

A letter from the Editor


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