Why We Should Remember ‘Frontier Gandhi’

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The horrific Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of April 1919 is one of the darkest days in Indian history but few of us remember another massacre, also perpetrated by the British, on Indian freedom fighters.

It took place in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar on 23rd April 1930, when the Khudai Khidmatgars had gathered to protest the arrest of their leader, Abdul Ghaffar Khan. It was one of the cruellest attacks on Indian freedom fighters by the British.

Khan leading a procession from Peshawar to Kabul during the Khilafat Movement
Khan leading a procession from Peshawar to Kabul during the Khilafat Movement

Abdul Ghaffar Khan – or ‘Frontier Gandhi’ – wanted to help the Pashtuns, who were poor, backward and illiterate. They lived in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He started the Azad school in his hometown of Utmanzai at the age of just 20.

Khan With Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba
Khan With Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba

Khan was a pro-independence activist and was highly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement. He wanted his fellow Pashtuns to unite, be educated, give up blood feuds and get organised. He tried to achieve this through the school he opened.

Due to its pro-independence leanings, the school was sadly shut down by the British, but this didn’t dissuade Khan. He travelled to over 500 Pakhtun villages in the next 15 years, to understand the problems and needs of the people.

Khan organised his socio-political activities under the Khudai Khidmatgars or the ‘Servants of God’ movement. Apart from establishing a network of Azad schools, he attracted more than 100,000 followers, who also managed programmes for poverty relief.

Khudai Khidmatgar
Khudai Khidmatgar

The Khudai Khidmatgars also fought for a united, independent, secular India by forming a non-violent front. A few Khidmatgars had attended the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress in 1929 and asked its members to look into their grievances.

The British had treated their homeland as no more than a buffer zone against Afghanistan and it had remained poor and neglected. A Congress delegation that was sent to investigate the complaints was detained in Punjab, in April 1930. In response, Khan called for civil disobedience.

He was arrested. The Khidmatgars were outraged and to protest this, his followers staged a peaceful protest at Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar. What followed was the infamous massacre. More than 200 unarmed protestors were shot dead by the British-Indian Army.

Actor Dilip Kumar greeting Abdul Gaffar Khan at Meenambakkam Airport, Chennai (M. Karunanidhi can be seen in the background)
Actor Dilip Kumar greeting Abdul Gaffar Khan at Meenambakkam Airport, Chennai (M. Karunanidhi can be seen in the background)

The Khidmatgars were subjected to more violence and mass arrests but they continued to support the freedom movement. Khan was deeply hurt at the prospect of the partition of his beloved country but, still, he swore allegiance to the newly created country of Pakistan.

Khan walking with Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946
Khan walking with Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946

Sadly, Khan was arrested many times as he was considered an agent of India and the Khidmatgar movement was banned in 1948. Even though his struggle ended in a sense of betrayal and disappointment, his fight for India’s freedom and non-violent struggle is worth remembering.


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