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Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains
by Sri Eknath Easwaran
$16.95, 276 pages
Nilgiri Press, 1999
On April 23rd, 1930, unarmed crowds gathered in Kissa Khani Bazaar, in what is now Pakistan, in nonviolent protest against the British Raj. When they refused to disperse, British troops began firing on them: “When those in front fell down ... those behind came forward with their breasts bared and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as 21 bullet wounds in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic.”
This was the world’s first nonviolent army, called by Abdul Ghaffar (Badshah) Khan, who had joined Gandhi to lead his fellow Muslims in the struggle against British colonialism. His peaceful warriors were revenge- and honor-driven Pathans (or Pashtuns) of Afghanistan, the same tribe that would later dominate the Taliban. Khan won over almost 100,000 of these devout Muslims to a nonviolent movement that played a signal role in India’s freedom struggle.
Who was Khan and how did he come to be Gandhi’s partner in nonviolence? Khan, as one old Khudai Khidmatgar, or Servant of God in his nonviolent army, reminds us, was foremost a spiritual figure: “It was Badshah Khan’s spiritual power that convinced us [to stand up to the British nonviolently].”
How could people known for their quickness to avenge violence with violence, people who ‘only understand force’—take to nonviolence with such enduring passion?
This book shows that in the logic of nonviolence such a ‘conversion’ makes perfect sense. For nonviolence, as Gandhi insisted, was not the ‘weapon of the weak’; on the contrary, it is the strongest form of human power and it takes the bravest and strongest to wield it.
It was precisely these warlike Pathans who were ideally suited to re-channel their bravery from a material to a spiritual force—if only someone could show them the way. And that someone was Badshah Khan, whose courage and idealism earned him the title “Frontier Gandhi.”
“Speak sweetly to a Pathan,” one of the nonviolent warriors explains, “and he will follow you to the ends of the earth.” Speak violently to Pathans, as we are doing today, and you’re in for trouble.
The book explodes three other myths we carelessly entertain about nonviolence; first, that nonviolence can work only against a weak opponent. As the protesters at Kissa Khani Bazaar knew, the firepower of the British army was hardly weak, nor were the British reluctant to use it when, as in the Pathans’ frontier province, their authority was challenged.
The second myth is that nonviolence is useful for groups protesting an injustice, but not for a state, for national defense. One look at the photos showing tens of thousands of Khudai Khidmatgars standing in full uniform will haunt the imagination, for they are fully armed, but without guns. They are ready for the battle of real courage, of love in action.
And finally, there is the myth that nonviolence cannot take root in Islam. It is a travesty to hold that Islam, which enshrines mercy and patience at its very core, cannot support nonviolent struggle, as it did in the first Intifada in Palestine and could do again.
I was fortunate enough to hear Khan’s story directly from Sri Eknath Easwaran at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in northern California, when he was writing Nonviolent Soldier of Islam .
Now, of course, with American troops locked in battle with Pathans and others in Afghanistan, this new edition is even more welcome. No one is more qualified to tell this story than Sri Easwaran, who saw Badshah Khan and followed his story while still in India. Sri Easwaran’s simple, practical books on meditation have sold over a million copies, and his students span the world today, making him uniquely qualified to show us both the spiritual basis and the practical workings of nonviolence, which Gandhi called “the greatest force mankind is endowed with.”
Interviewed by anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee in her recent book The Pathan Unarmed, Khan’s old warriors, now frail and infirm, come to life as they relive the moment of glory when they answered the call to nonviolence. Says 75-year-old Jarnail Abdul Aziz of Badshah Khan, “We feel that he is still alive and among us today.” Reading this book, we can almost agree with him.