Abdul Ghaffar Khan

IssueNovember 2008
Feature by Shireen Shah

During the Indian struggle for independence, Mohandas Gandhi gained many followers, including a Muslim Pashtun (or Pathan) from what is now Pakistan, named Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who organised a powerful nonviolent movement. – Eds

Gandhi had been talking about the nonviolence of the strong, that it was for the brave, the courageous. The idea developed into the notion of an army of Pathans, renowned for their ferocity but without weapons. They would be disciplined, wear uniform, have a flag and officers appointed by a commander-in-chief, but they would be soldiers of nonviolence, dedicating their lives to resist oppression.

At first, Pathans saw this as a disfigurement of badal, the code of revenge was firmly rooted in their culture. But, in November 1929, Khudai Khidmatgar “Servants of God” was formed under the leadership of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and became the first professional nonviolent army. This was based on Islamic principles of universal brotherhood, submission to God’s will and service to God, with the underlying philosophy rooted in Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha – active nonviolence – which was captured in their oath of allegiance:

I am a Khudai Khidmatgar, and as serving Allah needs no service, but serving Allah’s creation is serving Allah, I promise to serve humanity in his name.
I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity.
I promise to treat every Pathan as my brother and friend.
I promise to refrain from anti-social customs and practices.
I promise to live a simple life, to practise virtue and to refrain from evil.
I promise to practise good manners and good behaviour and not to lead a life of idleness.
I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work.
This is the Oath of the Khudai Khidmatgar.

The earliest recruits were young men educated in Ghaffar Khan’s schools. They helped on community projects, maintained order at gatherings, and recruited. Women were included. Their name, “Red Shirts”, reflected a practical concern to keep their white shirts clean! When some of these white shirts got grimy, a couple of men dyed theirs at a local tannery and so the distinctive red-brick-coloured shirt was adopted as the uniform. Hence the title, surkh posh, Red Shirt. Walking sticks were carried in place of the weapons traditionally carried by Pathans.

Though the movement justified nonviolent protest within an Islamic context, it was intrinsically non-sectarian. On occasions, Khidmatgar members helped protect Hindus and Sikhs and their property following attacks in Peshawar. Ghaffar Khan quoted the prophet Mohammed:

That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by deed or word, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men.

The Pathan’s contempt for fear and cowardice was legendary, but they obeyed the oath even in the face of provocation. British Army tactics were chronicled by Musharraf Din:

“The British used to torture us, throw us into ponds in winter time, shave our beards, but even then Badshah told his followers not to lose patience. He said: ‘There is an answer to violence which is more violence. But nothing can conquer nonviolence. You cannot kill it. It keeps standing up.’ The British sent their horses and cars to run over us, but I took my shawl in my mouth to keep from screaming. We were human beings, but we should not cry or express in any way that we were injured or weak.”

The general strike

When 500 members of the Red Shirts were arrested in Peshawar, the entire population took the oath and enlisted. The civil disobedience led to a general strike, with the British army sending in armoured vehicles. Firing on the demonstrators continued for six hours. When the Garhwal Rifles, an elite Indian regiment, refused to fire on their countrymen, they were sentenced to stiff prison term – in one case for life. Negotiations later forced the British to release political prisoners, but all the Garhwalis were made to serve their full term.

The Servants of God commitment to nonviolence was a supreme challenge for the Pathans. Public humiliation, beating with rifle butts, being thrown into cesspools, and even cases of castration, provoked some to take their own lives rather than break their oath.


In 1930, Gandhi led his “Salt Satyagraha”, the 24-day march from the ashram to Sabarmati River to Dandi, where, by picking up a few grains of sand on the sea-shore, he broke the law giving a monopoly of making and selling salt to the colonising power. On 23 April, Ghaffar Khan’s arrest for organising civil disobedience triggered mass demonstrations, with shootings in Peshawar and repression in Utmanzai. In jail, when asked by the deputy commissioner what he would have done if he had not been influenced by Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan grasped the iron bars of the cell in his hands and forced them apart, saying: “That is what I would have done to you.”

By 1931, 5,000 members of the Red Shirts, including women, had been arrested. Five police were suspended in Benares for the horrific violence they used against female volunteers.

Ghaffar Khan rallied the Red Shirts: “I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and army will not be able to stand against it… that weapon is patience and righteousness… victory will be yours.”

When Gandhi returned from London, where he had attended the Round Table Conference about Indian independence, Ghaffar Khan joined him on the Congress Working Committee. Reflecting on his personal circumstances, Ghaffar Khan described the impact of Gandhi’s ideas:

“As a young boy, I had violent tendencies: the hot blood of the Pathan was in my veins. But in jail I had nothing to do except read the Koran. I read about the prophet Mohammed, about his patience, his suffering, his dedication. I had read it all before, as a child, but now I read it in the light of what I was hearing all around me about Gandhi’s struggle against the British Raj. When I finally met Gandhi, I learned about his ideas of nonviolence and his constructive programme. They changed my life forever.”

Travelling onto Calcutta in October 1943, Ghaffar Khan was greeted by students as the “Frontier Gandhi”. But he responded: “Please do not call me the Frontier Gandhi.… Mahatma Gandhi is our general, and there should be one general only.”