"Frontier Gandhi" brings Pashtun peace icon to life

Wed Feb 3, 2010 8:50am EST
 
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

KABUL (Reuters) - Badshah Khan was so close to Mahatma Gandhi they shared reading glasses, inspiring jokes about their shared vision, but unlike his friend, the Pashtun champion of non-violent struggle has been almost forgotten by his people.

Now Canadian filmmaker Teri McLuhan hopes to drag the man dubbed "Frontier Gandhi," and his role in winning independence from British rule, back into the limelight.

Khan's message of peace, which won him a Nobel prize nomination in 1985, is still vital both in the conflicted areas where he spent most of his life, and in the West where it can help explode stereotypes about the Muslim world, she says.

Born to relative privilege in the Pashtun tribal heartland that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan -- later dubbed "Badshah" or "King" by his followers -- turned down a career in the British army to build his own force of thousands of troops sworn to non-violence.

"He was a 6'5" giant of the human spirit, that is what attracted me to him," said McLuhan, who was handed his biography by a friend and became so obsessed with telling his story that she has dedicated over 20 years to the task and learnt three languages -- Dari, Pashto and Urdu -- along the way.

She tracked down the last of the Khudai Khidmatgars, or servants of god, Khan's peaceful army who dressed in red to show they were willing to shed their own blood but not that of others. Most are over 100, but have the fierce dedication of teenagers.

They faced beatings, imprisonment and even castration from the British, and some fared little better in newly created Pakistan, but remained loyal to Khan and true to their oaths -- to serve God by serving humanity without violence -- for decades.

"I was fortunate to meet these people at a particular time. I get emails all the time now saying 'so and so has died'," McLuhan told Reuters in an interview in the Afghan capital.   Continued...

 
<p>Badshah Khan (C), Mahatma Gandhi (L) and India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru are seen in this undated handout photograph released on February 3, 2010. Badshah Khan was so close to Mahatma Gandhi they shared reading glasses and his biographer joked about their shared vision, but the great Pashtun warrior of the non-violent struggle has been almost forgotten by his people. Now Canadian filmmaker Teri McLuhan hopes to drag the man dubbed "Frontier Gandhi", and his role in winning independence from British rule, back into the limelight. REUTERS/Peace on Earth Productions/Teri C. McLuhan</p>