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Khudai Khidmatgar ( Pashto: خدايي خدمتگار) literally translates as the servants of God, represented a non-violent freedom struggle against the British Empire by the Pashtuns (also known as Pathans, Pakhtuns or Afghans) of the North-West Frontier Province.
Also called "Surkh Posh" or "Red Shirts", it was originally a social reform organisation focussing on education and the elimination of blood feuds known as the Anjuman-e-Islah-e Afghania (society for reformation of Afghans). The movement was led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known locally as Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan.
It gradually became more political as it was being targeted by the British Raj, by 1929 its leadership was exiled from the province and large numbers were arrested. Seeking allies in India it approached the Muslim League and Indian National Congress, rebuffed by the former in 1929 the movement formally joined the Congress party. Due to pressure across India, the British government finally released Bacha Khan and lifted restrictions on the movement. As part of the Government of India Act 1935, limited franchise was for the first time introduced in the North-West Frontier Province. In the subsequent election, Bacha Khan's brother Dr.Khan Sahib was elected Chief Minister.
The Khudai Khidmatgar (KK) movement faced another crackdown for its role in the quit India movement after 1940, in that period it started facing increasing opposition from the Muslim League in the province. Its Congress affiliate won the 1946 election again, however it faced an increasing protest by supporters of the Pakistan movement. Amidst negotiations for the British departure from India, the Congress party agreed to the partition of India on the provision that a referendum was held to ascertain whether NWFP would prefer to be part of the new state of Pakistan or India. Realising they were in an untenable position the KK movement decided to boycott the referendum which allowed a narrow victory for the Pakistan vote. The KK movement faced a backlash from the new Pakistani government following partition, its government was dismissed and the movement banned.
Conditions prior to the movement
At the beginning of the 20th century Pashtun society was colonized, stagnant, violent, worn down by feuds, inequalities, factionalism, poor social cooperation, and plain ignorance. Education opportunities were strictly limited. Pashtuns are Muslims; and religious leaders and Mullahs were known to have told parents that if their children went to school, they would go to hell. Khan stated that “the real purpose of this propaganda” was to keep Pashtuns “illiterate and uneducated”, and hence his people “were the most backward in India” with regard to education. He also stated that by the time Islam reached his people centuries earlier, it had lost much of its original spiritual message.
Formed out of the society for reformation of Pashtuns (Anjuman-e-Islah-e-Afghan), it initially targeted social reformation and launched campaigns against prostitution. Bacha Khan as its founder seemed to be influenced by the realisation that whenever British troops were faced with an armed uprising they eventually always overcame the rebellion. The same could not be said when using non violence against the troops.
The movement started prior to the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre, when a demonstration of hundreds of non violent supporters were fired upon by British soldiers in Peshawar. Its low point and eventual dissipation was after Pakistan's independence in 1947 when the Muslim League Chief Minister Abdul Qayyum Khan banned the movement and launched a brutal crackdown on its members which culminated in the Babra Sharif massacre. At its peak the KK movement consisted of almost 100,000 members.
Initially the movement focussed on social reform as a means of improving the status of Pashtuns against the British. Ghaffar Khan founded several reform movements prior to the formation of the Khudai Khidmatgar, the Anjumen-e Islah ul-Afghan in 1921, the farmers' organisation Anjuman-e Zamidaran in 1927 and the youth movement Pashtun Jirga in 1927. Trying to further spread awareness on Pashtun issues Abdul Ghaffar Khan founded the magazine Pakhtun in May 1928. Finally in November 1929, almost on the eve of the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre the Khudai Khidmatgar were formed.
"The Red Shirts"
Khan drew his first recruits from the young men who had graduated from his schools. Trained and uniformed, they served behind their officers and filed out into various villages to seek recruits. They began by wearing a simple white overshirt, but the white was soon dirtied. A couple of men had their shirts dyed at the local tannery, and the brick-red colour proved a breakthrough, it was this distinctive colour that earned the Khudai khidmatgar movement activists the name "the Red shirts" or surkh posh.
Volunteers who took the oath formed platoons with commanding officers and learned basic army discipline. The volunteers had their own flags: red in the beginning, later tri-colour and bands: bagpipe and drums. The men wore red uniforms and the women black. They had drills, badges, a flag, the entire military hierarchy of rank and even a bagpipe corps.
Khan set up a network of committees called jirgas, named and modelled after the traditional tribal councils. Villages were grouped into larger groups, responsible to district-wide committees. The Provincial Jirgah was the ultimate authority.
Officers in the ranks were not elected, since Khan wanted to avoid infighting. He appointed a salar-e-azam or commander-in-chief, who in turn appointed officers to serve under him. Other ranks included Jarnails (Generals). The army was completely voluntary; even the officers gave their services free. Women were recruited too, and played an important role in the struggles to come.
Volunteers went to the villages and opened schools, helped on work projects, and maintained order at public gatherings. From time to time they drilled in work camps and took long military-style marches into the hills.
Under the influence of Abdul Ghaffar Khan the movement advocated non-violent protests and justified their actions through an Islamic context. Khan did not find Islam and non-violence as incompatible. Despite that the movement was intrinsically non-sectarian. In more than one occasion when Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in Peshawar, Khidmatgar members helped protect their lives and property.
“The Holy Prophet Mohammed came into this world and taught us ‘That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God's creatures.’ Belief in God is to love one's fellow men.” – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
“There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.” – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Pledge of the Khudai Khidmatgar
- Example 1
- In the name of God who is Present and Evident, I am a Khudai Khitmatgar.
- I will serve the nation without any self-interest.
- I will not take revenge (badla) and my actions will not be a burden for anyone.
- My actions will be non-violent.
- I will make every sacrifice required of me to stay on this path.
- I will serve people without regard to their religion or faith.
- I shall use nation-made goods.
- I shall not be tempted by any office.
- Example 2
In the presence of God I solemnly affirm that:
- I hereby honestly and sincerely offer myself for enrollment as a Khudai Khitmatgar.
- I shall be ever ready to sacrifice personal comfort, property, and even life itself to serve the nation and for the attainment of my country's freedom.
- I shall not participate in factions, nor pick up a quarrel with or bear enmity towards anybody. I shall always protect the oppressed against the tyranny of the oppressor.
- I shall not become member of any other organization, and shall not furnish security or tender apology in the course of a non-violent fight.
- I shall always obey every legitimate order of my superior officers.
- I shall always live up to the principles of non-violence.
- I shall serve all humanity equally. The chief objects of my life shall be attainment of complete independence and religious freedom.
- I shall always observe truth and parity in all my actions.
- I shall expect no remuneration for my service.
- All my services shall be dedicated to God, they shall not be for attaining rank or for show.
The Oath of the Khudai Khidmatgar
- I am a Servant of God, and as God needs no service, serving His creation is serving Him,
- I promise to serve humanity in the name of God.
- I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge.
- I promise to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty.
- I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity.
- I promise to treat every Pasthun as my brother and friend.
- I promise to refrain from antisocial customs and practices.
- I promise to live a simple life, to practice virtue, and to refrain from evil.
- I promise to practice 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.
- I put forth my name in honesty and truthfulness to become a true Servant of God.
- I will sacrifice my wealth, life, and comfort for the liberty of my nation and people.
- I will never be a party to factions, hatred, or jealousies with my people; and will side with the oppressed against the oppressor.
- I will not become a member of any other rival organization, nor will I stand in an army.
- I will faithfully obey all legitimate orders of all my officers all the time.
- I will live in accordance with the principles of nonviolence.
- I will serve all God's creatures alike; and my object shall be the attainment of the freedom of my country and my religion.
- I will always see to it that I do what is right and good.
- I will never desire any reward whatever for my service.
- All my efforts shall be to please God, and not for any show or gain.
Anthem of Khudai Khidmatgar
We are the army of God
By death or wealth unmoved,
We march, our leader and we,
Ready to die!
In the name of God, we march
And in his name, We die
We serve in the name of God
God's servant are we!
God is our king,
And great is he,
We serve our Lord,
His slaves are we!
Our country's cause
We serve with our breath,
For such an end,
Glorious is death
We serve and we love
Our people and our cause
Freedom is our aim,
And our lives are its price.
We love our country
And respect our country
Zealously we protect it
For the glory of God
By cannon or gun undismayed
Soldiers and horsemen,
None can come between,
Our work and our duty.
British Raj tactics against the Khudai Khidmatgar
British troops employed a wide variety of tactics against KK activists.
"The British used to torture us, throw us into ponds in wintertime, shave our beards, but even then Badshah Khan 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." -- Musharraf Din (Baldauf).
Another tactic employed against non-violent protesters who were blocking roads was to charge them with cars and horses.
In 1930, soldiers of the Garhwal Rifles refused to fire on non-violent protests led by Khudai Khidmatgars in Peshawar. By disobeying direct orders, the regiment sent a clear message to London that loyalty of India's armed forces could not be taken for granted to enact draconian measures. However, by 1931, 5,000 members of the Khudai Khidmatgar and 2,000 members of the Congress Party were arrested. This massacre was followed by the shooting of unarmed protestors in Utmanzai and the Takkar Massacre followed by the Hathikhel Massacre.
In 1932, the Khudai Khidmatgar movement changed its tactics and involved women in the movement. This unnerved many Indian officers working in the region as in those days of conservative India it was considered a grave insult to attack women, more so in a conservative Pashtun society. However the brutality increased and in one case five police officers in Benares had to be suspended due to "horrific reports about violence used against young female volunteers".
The British bombed a village in the Bajaur Valley in March 1932 and arrested Abdul Ghaffar Khan as well as more than 4,000 Khudai Khitmatgars. The British bombardments in the border area continued up till 1936-1937 because, “India is a training field for active military training which can be found nowhere else in the Empire", a British court concluded in 1933.
Other tactics ranged from poisoning to the barbaric as castrations were used against some Khudai Khidmatgar activists.
After the anti-war resignation of Dr. Khan's Ministry in 1939 because of the events of World War 2, British tactics towards the movement changed to employ divide-and-rule tactics through the instigation of sectarian and communal tensions over brute force. Governor George Cunningham's policy note of 23 September 1942, called for the government to ‘continuously preach the danger to Muslims of connivance with the revolutionary Hindu body. Most tribesmen seem to respond to this’, while in another paper he commented about the period 1939–1943: ‘Our propaganda since the beginning of the war had been most successful. It had played throughout on the Islamic theme.’
Relationship with the Indian National Congress
The movement was facing intense pressure by 1930 and the leadership under Ghaffar Khan was actively seeking political allies in India to help reduce the pressure on it by the British authorities. Previously in December 1928, Barrister Muhammad Jan Abbasi invited Bacha Khan to attend a Khilafat conference. The session ended badly with Maulana Shaukat Ali nearly being attacked by one member from the Punjab.
Despite the initial closeness between Ghaffar Khan and Ali, the harshness of their critique of Gandhi contrasted poorly with the patience shown by Gandhi in Ghaffar Khan's eyes. Another attempt was made by senior KK leaders to approach Sir Fazli Hussain a senior Punjabi leader of the Unionist party pleading for assistance against the crackdown which was dismissed.
The Congress subsequently offered all possible help to the Pathans in exchange on their part to joining the Congress party for the freedom struggle for India. This offer was put forth in the Frontier province, and was accepted by the Khudai Kidmatgars on August 1931. The move shocked the British authorities who were forced to ease pressure on the KK.
From mass movement to political party
More, with the introduction of provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act 1935, The first limited election were held in NWFP in 1936. Ghaffar Khan was banned from the province. His brother, Dr. Khan Sahib, led the party to a narrow victory and became Chief Minister. Ghaffar Khan returned to Peshawar in triumph on 29 August 1937 on what the Peshawar daily Khyber Mail called the happiest day of his life. During the two year stint of the Congress party under Dr Khan Sahib as Chief minister, major reforms were introduced including land reforms, promotion of the teaching of Pashto and the release of political prisoners.
On Congress directive the ministries in eight out of eleven provinces resigned in protest against Britain's not promising India independence after the War. The decision to resign proved a pivotal moment in Indian history, in the Frontier it was instrumental in giving those groups that opposed the Khudai Khidmatgar movement the opportunity to broaden their constituency.
Subhash Chandra Bose
The KK's activists role in helping Subhash Chandra Bose's escape in 1943 has largely been ignored till recently. In 1943, Amir Khan Khattak along with four other people received Subhash Chandra Bose at Nowshera Railway Station. He had come to make his escape to Nazi Germany via Afghanistan. Disguised as a Muslim, Subhash was taken to Khattak's village Dak Ismailkhel on the request of Mian Akbar Shah from Faqir Chand's house in Peshawar. He stayed with him for two days before leaving in a Pashtun attire for the German Embassy in Kabul leading to his journey to Germany and finally Japan.Agha Haider Ali of the Afghan National bank, helped Bose get in touch with the Kabul authorities and with his travel plans.
The increasingly liberal movement faced an increasing backlash from conservatives because of its support for the Congress party amidst growing support for the Pakistan movement. The decision of Dr. Khan Sahib to support his daughters marriage to a Sikh soldier led to some senior associates of Bacha Khan to leave.
Similarly his son, Ghani Khans criticism of feudal landlords angered many conservative "Khans" and Nawabs, some formerly sympathetic to the movement.
This coincided with a determined effort by the British Raj to discredit the movement with the assistance of mullahs and ulema allied with the British. The British Governor, Cunningham, instructed the big khans to meet each mullah on individual basis and tell him to serve the 'cause of Islam' for which he would be duly paid. The Mullahs were told that in case of good progress they would also be considered for government pension. A Cunningham policy note of 23 September 1942 reads: 'Continuously preach the danger to Muslims of connivance with the revolutionary Hindu body. Most tribesmen seem to respond to this', while in another paper he says about the period 1939-43: 'Our propaganda since the beginning of the war had been most successful. It had played throughout on the Islamic theme.
Fall of the Khudai Khidmatgar
The Khudai Khidmatgar movement decline can be traced back to two decisions the first was the Congress decision in 1939 to resign from power in protest against British World War II policy. This move gave an opportunity to the Muslim League to develop and for the British authorities to alter their strategy.
In 1940, a split occurred within the Pakhtun Zalmey, the youth organisation affiliated with Bacha Khan's Khudai Khidmatgar movement. It occurred after Bacha Khan refused to accept the results of the internal party 1940 elections in which Salar Aslam Khan of Kohat won the contest as president of Pakhtun Zalmey with overwhelming majority. The refusal by Bacha Khan to accept Salaar Aslam caused a great damage to the party in southern districts of the province where Khudai Khidmatgars won all the seats of the provincial as well as national assemblies in the previous elections. Salar Aslam was also a member of the Forward Block and Bacha Khan's argument was that he could not trust anyone but his elder son, Ghani Khan, whom he wanted to lead Pakhtun Zalmey. "It was a mistake of Bacha Khan. He was not happy about his decision later, but had to argue that at that sensitive stage of the political struggle, he could only trust Ghani Khan.
The party also faced attempts by the British Raj to discredit it by portraying it as an irreligious group trying to promote a pro Hindu and pro communist agenda. Despite these attempts, the movements political wing contested and won the 1946 provincial elections.
NWFP election results 1946
An exception to the rule of non-violence occurred when Badshah Khan's son Ghani Khan on 26/27 April 1947 founded the breakaway group Zalmai Pukhtoon (Pashtun Youth), a militant, organisation of Pukhtoon youth, carrying fire-arms, the aim of which was to protect the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) and members of the Congress Party from violence feared at the hands of Muslim League activists. It had no connection as such with the Khudai Khidmatgars. Nehru’s fateful visit to the Frontier in October, 1946, and its tragic aftermath in a gradual erosion of the popular base of the incumbent Khan Sahib Ministry. Despite this, the movement stayed true to its non-communal leanings, when the Khudai Khitmatgar came out to protect thousands of sikhs and Hindus worried they would be attacked in the increasing pre-partition violence between Hindus and Muslims.
Pakistan's Independence in August 1947 marked the beginning of the end of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement. While the Congress government remained in power briefly it was eventually dismissed by the Governor under the orders of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Dr. Khan Sahib was replaced by former Congressite Abdul Qayyum Khan. He successfully stopped an attempted rapprochement between Ghaffar Khan and Muhammad Ali Jinnah by stopping a planned meeting between the two citing security threats. With that, Jinnah gave Qayyum Khan a free hand in dealing with the Congress and the Khudai Khidmatgars. The crackdown that followed culminated with the Babra Sharif massacre. Despite the provocation and its obvious ambivalence over Pakistan's creation, the Khudai Khidmatgar leaders reconvened at Sardaryab on 3 and 4 September 1947 and passed a resolution that stated "The Khudai Khidmagars regard Pakistan as their own country and pledge that they shall do their utmost to strengthen and safeguard its interest and make every sacrifice for the cause; The dismissal of Dr. Khan Sahib’s ministry and the setting up of Abdul Qaiyum’s ministry is undemocratic, but as our country is passing through a critical stage, the Khudai Khidmatgars shall take no step which might create difficulties in the way of either the Provincial or Central Government; After the division of the country the Khudai Khidmatgars sever their connection with the All-India Congress organization and, therefore, instead of the Tricolor, adopt the Red Flag as the symbol of their party."
You have thrown us (Khudai Khidmatgar) to the wolves.—Bacha Khan addressing the Mahatma after Partition of India.
However Qayyum Khan and the central government had already decided that there would be no accord with the movement. The Khudai Khidmatgar organisation was declared unlawful in mid-September 1948, mass arrests followed and the centre at Sardaryab (Markaz-e-Khudai Khidmatgaran), built in 1942, was destroyed by the Provincial Government. This crackdown ultimately led to the Babra Sharif massacre.
The movement was also hit by defections as party members switched sides out of fear or for benefit. Those members that wished to survive politically rallied behind a former ally, turned opponent of Qayyum Khan, the Pir of Manki Sharif. The Pir created a breakaway Muslim League, however, it proved no match for Qayyum who engineered his re-election in 1951.
The movement lingered on till 1955 when it was again banned by the central government because of Ghaffar Khan's opposition to the One Unit. An aborted attempt was made to bring Ghaffar Khan into the government as a Minister as well as turning the KK movement into a national organization, however Ghaffar Khan turned down the offer.
Although the ban on the movement was lifted in 1972, the Khudai Khidmatgar movement had been broken.
The Khudai Khidmatgar movement was a success in the terms of its opposition to British rule. However, the social effects of the movement have not survived. While the Ghaffar Khan family maintains a hold over the political philosophy of the movement, its history has largely been wiped out from official memory in Pakistan. The movement has also been criticized for its opposition to partition, and by that virtue the creation of Pakistan.
As a result it has been seen as a secessionist movement in Pakistan, and in the 1950s and 1960s it was also perceived as pro communist, an argument that was used by conservative elements to discredit it as anti-Islam. The movement's claim to total non-violence seems flawed as well; some critics argue that while the movement proved a success against the British, it like other non-violent movements would not have proved a success against another Imperial power. This is supposedly proved by its failure to pose a challenge to the Pakistani government amidst a crackdown that was far more brutal than any done by the British. Others have also suggested that the Khudai Khidmatgar movement was not in fact as non-violent as its supporters would argue. Writers like Schofiled and Bannerjee have documented cases of attacks on British personnel and soldiers.