Of all the 20th century's political prisoners, none has outlived his jailers for as long or as defiantly as Abdul Ghaffer Khan. He is the 96-year-old Pakistani leader who has spent a third of his life in prisons.
The racist British put him in leg and neck irons in 1917 in northwest India. His crime was opening unauthorized schools. In 1934 the Indian government jailed him for making political speeches. In 1948, the Pakistani regime began a series of imprisonments that would last a total of 15 years. The crime was "anti-state activities." In August 1983, Khan, at age 94, was arrested and jailed briefly for protesting against the military dictatorship of Pakistan's Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
A few weeks ago, Khan, a Moslem, came again before the world, this time as both a free man and a revered man. A centenary celebration for India's Congress Party honored Khan as the oldest surviving member. The significance of this public embrace -- India's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, greeted Khan at the New Delhi airport -- is that the world is running out of living connections with Mahatma Gandhi and his practice of nonviolence. In 1919, the year that Gandhi transformed the Congress Party and attracted millions of Indians to begin nonviolently resisting British rule, Khan was 29 and teaching illiterate villagers in the Northwest Frontier of India. He was to become Gandhi's closest ally, one who took and lived the Mahatma's teachings on nonviolence without conditions.
Except for an occasional statement by Desmond Tutu or Lech Walesa on the need for nonviolent tactics, the world hears few voices that speak categorically against armed force as the way to end conflict. The honoring of Khan by a government that once jailed him is also a statement that his whole life -- nearly a century's worth -- is a testament that Islam has its heroes of compassion and peace-making. The West, weak to begin with in its knowledge of Islamic culture, now sees the rise of Middle East terrorism as proof that Moslems use their religion to justify fanaticism.
Khan's life refutes that distortion. One biographer calls him "the Muslim St. Francis." Like the 13th-century Italian, Khan, born in 1890, was raised in a turbulent society that equated manhood with dealing out death to enemy regions. India's Northwest Frontier Province was dominated by Khan's own people, the Pathans. They lived in the mountains of the Khyber Pass, the 19th-century entryway for the British into India and its wealth waiting to be exploited. Also like St. Francis, Khan walked away from the security of a positioned family. In 1910 at age 20, nine years from meeting Gandhi, he opened his first Islamic school in his village. "I was well aware," he wrote in his autobiography, "that the illiteracy and the ignorance of my people could only lead them to ruin and destruction. Therefore my first task, as I saw it, would be to try to eliminate illiteracy." He was to visit each of the 500 villages in the province.
That was nothing compared with educating the warrior Pathans into using other forms of force besides guns and swords. Systematically he brought the teachings of Gandhi to the murderous tribesmen he had earlier taught to read. He converted them. "Being fighters," he wrote, "they had learned discipline already." More than 100,000 Pathans turned to nonviolence under Khan. Gandhi said of them: "That such men who would have killed a human being with no more thought than they would kill a sheep or a hen should at the bidding of one man have laid down their arms and accepted nonviolence as the superior weapon sounds almost like a fairy tale."
The Pathans of the Northwest Frontier became the strongest allies of Gandhi in his drive to overthrow the British. In "A Man to Match His Mountain: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam," a new biography, Eknath Easwaran writes of the myth that the British were civilized oppressors. In the 1930s and '40s under British tyranny, the "Pathans had to endure mass shootings, torture, the destruction of their fields and homes, jail, flogging and humiliations. Khan himself spent 15 years in British prisons. But the Pathans remained nonviolent and stood unmoved -- suffering and dying in large numbers to win their freedom."
Khan once asked Gandhi why he thought the Pathans "grasped the idea of nonviolence much quicker and much better than the Hindu Indians." Gandhi answered: "Nonviolence is not for cowards. It is for the brave, the courageous. And the Pathans are more brave and courageous than the Hindus."
Easwaran believes that "were Khan's example better known, the Western world, as well as Muslims caught in the web of violence all over the Middle East, might come to recognize that the highest religious values of Islam are deeply compatible with a nonviolence that has the power to resolve great conflicts."
At the centenary ceremony in India, the Congress Party said that Khan is "the stalwart and captain of the freedom struggle who we welcome with unbound joy." So would the whole world, if it knew more of him.