Islamic Nonviolent Resistance in the Struggle for Indian Independence

By John Bacher | 1988-12-01 12:00:00

THIS YEAR WE HAVE BEEN INSPIRED BY the nonviolence of the Christian and Muslim Palestinians who have been resisting Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. This action shows the possibility of cooperation among different religious communities, including Muslim ones, in nonviolent protests. This is no singular occurrence, although such heroic nonviolence on the part of Muslims has been too often ignored, while attention has been focused instead on extremist sects of Islam, bent on conquest.

It is worth recalling another example of Islamic nonviolence -- the joint actions of Hindus and Muslims in India. Like today's Palestinian protestors, they struggled for the independence of their homeland. Such an Islamic nonviolent resistance movement in India was successful, despite the ruthless efforts by British administrators to goad it into violence. This movement arose (of all places!) among the Muslims in the Pathan Northwest Frontier province, where traditional culture glorified military prowess. A principal reason for the emergence of the movement in that locale was the repeated failure of violent struggles to oust the British.

The Pathans had already been engaged in 80 years of guerrilla warfare since they had been separated from their fellow-Pathans living in Afghanistan. The British had shelled and bombed their villages, and had beaten, flogged, and jailed Pathans by the thousands. Crops had been burned, orchards chopped down and food stores and homes systematically destroyed. The Northwest Frontier Province had been placed under military rule and the Pathans had been denied the most elemental civil rights. A man could be exiled to a foreign penal colony without a trial, and Pathans were obliged to obtain permission even to move outside their district. Public meetings were illegal, except in Mosques. By now all Pathans were required to kowtow before any passing Englishman, under threat of being locked in stocks in public.

The Pathan nonviolent resistance movement was created by Badshah Khan, who had previously collided with the British when they opposed his efforts to establish a school for the province. Badshah Khan was an early political ally of Gandhi, attracted by the similarity in their spiritual outlook, despite their often conflicting religious backgrounds.

Although his imprisonment by the British quickly turned him into a national hero, Badshah Khan faced a number of difficulties in creating a nonviolent movement. British policy encouraged infighting among the Pathans, creating a situation where they were "too busy cutting one another's throat to think of anything else." Building on the martial traditions of the Pathans, Badshah Khan developed a disciplined nonviolent way for peace. He worked with a nonviolent army, called the Khudai Khidmatgars -- the "Servants of God" -- that had drills, badges, a tricolor flag, officers, and even a bagpipe corps. Volunteer numbers of this army opened schools, helped on work projects, and prevented violence at public meetings. During the Pathan participation in the Great Congress party salt boycott, British troops killed an estimated 200 to 300 nonviolent protestors. At one point, troops fired on a crowd that had expressed a willingness to disperse if they could remove their dead. Despite the deaths, the Khudai Khidmatgars did not panic and a platoon of British-commanded Indian soldiers refused to fire. The courage of the Khudai Khidmatgars caused their ranks to swell to 80,000 volunteers during the salt boycott.

THE BRITISH TRIED bizarre means to goad the Pathans into violence, so that their rebellion could be crushed with familiar military tactics. At one point, understanding the Pathan custom of not removing their trousers as long as they are alive, the British soldiers forcibly stripped Khudai Khidmatgars of their clothing. Cows were shot or bayonetted. Villagers were forced inside their homes. One British commander had Khudai Khidmatgars thrown into cesspools after they were stripped and physically humiliated in public. On other occasions they were thrown into icy streams. Fields were destroyed and oil thrown on them. Despite such provocation, the Pathans did not crack. They understood Badshah Khan's observation that "All the horrors the British perpetuated on the Pathans had only one purpose: to provoke them to violence." Badshah Khan's movement finally succeeded, when the British gave the Pathans an elected civil government having parity with the rest of India.

The new Pathan provincial government, elected in 1937, was headed by Badshah Khan's brother, Dr. Khan Saheb. One of the first acts of that government was to remove the six-year ban by which the British had kept Badshah Khan from entering the region. With Indian independence now widely seen as inevitable, Badshah Khan's difficulties now centered on the opportunism of the Muslim League and the Congress Party leaders, who were more concerned with personal power than principle. Alone among prominent Congress leaders, Badshah Khan in 1940 supported Gandhi's refusal to cooperate with the British in the war against Japan. He saw that a departure from the principle of nonviolence would encourage deadly conflicts between Muslims and Hindus. The Congress Party launched the "Quit India" campaign in 1942, after the British had rejected the majority their members' agreement to participate in the war in exchange for independence. During that campaign, only in the Pathan Northwest Frontier Province did the struggle remain nonviolent.

On August 16, 1946, motivated by a desire to control all Muslim cabinet representation in a future Indian government, the Muslim League launched the Day of Direct Action. Where in other parts of India Hindus were beaten or forced to convert to Islam, in the Pathan Northwest Frontier Province, 10,000 Khudai Khidmatgars successfully protected Hindu and Sikh minorities by unarmed patrols.

When the last British Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, announced the partition of India, among the Congress Party leaders only Badshah Khan supported Gandhi's objections. Both correctly predicted that partition would intensify, rather than weaken, communal violence. The Pathans of the Northwest Frontier Province (who, though Muslims, were Congress Party supporters) wanted to remain part of India. However, the province was cynically handed over to Pakistan by the British after the Muslim League leaders announced they would refuse the partition plan without it. Shortly after independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu who claimed he was pro-Muslim and Badshah Khan was imprisoned by an Islamic government who claimed he was pro-Hindu. As his biographer, Eknath Easwaran, notes in his book on Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains, (Nilgiri Press), the irony was complete. Two of India's holiest men "had been sacrificed in the name of religion."

Badshah Khan lived to be 98. After his release from prison in 1965, he struggled for democracy, facing frequent arrest. His brother, after briefly serving as a democratic premier, was assassinated. Founder of the social democratic National Awami League, which unexpectedly led East Pakistan to an independence it did not want, Badshah Khan gave a length of service unequalled to the cause of freedom and justice. For peace activists his career testifies to the power of love to resist the machinations of those would would pervert social movements to opportunism, authoritarianism, and violence. His spirit of peace has been a particular inspiration to another leader of nonviolence today, the Palestinian Christian Mubarak Awad, whose work is discussed on page 5.

John Bacher is a historian who lives in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Dec 1988-Jan 1989

Peace Magazine Dec 1988-Jan 1989, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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