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 learned 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.
Khan’s son and daughter, biographers, top Indian academics, politicians and journalists, the current president of Afghanistan and former president of Pakistan also appear in the documentary, which won the Best Documentary award in the Middle East International Film Festival last year.
Khan came from a tribal tradition that prized honour and expected men to defend it at almost any cost, but he managed to redefine the meaning of bravery for many.
“For a man born into a warrior culture, to believe he could take on an Empire just by the strength of his beliefs … and to actually make his people believe the moment you become violent you become a stooge; boy, was that difficult,” says MJ Akbar, editor-in-chief of Indian newspaper The Asian Age, in the film.
Khan also believed women should have an education and a role in society, making sure his own daughters were well-educated and creating a corps of female Khudai Khidmatgars.
He would have been distraught to see his home region now in the news largely for violence and extremism, McLuhan says, but that only makes his story more relevant.
“The growing stereotype of Islam did not help my project. This story shatters that stereotype which makes some people very uncomfortable,” she said.
“Definitely 9/11 was a facilitator as it thrust this part of the world into many more people’s consciousness, and made the message of non-violence more urgent.”
The split of India and Pakistan marked the beginning of the decline of Khan’s political influence, though not his popularity.
He opposed creating a Muslim state, believing people of different faiths should live together, and his non-violent army fanned out to protect non-Muslims amid the slaughter and chaos of communal violence over partition.
But Pakistan’s eventual leaders mistrusted him because of his stance, and many of the elite seem ambiguous about his role in their national history even now. Former President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf appears on screen expressing that discomfort.
Khan spent around one out of every three days of his life in jail, and much of that time was done not under the British but the Pakistani government.
He was also kept out of the media in his new homeland and increasingly forgotten, instead spending much of his time in Afghanistan, pushing the importance of education and urging a country traumatised by decades of war to believe in non-violence.
He was buried in the Afghan city of Jalalabad when he died in 1988, despite heavy fighting at the time, and the borders were thrown open to allow his funeral procession to arrive.
Khan felt no anger over his fall from political grace.
Towards the end of his life he was asked about whether he felt it had all been in vain, with periods of military rule in Pakistan, spiralling violence and civil war in Aghanistan.
“He looked at the journalist and said quietly ‘I was placed here to plant a seed’,” McLuhan says. “There was no rancour or bitterness about him, in spite of the betrayals and forgetting.”