Khudai Khidmatgar was a populist-nationalist movement of mainly Pashtuns created in 1930 in the area known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, then part of India, later part of Pakistan). Its name meaning "servants of God," the group worked for social reform, the rights of all people (including women), and the independence of India from under British colonial rule. Its most striking and impressive feature was its absolute acceptance of nonviolence as part of life and work.

While not dissimilar to those using civil disobedience and nonviolence under Mohandas Gandhi (the founder of Khudai Khidmatgar—Abdul Ghaffar Khan—was part of Gandhi's inner circle), nonviolence and social responsibility were more than just policy or a means to an end, its was the end. It was the way they served God, by serving mankind.

The group was primarily made of Pashto Muslims but was not, at its core, a singularly religious group. Its basis, particularly for nonviolence, was the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (who espoused similar beliefs in his early career), according to Ghaffar Khan. And while God is evoked and assumed, it is much the way that many movements and organizations—before and since—have assumed and evoked "God" (however manifest). That said, many or most of the movement had a deep religious faith that they drew on in living according to the stated goals of the group—as with many things in the region, religion was and is an inextricable part of life.

There was no "test" required for membership, the goal was a free and independent India including both Hindu and Muslim (along with the other social reforms). In fact, Ghaffar Khan was greatly frustrated and disappointed at the partition of India into India (meant for Hindus) and Pakistan (as the Muslim state) for that reason. He also felt that the rights of all would be better insured by a unified sectarian state. The only requirement was to take the oath (see below) and live according to it.

One of the remarkable things about the movement is the background from which it grew. The people of the region had a political-power dynamic made up of warlords and clans as well as religious people (with some crossover) rather than anything resembling a centralized government. Internecine fighting and bloody feuds were not uncommon and some times went on for years.

That said, two things should be noted. One is that this is a matter of culture and tradition, rather than something that is necessarily inherent in the religion itself (religion is a common excuse or "justification" for actions, whether it follows from actual theology or not). Another is that it would be wrong to paint all Pashtuns with the same brush (even setting aside the obvious exception under discussion).

On the other hand, that is what the British often did, using the belief that the Pashtuns were savage and warlike and given to the sport of killing each other off to justify repressive measures that included the bombing of villages in later years (another "justification" could easily have been the embarrassment and frustration the British suffered because of their inability to crush these ethnic savages). It should be said, though, that even among Pashtuns, they viewed themselves as warriors.

An oppressed people generally react by caving in or through retaliation of some sort, almost always of a violent nature (a continuum from vandalism to killing). But this is not what the Khudai Khidmatgar did (nor the others that were part of the larger independence movement). It is not implausible that the success of independence is largely because of the methods used these groups.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Ghaffar Khan had grown up frustrated with the way children were taught in the local mosques, where memorization was valued more than understanding and questioning was discouraged. He felt that the teachers were missing the meaning of religion and later started up a school of his own where this would not be a problem—it was also part of his social conscience, as he was also bothered by the lack of education and rate of illiteracy among his fellow Pashtuns.

Inspired by other social reformers and his growing conviction that nonviolence1 and service to humanity should be one's goal in life, he was determined to create his own army—an army of servants who were armed with enthusiasm and compassion rather than weapons. The men and women (women were allowed to participate in the movement the same as men) were organized into groups and trained, they had leaders (though equality for all was still paramount, this was necessary as an organizational principle), they had a flag, and a "uniform"—they wore brick colored shirts, which led them to be referred to as the "red shirts" by some (mainly the British).

As a result of his work with the movement, Ghaffar Khan was constantly harassed and jailed (spending about half his life in prison or in exile). Other members of the movement suffered similarly. Many lost their lives as a result (see below) or even were subject to torture. This was accepted as part of what the movement meant for them. It was jihad in the correct sense of the term—a struggle. A struggle not only against repression and violence but against themselves and the elements of the culture that allowed violence and inequality. Again, the words of religion that transcend to an overarching philosophy and world view that became the Khudai Khidmatgar raison d'etre.

Reform and Service
The movement worked to help create schools and establish rights for women (something that many traditionalists and religious leaders despised). The group worked with Gandhi's Congress Party, helping to get legislation passed that limited some of the "feudal privileges" that the local leaders had gained through the power allowed under British rule. Other legislation helped benefit the poor and lower classes socially and economically.

Other political success came from making those in office accountable for their decisions and actions, and the offices held on the basis of merit and through competition rather than nepotism, appointment, or assertion of power. These accomplishments made both the British and those running things locally angry (as erosion of power often does). Working for independence made them even more personae non grata. Despite all that, they were voted twice into power in the NWFP. Those in the seat of power may have hated them but the general population saw what they were doing and voted (even joined) accordingly.

All new members of the Khudai Khidmatgar had to take an oath. While the language is often religious, there was no need to be Muslim to become part of the movement (membership was almost exclusively Muslim) only the desire and will to serve "God" through helping people and to observe the articles of the oath as a way of life.

  • I am a Servant of God, and as God needs no service, but 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 Pathan [Pashtun] 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 behavior and not to lead a life of idleness.
  • I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work.

Later, members signed a pledge with these provisions:

  • 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

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Whomever or whatever one's God might be, working within the movement was an extension of serving that deity. The ideas and principles sprang from religion, the service to humanity is universal.

The movement's commitment to their cause and to nonviolence can best be seen in the massacre that took place in Peshawar on 23 April 1930. It had followed yet another arrest of Ghaffar Khan. The people were upset by the action and began protesting in the bazaar, defying the British and Indian troops who were accompanied by armored cars.

Refusing to break up and disperse, the soldiers opened fire on the protesters. People began to fall, dead or wounded, many riddled with multiple gunshots. The wounded and dead were pulled back from the front of the crowd and new members took their places. The whole thing went from about 11 AM to 5 PM before it came to an end when two platoons of Indian soldiers finally refused to continue shooting into the crowd. The death toll was estimated at around 200 (the British claimed only thirty died). It took several days to restore order in Peshawar. Mass arrests followed and the movement was made illegal.

The soldiers who disobeyed were court-martialed and severely punished. One of them stated during the proceedings that "we will not shoot out unarmed brethren, because India's army is to fight India's enemies without" (

An interesting side note to that is Gandhi's response. He was not pleased with the action of the Indian soldiers (as far as practicality and politics went). He felt that

A soldier who disobeys an order to fire breaks the oath which he has taken and renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey, for when I am in power, I shall in all likelihood make use of those same officials and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power.

This demonstrates a distinction between Gandhi's use of nonviolence with the movement's. He was a deeply peaceful and humanitarian man, committed to the same goals, civil disobedience and nonviolent protest were matters of policy and the means through which social change and independence would be made. But it was understood that violence might be necessary at times in the future. Ghaffar Khan and his group held nonviolence as a matter of the highest principle and would not allow any justification for the use of force.

Independence and Partition
In 1947, amongst riots and fighting (and negotiations), the control of Britain was surrendered and independence granted. But as part of the deal, two states were set up, Pakistan and India. In the course of this "partition," many Hindus became persecuted and many lost their lives. True to their beliefs, the Khudai Khidmatgar put their own lives and safety at risk by protecting the lives and property of thousands of Hindus.

This did not sit well with the newly created governing body in Pakistan. When a referendum was held on whether to make the NWFP part of Pakistan, Ghaffar Khan told the members to boycott it (for reasons mentioned above). They became seen supporters of Hindu India and rejecters of Muslim Pakistan. Ghaffar Khan further angered those in power by later advocating the NWFP become a separate area for Pashtuns (he left it unclear if that was to be a separate state or within Pakistan, itself). This led to further harassment and prison time for him and the movement. He was exiled from Pakistan in 1958, only returning from Afghanistan in the early 1970s.

Splinter groups grew up in the absence of the Khudai Khidmatgar. While many kept to the principles espoused by the original, many also used force against the Pakistani government which placed things under martial law and outlawed and suppressed any groups that resisted. The group never regained its former prominance.

1When Ghaffar Khan met Gandhi in 1919, he found a comrade in many ways, both believing in peace, nonviolent protest, and independence. Though it is sometimes suggested that Gandhi was the inspiration for his belief in nonviolence, the ideas came independently of the Mahatma. It is almost certain, though, that finding a kindred spirit helped reinforce and invigorate his our beliefs and convictions on the subject. Ghaffer Khan was sometimes known as the "Frontier Gandhi."

(Sources: (Sources: The Progessive February 2002;;;;;;;