Mahatma Gandhi was a man of dialogue and compromise. A British-trained lawyer, he always knew the limits of the law and knew when not to push too far even when his aim was to be arrested. However, when your opponents refuse dialogue, when events move so fast that no compromise is possible, what is one to do? On the anniversary of his assassination, 30 January, these questions confront us as we try to find peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. There is a certain irony that two of the most violent and dangerous conflicts which face us as peacemakers today are conflicts which Gandhi also faced but left unresolved. The first is violence within the Muslim community of what is now Pakistan. The second is violence and the political status of the Pathan (Pushtun) area that is on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier.
Tensions and outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims in India were always a possibility even under English colonial rule. In fact, some Indians still believe that the English, using a divide-and-rule policy, increased Hindu-Muslim tensions in order to consolidate their power. Now that the English have left, we see that Hindu-Muslim tensions can exist without English help. However, except for the dramatic popular killings at the time of Independence and the massive population transfers between India and Pakistan (well described in the novel of Khushwant Singh Train to Pakistan), there has been relatively little Hindu-Muslim violence in India.
Much more spectacular, and politically more important has been violence within the Muslim community — the high point (or low point) being the war for independence of Bangladesh in 1971 and the vengeful practices of the Pakistani Army. Today, Pakistan is home to constant violence — criminal, social, political and religious — the December imposition of a state of emergency and the death of Benazir Bhutto being recent examples. The city of Karachi has among the highest per capita rate of killings in the world and was lowered recently only by sending in large detachments of the Army.
On Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from his years as a lawyer and civil rights advocate in South Africa, he tried to improve Hindu-Muslim relations, in part by developing prayer services in which Hindu, Muslim and Christian scriptures were read — well before the interfaith meetings of today. He also began meetings with Muslim leaders, in particular Mohammed Ali Jinnah, later considered the father of Pakistan and trying to bring Muslims into his satyagraha-nonviolent campaigns.
However, by concentrating on better Hindu-Muslim relations, Gandhi did not see the rise of narrow and violent Hindu movements — one of whose representatives killed him. As the specialist in Gandhian thought T.K. Mahadevan wrote in his essay “The heretical philosophy of Gandhi” (Gandhi Marg,October 1974) “Nor was Gandhi a system-builder or a founder of a school of philosophy in any strict sense or in a sense acceptable to orthodox opinion in India. Indeed some of his more pronounced philosophical biases are un-Indian”.
An Indian swami (Hindu religious teacher) once asked Gandhi, “Sir, why is there evil in the world?” and Gandhi answered him:
“It is a difficult question to answer. I can only give what I may call a villager’s answer. If there is good there must also be evil, just as when there is light there is also darkness…It is enough for our spiritual growth to know that God is always with the doer of good. That again is a villager’s explanation.”
Unfortunately, Gandhi surrounded himself only with “yes men” and more often “yes women” who were not going to argue against his “villager’s explanation” of Hindu thought. Thus, he was not warned of the growing fundamentalist Hindu currents until it was too late to act against them. The orthodox Hindus did not take Gandhi’s thinking seriously but saw it as a weakness in the face of the rise of Islamic-political-religious currents. The orthodox Hindus had no desire to exchange ideas with Gandhi, and there were no representative of orthodox Hinduism in his entourage nor did orthodox Hindu religious leaders take part in the satyagraha campaigns.
When he was warned by the police that Hindus might kill him a few weeks before his death, Gandhi refused armed police protection. Thus it was that Nathuram Godse greeted Gandhi in the traditional Hindu way and then fired his killing shots. Gandhi had said “A bullet destroys the enemy; non-violence converts the enemy into a friend,” but he had no time for such a conversion.
The second challenge we face today that Gandhi also knew is the violence in the Pathan (Pushtun) North-West Frontier area divided by the Durand Line of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pathan homeland is what the English military had called “the Grim” and it is the area where the Taliban are strong and Al Qaeda leaders are thought to be. Not all the Pathan are Taliban, but all the Taliban leadership is Pathan. The area is beyond the control of the Pakistani government as well as of NATO-led forces on the Afghan side.
There are some six million Pathan in Afghanistan and some five million in Pakistan — nearly all in the North-West Frontier Provence. Many of the Pathan would like to join all the Pathan into a separate state Pushtunistan. The central governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan fear a separatist Pathan movement and have repressed those working for a separate country. However Pathan society is so closely knit and under the control of its chiefs that both Afghan and Pakistani leaders have tried to make compromises with the Pathan tribal leaders either by giving them more say in the central government or by leaving them totally alone to run their own affairs. An independent Pushtunistan may yet be the only way to bring calm to an area where the use of force to advance one’s interests is an accepted practice.
The one major exception to the Pathan use of armed force to achieve their ends was the life and work of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, commonly called Badshah Khan (chief of chiefs — a name given to him by the reforming King Ammanulla of Afghanistan). Ghaffar Khan (Khan and Abdul are honorary terms of respect and not part of the name) had joined Mahatma Gandhi in 1928, having begun his career doing educational and social development work in his native North-West Frontier Provence. Gandhi convinced Ghaffar Khan that there were twin goals that had to go together: social uplift and independence and that non-violent action was the way.
Ghaffar Khan and his brother Khan Saheb organized a non-violent army, the Khudai Khidmatgars — the Servants of God — which became a force of 100,000 both men and women. They were dressed in brick-red shirts and organized in a military but unarmed way. To the English, a non-violent Pathan was unthinkable — a fraud that masked something treacherous. However, to join the Khudai Khidmatgars one had to take a vow of non-violence, and a vow is a key aspect of Pathan culture. To break a vow is the ultimate dishonour. The Khudai Khidmatgars would march in military order and sing:
We are the army of God
By death or wealth unmoved.
We march, our leader and we
Ready to die
We serve and we love
Our people and our cause.
Freedom is our goal
Our lives the price we pay.
Ghaffar Khan, as Gandhi, opposed the partition of India, but after a year accepted the division, and in 1948 was elected head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, later headed by Ali Bhutto and then his daughter Benazir Bhutto. However, many in the Pakistan Army and some of the political elite thought that Ghaffar Khan’s participation in Pakistan politics was just a cover while working for the creation of a Pushtunistan. His brother Khan Saheb also played an important role in Pakistan politics until he was assassinated in 1958. Much of Ghaffar Khan’s life after Independence was spent in jail, then under house arrest and exiled to Afghanistan for fear that he was a Pathan separatist. Although the Khudai Khidmatgars was suppressed in 1948, Ghaffar Khan continued to advocate a policy of non-violence. I had met Ghaffar Khan in New Delhi when he had recently been released from a Pakistani jail and went to India to speak at Gandhi’s birth centenary in 1969.
Our task today is to find ways to practice non-violence on a large scale and against opponents we do not see. Conflict resolution without contact is a difficult task. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi reminds us that there are always those waiting in the shadows unwilling to discuss and compromise.