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Pashtun peace prophet goes global

By Dawood Azami, BBC World Service

Frontier Gandhi poster
Badshah Khan's message of peace is especially resonant today

As the international community discusses its policies towards violence-stricken Afghanistan and Pakistan, a question arises time and again - how to pacify and win the support of the Pashtun population?

Pashtuns are commonly known for their warrior nature and martial history. But they also produced one of the most successful non-violent movements of the 20th Century, which resisted British colonialism in what is now Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas.

The dramatic story of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the founder of the little-known pacifist movement, has been told for the first time in a major international documentary film called The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace.

The 90-minute film, premiered in the third edition of the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF 2009) in Abu Dhabi, is produced and directed by Teri C McLuhan who spent more than two decades planning, researching and executing the project.

'Servants of God'

Ghaffar Khan - also known as King Khan, Pride of the Afghans and the Frontier Gandhi - emerged as a social reformer in the early 1920s with the aim to unite, educate and reform his fellow Pashtuns.

Frontier Gandhi Director Teri C McLuhan
There is a possibility to revive the peace movement through projects like this film
Frontier Gandhi Director Teri C McLuhan

Pashtuns (also known as Pathans or ethnic Afghans) form the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second biggest in Pakistan.

In 1929 Ghaffar Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (KK or Servants of God) movement to free the predominantly Pashtun NWFP and the rest of British India from colonialism through strikes, political rallies and non-violent opposition.

The KK volunteers, who also included women, were known as the Red Shirts because of the red uniform they wore.

The movement is estimated to have had 100-300,000 members - and was described as the first non-violent army in the world. It endured some of the worst suffering of the Indian independence movement.

The movement later became an affiliate of the Indian National Congress and Ghaffar Khan became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi.

"It is true that there are attacks on a daily basis, but there is a possibility to revive the peace movement through projects like this film," says Teri C McLuhan, director of the film.

"I think Badshah Khan's personality can play a very important role in bringing the region together to a peaceful co-existence, because there is simply no other option."

Filmed across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Frontier Gandhi illuminates the little-known but fascinating story of Ghaffar Khan through interviews with several founding members of the movement (all more than 90 years old), experts and his family members.

South Asian leaders interviewed for the film include President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan (who praises Mr Khan and talks of his memory of meeting him when he was a boy), former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (who does not view Mr Khan as a Pakistani patriot) and former Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral.

"It is highly encouraging that foreigners are taking an interest in our history and heroes," said an Afghan who watched the film.

Rediscovery

"It is a very important film... it is about a chapter of history we didn't know about," says Peter Scarlet, executive director of MIEFF, who selected the film for the festival.

Badshah Khan Square, Quetta, Pakistan
A square in the Pakistani city of Quetta has been named after Badshah Khan

"The film is important to learn about this visionary, a warrior of peace who, despite all the hardships, continued to preach the gospel of peace."

Many people who saw the film described the timing of the release as very important.

"At a time when the whole region is boiling, we really need what Bacha Khan believed in. We need to spread his word and act like him," said an Afghan, Siraj Hilal, after watching the film.

Ghaffar Khan's followers hope that his message will be revived through many books published recently about him - and that the film will play a big role in showing another side of Pashtun life.

"The prejudice that existed against Badshah Khan during the Cold War is diminishing now and the world is discovering him from anew" says Afrasiab Khattak, head of the Awami National Party in NWFP.

"This film will help a lot in introducing Badshah Khan to the rest of the world."

Ghaffar Khan opposed the partition of India in 1947 and continued to fight for the rights of the Pashtuns in the newly created state of Pakistan.

His aim was to unite the Pashtuns - who were divided during the struggle for influence in Afghanistan - into several administrative systems.

He paid dearly for his principles, spending around 30 years in British and Pakistani jails.

Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, Ghaffar Khan died in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in 1988 at the age of 98. According to his last wish, he was buried in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, hoping that one day Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be united into one country.

Although his movement and followers were suppressed, by both the British and Pakistani authorities, Ghaffar Khan's brand has survived.

His legacy lives on by means of the Awami National Party (ANP) a Pashtun-centric political party heading the provincial government in the NWFP.



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