Anyone who has seen Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi will remember the vivid depiction of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919 when British and Gurkha troops under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed protestors and killed well over 350 people. It was one of the worst atrocities by the British in India, but far from the only one.
Far less well-known is the massacre at the Qissa Khwani bazaar in Peshawar in April 1930 when British troops opened fire with machine-guns on people protesting the arrest of Badshah Khan, the remarkable Pashtun leader and close associate of Gandhi who gave much of his life to the cause of non-violence.
It is no reflection on Gandhi that Badshah Khan (whose full name was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, "Badshah" meaning "King") is so little known in Britain. But the story of his life needs to be told, not least as his abiding belief, rooted in the Qu'ran, was that Islam is essentially a religion of peace and non-violence. His personification of this belief is a powerful antidote to the Islamophobia currently so prevalent across Europe and north America.
This, in turn, is why it is so good to be able to welcome Heathcote Williams’s new “investigative poem”: Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior (Thin Man Press, 2015). This is a short but powerful book that surveys Khan’s life but also tracks his approach through to the modern era.
Khan himself is still best known for founding the Khudai Khidmatgar movement, also known as the “Red Shirts”. This drew many supporters from the Pashtun of what was then the north-west frontier region of India, who came to form a hugely important part of the movement for independence. At its peak, the Red Shirt movement had over 100,000 committed to peaceful change and an end to British rule.
Inevitably, Khan incurred the enmity of the British and spent many years in prison, often in appalling conditions. But he and his movement survived it all. He became known as the “Frontier Gandhi” and, as a devout Muslim, said he drew his commitment to non-violence directly from Islam.
He wrote: “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pashtun like me subscribing to the creed of non-violence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, but we had so far forgotten it that when Gandhi placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed”.
Badshah Khan, unlike Gandhi, survived the terrible period around independence and partition only to incur the enmity of successive Pakistani regimes - in part because of his close ties to India's Congress Party, but also because of his long-term commitment to non-violence. He was Amnesty International’s first ever “Prisoner of the Year” in 1962, surviving yet more repression to live to the age of 98. He died in 1988, having spent thirty years of his life in prison: half in British India and half in Pakistan.
In many ways it is particularly fitting that his story should be retold in current conditions. Even more so in this poetic form by Heathcote Williams, author of the acclaimed Whale Nation (among other works) and a remarkable person in his own right. What is really original and creative about the way Williams writes is that he combines a powerful poetic narrative with copious notes. It is an unusual approach but what it means is that almost every sentence leaves you wanting more - and more is exactly what you can get from the several pages of endnotes, many of them providing direct web links.
Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior can be read in a couple of hours (and no doubt re-read several times). The book's angle opens up his life and thinking in a delightful way. It deserves to be a bestseller, especially now.