Bacha Khan’s Struggle To Transform And Uplift Pashtun Society In The Colonial-Ruled NWFP

Abdul Ghaffar Khan (aka Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan) is a renowned leader of the Pashtuns, and for good reason. To uplift the Pashtun society of his time, Bacha Khan brought on board social workers and intelligentsia to eradicate many social evils from Pashtun society. Jointly, they struggled to stop blood feuds, prevent crimes and discourage the use of intoxicants – among other issues.

Dr Wiqar Ali Shah, former Professor of History at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) Islamabad, has done some valuable work on the origins of this movement, which we will draw upon in this article.

In the year 1921, Bacha Khan founded an organization ‘Society for the Reform of Afghans’ (Anjuman e Islah ul Afghania), for economic, social and educational reforms. The aims and objectives of included: to eradicate social evils, promotion of unity amongst Pashtuns, prevention of lavish spending on social events and encouragement to Pashto language and literature.

Naturally, one of the first steps was to educate Pashtuns. In April 1921, one of the first branches of Azad Islamia Madrassa was opened in Utmanzai and was followed later with branches in other parts of Peshawar. These proved to be popular institutions with increasing numbers of students. Bacha Khan volunteered his services to spread knowledge and educate people along with the intelligentsia of the time. Moreover, they emphasized creating awareness about modern education and the revival of Pashto language among Pashtuns. Poetic contests were regularly arranged at the Anjuman’s annual meetings. There was a large number of Pashtun poets who contributed their services in the development of Pashto literature which include: Fazal Mehmood Mukhfi, Abdul Akbar Khan, Abdul Khalaq Khaleeq and the great Abdul Ghani Khan.

Historian Dr Wiqar’s work suggests that initially, the ‘Anjuman’ was a social reform movement but later it became a political movement. It criticized British rule as the root cause of poverty, backwardness and illiteracy. The Pashtuns were urged to unite against alien rule and jointly struggle against social evils, to end their blood feuds and move towards a life of prosperity and happiness.

The growing literacy rate and unity amongst Pashtuns had a strong political impact on the British Raj. Bacha Khan started another non-violent and peaceful opposition to British colonialism in the North West Frontier Region of the Subcontinent with the name “Khudai Khitmadgar” (Servants of God) movement in the year 1929. The Khudai Khidmatgar movement became very popular in the NWFP and was considered a strong opposition for the British Raj.

The Pashtun community are notoriously violent in Indian historiography, but the two decades of Khudai Khidmatgar struggle witnessed non-violent and peaceful groups of Pashtuns enlightened by the ideology of Bacha Khan.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan didn’t see any difference between Islam and non-violence. Dr. Wiqar says that he would argue that non-violence is rooted in the core of Islam and Islam is a religion of peace.

The Holy Prophet Mohammed came into this world and taught us ‘That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures.’ Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men.” – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca.” – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

The Khudai Khidmatgar movement was the revival of Pashtuns culture and its distinct identity. For some it was the movement of political reforms in the province that could give them better governance. For many in the poor classes it was against the economic oppression of the British Raj and a pathway towards prosperity and happiness.

The movement didn’t necessarily consist of Muslim participants but a good number of believers from other religious groups were also members of the movement.

Bacha Khan started to transform the people of the movement by opposing one of the important aspects of Pashtunwali: ‘Badal’ (revenge) and preaching to practice it. He set a prerequisite for joining the Khudai Khidmatgar movement as no dispute with anyone: complete resolution of any such feuds.

There were two wings of the movement: the ‘military wing’ – an unarmed army trained in separate camps for non-violent protests across the province, and the ‘civil’ wing, responsible for the publication of Pakhtun journal, managing volunteer services, etc.

The Khudai Khidmatgar movement was constructed in a well-organized manner with both a democratic council (Jirga) and, paradoxically, as mentioned above, a hierarchal ‘military’ wing that resisted the British Raj by adopting a non-violent strategy. Bacha Khan instilled the notion of non-violence by cultivating ethics of services and team work, and by moral and religious teachings, and by encouraging the settlements of feuds. Bacha Khan mobilised people in rural areas through religious arguments by highlighting British offences against Islam. In order to take apart the stereotype of ‘Pathans’ as being somehow innately violent, and to show that they were capable of extraordinary discipline, Khudai Khidmatgar would regularly march and drill with drums, bugles and bands to express their gratitude for a being non-violent and united community. This paid dividends in the heat of confrontation with the British. The drill was a symbolic demonstration of fearlessness and strength of will.

The civil-wing of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement had tremendously contributed in raising the general level of awareness of the masses and by constantly publishing the journal Pakhtun, it highlighted atrocities of British imperialism along other pressing issues. The journal was literary, political, educational and reformist in essence with both prose and poetry in style. Women alongside men participated in the Khudai Khidmatgar movement – not only in protests but also with the power of the pen. Most of them would use pen-names while writing to the Pakhtun journal, which was because of the fact that in Pashtun traditions women’s names are ‘sacred.’

The journal was taking on pressing issues of the time which included but were not limited to: women’s empowerment, girls’ education, progressive thinking, oppression by the colonial state, speeches of Bacha Khan, calls for unity, etc.

For the first time in the history of the Pashtun community, women were able to break the cultural taboo and talk about oppression at the hands of their elders.

Nagina, a Pakhtun, wrote,

Except for the Pakhtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but ardent in suppressing women. Our hands, feet and brains are kept in a state of coma […] O Pakhtun, when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?” (Gandhi 75).


Shah, D. S. (n.d.). The Emergence of Khudai Khidmatgar Movement in the North-West Frontier Province and Its Emphasis on Non-Violence in the Pashtun Society. Retrieved from Dr Wiqar Ali Shah:

Shah, S. W. A. (2010). Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Baacha Khan Trust Article Series.

Note: The article is originally published in The Friday Times, Naya Daur.