Written by Anand Patwardhan | Updated: December 5, 2020

On November 2, the UP police arrested Faisal Khan. I have known Faisal as a human rights activist working alongside Sandeep Pandey (who in 2002 won a Magsaysay Award for his social work while declining the award money). Both Sandeep and Faisal are staunch Gandhians but in today’s India, there is one huge difference. One of them is Muslim.

A few years ago, Faisal revived the Khudai Khidmatgars in memory of that wonderful band of freedom fighters from the North-West Frontier Provinces led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Badshah Khan, as he was lovingly known, easily the tallest (both literally and ethically) of leaders inspired by the non-violent movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi.

One of the bravest chapters of India’s freedom struggle was written in 1930 at the Quissa Khwani bazaar in Peshawar, where following the arrest of Khudai Khidmatgar leaders a large crowd had gathered. British armoured vehicles ploughed into the crowd, killing many. The crowd refused to disperse. The British opened machine-gun fire but the crowd neither ran nor retaliated with violence. Officials put the death toll at 20 but nationalists say over 300 were killed. Two platoons of the Royal Garhwal Regiment of the British Indian Army refused to open fire. Their officers were later sentenced to eight years in jail.

American political scientist Gene Sharp, in his work on nonviolent resistance, described the scene: “When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their chests bared and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as twenty-one bullet wounds in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic.”

Amazing as it seems today, when the Taliban and al Qaeda from the same region have been turned into killing machines by the super-powers that initiated them, Badshah Khan and his Pashtun warriors faced many massacres without retaliating with violence. A clue to their mindset is in the pledge they took when joining: 1) In the name of God who is Present and Evident, I am a Khudai Khidmatgar. 2) I will serve the nation without any self-interest. 3) I will not take revenge and my actions will not be a burden for anyone. 4) My actions will be non-violent. 5) I will make every sacrifice required of me to stay on this path. 6) I will serve people without regard to their religion or faith. 7) I shall use nation-made goods. 8) I shall not be tempted by any office.

Badshah Khan spent a total of 14 years in British India jails. He bitterly opposed Partition and the creation of Pakistan. His party boycotted elections and soon he found himself in jail in independent Pakistan. When he died at the age of 98, he had spent a total of 37 years in jail, many of them in solitary confinement.

In India, Faisal Khan launched a 21st-century version of Khudai Khidmatgars on Gandhiji’s death anniversary in 2011. To the pledges of the original body, they added a rule ensuring a minimum non-Muslim membership of 35 per cent. Starting with the idea of creating inter-faith dialogue, the Khudais have touched people’s hearts across the country and membership has swelled to 50,000. Today it has many Hindus, including a few who had once been in the RSS.

Apart from peace marches and relief efforts initiated in riot-torn areas, for want of space, a few examples should suffice to illustrate the constructive initiatives launched by the Khudai Khidmatgars. In 2014, they launched a Beti Bachao campaign in Haryana to tackle the diminishing population of girls. In 2017, they started Sabka Ghar at Ghaffar Manzil, near Jamia in Delhi, where people of any faith and caste are welcome to stay for up to a month. They started an interest-free loan facility named the Badshah Khan Domestic Workers Fund. In 2018, Faisal was felicitated by Shri Murari Bapu at his ashram in Gujarat. Overwhelmed at hearing Faisal recite verses from the Ramcharitramanas, Shri Murari Bapu promised to visit Sabka Ghar in Delhi. Faisal can, of course, recite from the Quran with equal ease.

Why is such a man in jail? In October this year, four Khudais — Faisal, Chand Mohammed, Alok Ratan and Nilesh Gupta — undertook the traditional 84 kos (150-mile) parikrama of Braj at Mathura, considered the birthplace of Lord Krishna. As always, the Khudais engaged in dialogue with local priests, often ate with them and made friends everywhere. On October 29, they reached Nand Baba Mandir, and were warmly received and given prasad by the priest. Faisal, in his distinctly Muslim cap, recited from the Ramcharitramanas and both men spoke about the shared values in religion. Some of this is recorded on a phone camera. When namaz time came, Faisal asked if there was a mosque nearby but the priest said they could offer namaz within the temple compound. One of the Hindu Khudais photographed this moment, signifying the harmony they believe in and in their enthusiasm posted it on Facebook. As the photos went viral, all hell broke loose. The priest of the temple was pressured to lodge a police complaint and Faisal was arrested and brought to a Mathura jail under various charges, including one about destroying communal harmony. The UP police could not locate Chand Mohammed, went to his home in Bihar, allegedly beat up his parents and damaged property. They then allegedly forcibly brought Chand’s brother Noor to Mathura but luckily after legal intervention, Noor was set free.

Two days ago, a trial court in Mathura, filled to the brim with RSS cadre and a huge team of prosecution lawyers, rejected Faisal’s bail and the matter will now move to the Allahabad High Court.

What explains Hindutva’s rage against Faisal and the Khudai Khidmatagars? The clue, once more, lies in the past. The original Khudai Khidmatgars had suffered the worst massacres and persecutions of the Independence struggle. Badshah Khan later wrote that this was because the British thought a non-violent Pashtun was more dangerous than a violent one and did everything they could to provoke them into violence, but failed. The Khudai Khidmatgars of today cannot be provoked either.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 5, 2020 under the title ‘An inter-faith prayer, and arrest’. The writer is a documentary filmmaker.