Frontier Gandhi on celluloid: message of peace for troubled region

By Muhammad Najeeb, IANS,

Islamabad : With the world’s eyes on the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a new documentary on Pakhtoon leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, demonstrates the difficult of bringing peace to a region “where everyone is looking how to cut off the head of his enemy”.

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“The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace”, a documentary by Teri McLuhan, daughter of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, is the first full length celluloid account of the Pathan leader and non-violent activist who died in 1988 at the age of 98.

“His achievements are miracle and he was man of principles,” renowned Gandhian Nirmala Deshpande quoted Mahatma Gandhi as saying. Her interview for the documentary was one of the last recorded before her death earlier this year.

The 91-minute movie has been 21 years in the making. It starts the story of Badshah Khan by quoting him, in the voice of Om Puri: “I am the servant of God and every human can find himself in me… whenever you will call me for non-violent activism, I will be around you.”

Most of the documentary is in Pashtu, Urdu, Hindi and Dari, with English subtitles. There are some unique images and footage from the days before the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

The film depicts Badshah Khan’s association with Mahatma Gandhi and their joint peaceful struggle against the British Raj.

“You don’t need any power for non-violent struggle and there is always a win-win situation,” the Frontier Gandhi is quoted as saying.

Besides Nirmala Deshpande, the filmmaker interviews journalist M.J. Akbar, former Indian prime minister I.K. Gujral, former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Badshah Khan’s family members and many others – all expressing their views on his heroic struggle.

Despande quoted Badshah Khan from when she met him for the last time: “What went wrong with Gandhiji’s Hindustan… everyone is running for power and money.”

The film describes in detail the Redshirt Movement started by Badshah Khan, the non-violent movement that once enveloped what is now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

And it talks of Badshah Khan’s last wish to be buried in Jalalabad, because “he believed that one day the Pakhtoons in Pakistan and Afghanistan will get together and may my burial there (in Jalalabad) become cause of this,” as his daughter-in-law and former president of Awami National Party Begum Naseem Wali Khan tells the filmmaker.

Talking about the Frontier Gandhi’s struggle to make the Pathans give up violence, the film quotes from his biography: “It’s not an easy task to convince Pakhtoons on non-violence who have grown up amid guns and violent atmosphere, where everyone is looking how he can cut off the head of his enemy.”

There are rare nuggets in the film. One Congress activist recalls how there was no contradiction between Badshah Khan’s philosophy of non-violence and his religion or race. “He was a Muslim and used to read the Quran and for reading the Quran, once he borrowed Gandhiji’s glasses.”

The documentary ends with violent scenes of partition riots and the murder of Mahatma Gandhi and the terrible sadness of Badshah Khan about it all.