In response to his inability to continue his own education, Ghaffar Khan turned to helping others start theirs. Like many such regions of the world, the strategic importance of the newly formed North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) as a buffer for the British Raj from Russian influence was of little benefit to its residents. The oppression of the British, the repression of the mullahs, and an ancient culture of violence and vendetta prompted Ghaffar to want to serve and uplift his fellow men and women by means of education. At 20 years of age, Ghaffar opened his first school in Utmanzai. It was an instant success and he was soon invited into a larger circle of progressively minded reformers.
While he faced much opposition and personal difficulties, Ghaffar Khan worked tirelessly to organize and raise the consciousness of his fellow Pushtuns. Between 1915 and 1918 he visited every one of the 500 settled districts of the Frontier. It was in this frenzied activity that he had come to be known as Badshah (Bacha) Khan (King of Chiefs).
He married his first wife Meharqanda in 1912; she was a daughter of Yar Mohammad Khan of the Kinankhel clan of the Mohammadzai tribe of Razzar, a village adjacent to Utmanzai. They had a son in 1913, Abdul Ghani Khan, who would become a noted artist and poet. Subsequently, they had another son, Abdul Wali Khan (17 January 1917-), and daughter, Sardaro. Meharqanda died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In 1920, Abdul Ghaffar Khan remarried; his new wife, Nambata, was a cousin of his first wife and the daughter of Sultan Mohammad Khan of Razzar. She bore him a daughter, Mehar Taj (25 May 1921- ), and a son, Abdul Ali Khan (20th August 1922-19 February 1997). Tragically, in 1926 Nambata died early as well from a fall down the stairs of the apartment they were staying at in Jerusalem.
In time, Ghaffar Khan's goal came to be the formulation of a united, independent, secular India. To achieve this end, he founded the Khudai Khidmatgar ("Servants of God"), commonly known as the "Red Shirts" (Surkh Posh), during the 1920s.
I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.
The organization recruited over 100,000 members and became legendary in opposing (and dying at the hands of) the British-controlled police and army. Through strikes, political organisation and non-violent opposition, the Khudai Khidmatgar were able to achieve some success and came to dominate the politics of the NWFP. His brother, Dr. Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan (known as Dr. Khan Sahib), led the political wing of the movement, and was the Chief Minister of the province (from the late 1920s until 1947 when his government was dismissed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League).
Ghaffar Khan forged a close, spiritual, and uninhibited friendship with Mahatma Gandhi, the pioneer of non-violent mass civil disobedience in India. The two had a deep admiration towards each other and worked together closely till 1947.
The Khudai Khidmatgar agitated and worked cohesively with the Indian National Congress, the leading national organization fighting for freedom, of which Ghaffar Khan was a senior and respected member. On several occasions when the Congress seemed to disagree with Gandhi on policy, Ghaffar Khan remained his staunchest ally. In 1931 the Congress offered him the presidency of the party, but he refused saying, "I am a simple soldier and Khudai Khidmatgar, and I only want to serve." He remained a member of the Congress Working Committee for many years, resigning only in 1939 because of his differences with the Party's War Policy. He rejoined the Congress Party when the War Policy was revised.
On April 23, 1930, Ghaffar Khan was arrested during protests arising out of the Salt Satyagraha. A crowd of Khudai Khidmatgar gathered in Peshawar's Kissa Khwani (Storytellers) Bazaar. The British ordered troops to open fire with machine guns on the unarmed crowd, killing an estimated 200-250. The Khudai Khidmatgar members acted in accord with their training in non-violence under Ghaffar Khan, facing bullets as the troops fired on them.
Ghaffar Khan was a champion of women's rights and nonviolence. He became a hero in a society dominated by violence; notwithstanding his liberal views, his unswerving faith and obvious bravery led to immense respect. Throughout his life, he never lost faith in his non-violent methods or in the compatibility of Islam and nonviolence. He viewed his struggle as a jihad with only the enemy holding swords. He was closely identified with Gandhi and he is known in India as the `Frontier Gandhi'.
"O Pathans! Your house has fallen into ruin. Arise and rebuild it, and remember to what race you belong." -- Ghaffar Khan
Ghaffar Khan strongly opposed the partition of India. While some Pashtuns (particularly the Red Shirts) were willing to work with Indian politicians, many Pashtuns were sympathetic to the idea of a separate homeland for India's Muslims following the departure of the British. Targeted with being Anti-Muslim, Ghaffar was attacked by fellow Muslims in 1946, leading to his hospitalisation in Peshawar.
The Congress party refused last ditch compromises to prevent the partition, like the Cabinet mission plan and Gandhi's suggestion to offer the Prime Ministership to Jinnah. As a result Bacha Khan and his followers felt a sense of betrayal by both Pakistan and India. Bacha Khan's last words to Gandhi and his erstwhile allies in the Congress party were: "You have thrown us to the wolves."
When given a choice between Pakistan and India, most voters chose Pakistan by a margin of 9 to 1 in 1947. A loya jirga in the Tribal Areas garnered a similar result as most preferred to become part of Pakistan. Khan asked his supporters to boycott the polls 56% came to vote.
In February 1948, Khan took the oath of allegiance to the new nation of Pakistan. Shortly afterwards he addressed the Pakistan constituent assembly and announced his support for Pakistan, while at the same time his Khudai Khidmatgar movement pledged allegiance to Pakistan and severed all links to the Congress Party.
"I had to go to prison many a time in the days of the Britishers. Although we were at loggerheads with them, yet their treatment was to some extent tolerant and polite. But the treatment which was meted out to me in this Islamic state of ours was such that I would not even like to mention it to you."Despite his bitterness at his treatment he confounded his opponents and Indian supporters, who had long agitated for Ghaffar Khan's release, when to cheering crowds he supported Pakistan's claim to the disputed territory of Kashmir and went on to claim that he had twice offered his services in Kashmir on Pakistan's behalf.
In early 1956, he broke with his brother Dr. Khan Sahib and merged his group with leftist and Nationalist parties from other provinces forming the National Awami Party.
As part of his new party he actively campaigned against the formation of a single province in West Pakistan, despite appeals to the government to drop his opposition and serve the government as part of a national village aid programme.
Re-arrested in 1956 or his opposition to the One Unit scheme he remained in prison till 1959. Upon being released he went into exile in Kabul. In 1969, he was invited to India to attend the 100th birthday of Gandhi, his first visit after independence.
In 1962, Abdul Ghaffar Khan was named an "Amnesty International Prisoner of the Year." Amnesty's statement about him said, "His example symbolizes the suffering of upward of a million people all over the world who are in prison for their conscience."
His autobiography My life and struggle: Autobiography of Badshah Khan was published in 1969.
He visited India and participated in the centenary celebrations of the Indian National Congress in 1985; he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, in 1987.
Ghaffar Khan died in Peshawar under house arrest in 1988 and was buried in Jalalabad according to his wishes. The Indian government to mourn his passing declared a five-day period of mourning in his honour. Although he had been repeatedly imprisoned and persecuted, tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral, marching through the historic Khyber Pass from Peshawar to Jalalabad. A cease fire was announced in the Afghan Civil War to allow the funeral to take place, even though it was marred by bomb explosions killing 15.