Formed out of the society for reformation of Pashtuns (Anjuman-e-Islah-e-Afghan), it initially targeted social reformation and launched campaigns against prostitution. Bacha Khan as its founder seemed to be influenced by the realisation that whenever British troops were faced with an armed uprising they eventually always overcame the rebellion. The same could not be said when using non violence against the troops.
The movement started prior to the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre, when a demonstration of hundreds of non violent supporters were fired upon by British soldiers in Peshawar. Its low point and eventual dissipation was after Pakistan's independence in 1947 when the Muslim League Chief Minister Abdul Qayyum Khan banned the movement and launched a brutal crackdown on its members which culminated in the Babra Sharif massacre. At its peak the KK movement consisted of almost 100,000 members.
"The Khidmatgar movement was one of self-reform and introspection," says Mukulika Banerjee, author of The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier (School of American Research Press, 2000). "It involved two crucial elements: Islam and Pashtunwali (the Pashtun tribal code). Here nonviolence becomes an ideological system very compatible with Islam and Pakhtunwali, since these are reinterpreted."
Initially the movement focussed on social reform as a means of improving the status of Pashtuns against the British. Ghaffar Khan founded several reform movements prior to the formation of the Khudai Khidmatgar, the Anjumen-e Islah ul-Afghan in 1921, the farmers' organisation Anjuman-e Zamidaran in 1927 and the youth movement Pashtun Jirga in 1927. Trying to further spread awareness on Pashtun issues Abdul Ghaffar Khan founded the magazine Pakhtun in May 1928. Finally in November 1929, almost on the eve of the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre the Khudai Khidmatgar were formed.
Khan drew his first recruits from the young men who had graduated from his schools. Trained and uniformed, they served behind their officers and filed out into various villages to seek recruits. They began by wearing a simple white overshirt, but the white was soon dirtied. A couple of men had their shirts dyed at the local tannery, and the brick-red colour proved a breakthrough, it was this distinctive colour that earned the Khudai khidmatgar movement activists the name "the Red shirts" or surkh posh.
Volunteers who took the oath formed platoons with commanding officers and learned basic army discipline. The volunteers had their own flags: red in the beginning, later tri-colour and bands: bagpipe and drums. The men wore red uniforms and the women black. They had drills, badges, a flag, the entire military hierarchy of rank and even a bagpipe corps.
Khan set up a network of committees called jirgas, named and modelled after the traditional tribal councils. Villages were grouped into larger groups, responsible to district-wide committees. The Provincial Jirgah was the ultimate authority.
Officers in the ranks were not elected, since Khan wanted to avoid infighting. He appointed a salar-e-azam or commander-in-chief, who in turn appointed officers to serve under him. Other ranks included Jarnails (Generals). The army was completely voluntary; even the officers gave their services free. Women were recruited too, and played an important role in the struggles to come.
Volunteers went to the villages and opened schools, helped on work projects, and maintained order at public gatherings. From time to time they drilled in work camps and took long military-style marches into the hills.
Under the influence of Abdul Ghaffar Khan the movement advocated non-violent protests and justified their actions through an Islamic context. Khan did not find Islam and non-violence as incompatible. Despite that the movement was intrinsically non-sectarian. In more than one occasion when Hindus and Sikhs were attacked in Peshawar, Khidmatgar members helped protect their lives and property.
“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
Khan always considered trials and tribulations, which he underwent ceaselessly, as the means by which Almighty Allah meant to fashion his life for better things. Being a great humanist, he ardently believed that human nature was not so depraved as to hinder it from respecting goodness in others. It is easy to look down on others but to make an estimate of our failing is difficult. Allah's blessings according to Bacha khan are marked for those, who submit to Allah's will and serve Almighty Allah through selfless activities for the overall good of humanity at large irrespective of caste, colour, race or religions.
British troops employed a wide variety of tactics against KK activists.
"The British used to torture us, throw us into ponds in wintertime, shave our beards, but even then Badshah Khan told his followers not to lose patience. He said 'there is an answer to violence, which is more violence. But nothing can conquer nonviolence. You cannot kill it. It keeps standing up. The British sent their horses and cars to run over us, but I took my shawl in my mouth to keep from screaming. We were human beings, but we should not cry or express in any way that we were injured or weak." -- Musharraf Din (Baldauf).
Another tactic employed against non-violent protesters who were blocking roads was to charge them with cars and horses.
In 1930, soldiers of the Garhwal Rifles refused to fire on non-violent protests led by Khudai Khidmatgars in Peshawar. By disobeying direct orders, the regiment sent a clear message to London that loyalty of India's armed forces could not be taken for granted to enact draconian measures. However, by 1931, 5,000 members of the Khudai Khidmatgar and 2,000 members of the Congress Party were arrested.
In 1932, the Khudai Khidmatgar movement changed its tactics and involved women in the movement. This unnerved many Indian officers working in the region as in those days of conservative India it was considered a grave insult to attack women, more so in a conservative Pashtun society. However the brutality increased and in one case five police officers in Benares had to be suspended due to 'horrific reports about violence used against young female volunteers'.
The British bombed a village in the Bajadur Valley in March 1932 and arrested Abdul Ghaffar Khan as well as more than 4,000 Red Shirts. The British bombardments in the border area continued up till 1936-1937 because, “India is a training field for active military training which can be found nowhere else in the Empire", a British court concluded in 1933.
Other tactics ranged from poisoning to the barbaric as castrations were used against some Khudai Khidmatgar activists.
After the anti-war resignation of Dr. Khan's Ministry in 1939 because of the events of World War 2, British tactics towards the movement changed to employ divide-and-rule tactics through the instigation of sectarian and communal tensions over brute force. Governor George Cunningham's policy note of 23 September 1942 called for the government to ‘continuously preach the danger to Muslims of connivance with the revolutionary Hindu body. Most tribesmen seem to respond to this’, while in another paper he commented about the period 1939–43: ‘Our propaganda since the beginning of the war had been most successful. It had played throughout on the Islamic theme.’
The movement was facing intense pressure by 1930 and the leadership under Ghaffar Khan was actively seeking political allies in India to help reduce the pressure on it by the British authorities. Previously in December 1928, Abdul Ghaffar Khan with some of his colleagues went to Calcutta to attend a khilafat conference. The session ended badly with Maulana Shaukat Ali nearly being attacked by one member from the Punjab.
The British authorities, had by this point sealed off the whole province. Two Khidmatgars Mian Jafar Shah and Mian Abdullah Shah escaped and managed to meet Ghaffar Khan in the prison to inform him of the horror that his followers were going through. It was decided that the two should continue to Lahore, Delhi and Simla to get help from friends in Muslim League. A few months later, the two returned with no success. The British, they said, was protecting them in order that they could fight the Hindus. Desperate for help, they decided to ask Congress.
Despite the initial closeness between Ghaffar Khan and the Ali brothers, the harshness of their critique of Gandhi contrasted poorly with the patience shown by Gandhi in Ghaffar Khan's eyes. The Congress subsequently offered all possible help to the Pathans in exchange on their part to joining the Congress party for the freedom struggle for India. This offer was put forth in the Frontier province, and was accepted by the Khudai Kidmatgars on August 1931. The move shocked the British authorities who were forced to ease pressure on the KK.
On Congress directive the ministries in eight out of eleven provinces resigned in protest against Britain's not promising India independence after the War. The decision to resign proved a pivotal moment in Indian history, in the Frontier it was instrumental in giving those groups that opposed the Khudai Khidmatgar movement the opportunity to broaden their constituency.
In 1940, a split occurred within the Pakhtun Zalmey, the youth organisation affiliated with Bacha Khan's Khudai Khidmatgar movement. It occurred after Bacha Khan refused to accept the results of the internal party 1940 elections in which Salar Aslam Khan of Kohat won the contest as president of Pakhtun Zalmey with overwhelming majority. The refusal by Bacha Khan to accept Salaar Aslam caused a great damage to the party in southern districts of the province where Khudai Khidmatgars won all the seats of the provincial as well as national assemblies in the previous elections. Salar Aslam was also a member of the Forward Block and Bacha Khan's argument was that he could not trust anyone but his elder son, Ghani Khan, whom he wanted to lead Pakhtun Zalmey. "It was a mistake of Bacha Khan. He was not happy about his decision later, but had to argue that at that sensitive stage of the political struggle, he could only trust Ghani Khan."
An exception to the rule of non-violence occurred when Badshah Khan's son Ghani Khan on 26/27 April, 1947 founded the breakaway group Zalmai Pukhtoon (Pashtun Youth), a militant, organisation of Pukhtoon youth, carrying fire-arms, the aim of which was to protect the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) and members of the Congress Party from violence feared at the hands of Muslim League activists. It had no connection as such with the Khudai Khidmatgars. Nehru’s fateful visit to the Frontier in October, 1946, and its tragic aftermath in a gradual erosion of the popular base of the incumbent Khan Sahib Ministry. Despite this, the movement stayed true to its non-communal leanings, when the red shirts came out to protect thousands of sikhs and Hindus worried they would be attacked in the increasing pre-partition violence between Hindus and Muslims.
However Qayyum Khan and the central government had already decided that there would be no accord with the movement. The Khudai Khidmatgar organisation was declared unlawful in mid-September 1948, mass arrests followed and the centre at Sardaryab (Markaz-e-Khudai Khidmatgaran), built in 1942, was destroyed by the Provincial Government. This crackdown ultimately led to the Babra Sharif massacre.
The movement was also hit by defections as party members switched sides out of fear or for benefit. Those members that wished to survive politically rallied behind a former ally, turned opponent of Qayyum Khan, the Pir of Manki Sharif. The Pir created a breakaway Muslim League, however, it proved no match for Qayyum who engineered his re-election in 1951.
The movement lingered on till 1955 when it was again banned by the central government because of Ghaffar Khan's opposition to the One Unit. An aborted attempt was made to bring Ghaffar Khan into the government as a Minister as well as turning the KK movement into a national organization, however Ghaffar Khan turned down the offer.
Although the ban on the movement was lifted in 1972, the Khudai Khidmatgar movement had been broken.
I will serve the nation without any self-interest.
I will not take revenge (badla) and my actions will not be a burden for anyone.
My actions will be non-violent.
I will make every sacrifice required of me to stay on this path.
I will serve people without regard to their religion or faith.
I shall use nation-made goods.
I shall not be tempted by any office.
In the presence of God I solemnly affirm that
1. I hereby honestly and sincerely offer myself for enrollment as a Khudai Khitmatgar.
2. I shall be ever ready to sacrifice personal comfort, property, and even life itself to serve the nation and for the attainment of my country's freedom.
3. I shall not participate in factions, nor pick up a quarrel with or bear enmity towards anybody. I shall always protect the oppressed against the tyranny of the oppressor.
4. I shall not become member of any other organization, and shall not furnish security or tender apology in the course of a non-violent fight.
5. I shall always obey every legitimate order of my superior officers.
6. I shall always live up to the principles of non-violence.
7. I shall serve all humanity equally. The chief objects of my life shall be attainment of complete independence and religious freedom.
8. I shall always observe truth and parity in all my actions.
9. I shall expect no remuneration for my service.
10. All my services shall be dedicated to God, they shall not be for attaining rank or for show.
I am a Servant of God, and as God needs no service, serving His creation is serving Him,
I promise to serve humanity in the name of God.
I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge.
I promise to forgive those who oppress me or treat me with cruelty.
I promise to refrain from taking part in feuds and quarrels and from creating enmity.
I promise to treat every Pasthun as my brother and friend.
I promise to refrain from antisocial customs and practices.
I promise to live a simple life, to practice virtue, and to refrain from evil.
I promise to practice good manners and good behavior and not to lead a life of idleness.
I promise to devote at least two hours a day to social work.
I put forth my name in honesty and truthfulness to become a true Servant of God.
I will sacrifice my wealth, life, and comfort for the liberty of my nation and people.
I will never be a party to factions, hatred, or jealousies with my people; and will side with the oppressed against the oppressor.
I will not become a member of any other rival organization, nor will I stand in an army.
I will faithfully obey all legitimate orders of all my officers all the time.
I will live in accordance with the principles of nonviolence.
I will serve all God's creatures alike; and my object shall be the attainment of the freedom of my country and my religion.
I will always see to it that I do what is right and good.
I will never desire any reward whatever for my service.
All my efforts shall be to please God, and not for any show or gain.
We are the army of God By death or wealth unmoved, We march, our leader and we, Ready to die!
In the name of God, we march And in his name, We die We serve in the name of God God's servant are we!
God is our king, And great is he, We serve our Lord, His slaves are we!
Our country's cause We serve with our breath, For such an end, Glorious is death
We serve and we love Our people and our cause Freedom is our aim, And our lives are its price.
We love our country And respect our country Zealously we protect it For the glory of God
By canon or gun undismayed Soldiers and horsemen, None can come between, Our work and our duty.