Home | Search | Contact Us
Peace Studies at Manchester University | Plowshares | Indianapolis Peace Institute | Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace
  Volume 37   2010

Thinking Big about Afghanistan

By Michael N. Nagler

Among Mahatma Gandhi’s boldest ideas–and this is saying a lot–was his dream for a Shanti Sena or ‘peace army’: that somehow cadres of men and women who were unarmed (or rather, ‘armed’ with soul force) could confront attacking armies; in other words, that nonviolence could check even the greatest form of violence, war. By the year 1913, around the time he felt destiny was calling him home from South Africa to try out his great discoveries on the British Raj itself, he was talking openly about such bands of trained volunteers whose nonviolent presence and nonviolent skills would make the police and national guard unnecessary. They would be locally based, thus ending the reliance on outside power–a society that cannot manage its own disorder can never be free–and completely nonviolent, thus ending the age-old reliance on threat power that has caused untold misery and the frustration of human hopes down the ages, and is still doing so today in Afghanistan:

The Congress should be able to put forth a non violent army of volunteers numbering not a few thousands but lakhs [tens of thousands] who would be equal to every occasion where the police and the military are required…. They would be constantly engaged in constructive activities that make riots impossible…. Such an army should be ready to cope with any emergency, and in order to still the frenzy of mobs should risk their lives in numbers sufficient for the purpose…. Surely a few hundred young men and women giving themselves deliberately to mob fury will be any day a cheap and braver method of dealing with such madness than the display and use of the police and the military.

Gandhi is here talking about replacing police, and the military used as police: it’s only a short step to think about the military used in war. In 1942, when India and the Raj were cowering before the prospect of a Japanese invasion, he took that step. While the British rattled their sabers (for show, it turns out--they had no intention of risking their lives to defend India) and Indians themselves rushed to enlist, he startled everyone by proposing that India could defend herself by nonviolent peace brigades.

He was never given a chance to put his bold vision to the test. The British put him conveniently in prison for most of the war years, and even most of his own Congress Party members could not follow him that far. The advent of an actual war is always a setback for pacifists; when danger stares one in the face, it is difficult to keep faith with an untested future.

One man, however, had already taken Gandhiji at his word. By far the most dramatic Shanti Sena the world has ever seen was organized in what was then the Northwest Frontier Province of India by the Mahatma’s close disciple Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan; and the Khan did this not among gentle Hindus but the notoriously warlike Pashtuns, or Pathans. These are the same people who, along with other Afghans, would stand up to the overwhelmingly superior military force of the Soviet Union half a century later–and then, tragically, tear themselves to pieces in armed factions. But that was later, when they went back to more traditional methods of fighting. Our story concerns those days, under Khan’s inspiring leadership, when nearly 100,000 Pathan fighters, all devout Muslims, vowed to resist the British without weapons in their hands or bitterness in their hearts, and kept that vow under unbelievable provocation, adding immeasurably to the emerging nation’s unstoppable drive toward freedom.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan had first heard Gandhi as a young man at the All India Congress party meeting at Calcutta in December of 1928. He had heard of Gandhi, of course, and must have been intrigued that the Mahatma was doing in grand style what he had been doing for his own people through village uplift, education, empowerment of the women, and a gentle weaning away from violence. But he had not come to Calcutta to hear Gandhi. At that time, the Gandhi-inspired honeymoon between Muslims and Hindus that warmed the first part of the decade had been largely forgotten. There was not much love lost between the two communities, and Khan had come to Calcutta not to hear Gandhiji but to attend a meeting of the Muslim League.

It was, however, an unruly and distasteful meeting. Indeed it soon broke up when one irate delegate pulled out a knife. So, more or less at a loss what to do with himself, Khan dropped around to the Congress pavilion. There, as it happens, Gandhiji was speaking, to the accompaniment of a relentless heckler. Strangely, rather than being rattled, Gandhi seemed to get no end of amusement from his unruly “friend” and went right on speaking through his chuckles. Khan was deeply impressed. A leader himself, he had an eye for the outwardly small things that bespeak real, nonviolent power, and he at once understood what he was seeing in the Mahatma’s bubbling, unflappable control of the situation. He went back to one of the Muslim leaders and suggested, rather naively, that they might get further with a little of that forbearance themselves. “So,” the irate leader cut him off, “the wild Pathans have come to teach us about tolerance!” This is exactly what the Khan would do.

The leader’s rebuff illustrates one of several basic misapprehensions about nonviolence that Khan’s life exposes dramatically, namely that nonviolence is only for gentlefolk. Gandhiji would explain that you had to be capable of violence before you could renounce it. It was precisely the Pathans, whose frontier-style traditions of revenge and violence went back uncounted centuries, who would most readily follow their Badshah (‘leader’) when he created of a new kind of army without weapons. These were the famous Khudai Khidmatgars, or ‘Servants of God.’ Years later, when Khan himself was at a loss to explain how his Pathans were still nonviolent when most of the Hindus had bolted, Gandhiji explained to him, “We Hindus have always been nonviolent, but we have not always been brave.”

A second widely-accepted myth about nonviolence is that it can only work against weak opposition. It only worked in India, we are repeatedly told, because the British are so fair-minded; “it would never have worked against the Nazis.” The British, however, were not so fair-minded with the Servants of God. They called them the “Red Shirts” and used their control of the press at home to play on age-old fears of communism and invoke the mystique of the ‘Great Game’ Britain had played out for over a century against Russian influence in the Hindu Kush–quite an irony, considering that it would later be the Pathans who would thwart Soviet power in Afghanistan and thus be instrumental in bringing down the Soviet regime. When the ‘Red Shirts’ refused to knuckle under to ordinary methods, the British sealed off the North West Frontier Province and set to work humbling the proud Pathans in the way of imperialism everywhere, as though they had not heard that they were supposed to be fair-minded imperialists. Homes and crops were razed, people beaten, stripped and dragged through cesspools, civilians were bombed from the air for the first time in human history (ten years before Fascist planes bombed Guernica, which is usually cited as the breakthrough in this form of barbarism). They dehumanized the Pathans in their own minds as “leopards” and treated them accordingly.

The following is an eyewitness description of the attack on a crowd of nonviolent demonstrators protesting Khan's arrest at the Kissa Khani Bazaar in Peshawar on April 23, 1930. It does not give the impression of a people whose fair mindedness made them a pushover for nonviolence:

All of a sudden two or three armored cars came at great speed from behind without giving warning of their approach and drove into the crowd. Several people were run over, of whom some were injured and a few killed on the spot. The people…behaved with great restraint, collecting the wounded and dead.

Despite this, the Congress Inquiry Committee report continues,

The troops were ordered to fire. Several people were killed and wounded and the crowd was pushed back some distance. At about half past eleven, endeavors were made by one or two outsiders to persuade the crowd to disperse and the authorities to remove the troops and the armored cars. The crowd was willing to disperse if they were allowed to remove the dead and the injured and if the armored cars were removed. The authorities, on the other hand, expressed their determination not to remove the armored cars and the troops.  The result was that the people did not disperse and were prepared to lay down their lives. The second firing then began and, off and on, lasted for more than three hours.

When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their breasts bared and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as 21 bullet wounds in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic. A young Sikh boy came and stood in front of a soldier and asked him to fire at him, which the soldier unhesitatingly did, killing him…. This state of things continued from 11 till 5 o’clock in the evening.” [Easwaran 1984: 122f]

Enough said. The fierce repression gained the imperial power, in the end, a pyrrhic victory. The Khudai Khidmatgar’s leader was jailed over and over again, and his organization was disbanded and passed from the scene. The Raj itself soon followed.  The Khudai Khidmatgars played a signal role in the liberation struggle and showed again that nonviolence can prevail, in its own way, against cruel and determined opposition.

Myth number three: nonviolence is for Hindus and Buddhists; it has no place in Islam (or, I have heard many argue, in Judaism). Whatever may be our stereotypes of ‘Islamic terrorists,’ the Jihad, and so forth, the Religion of the Prophet was not based on violence. No religion is. Like all other major world religions, Islam has a core devotion to positive, inward peace however unevenly this commitment has been carried out in practice. Of course, the Prophet and his followers fought for their place in history; of course many Muslims today believe, as many Christians and Jews believe, that they must fight their way to peace through the sword; but those who begin every discourse, “In the Name of God, all Mercy, all Compassion” cannot believe that their Prophet was primarily a bringer of the sword. There is an important hadith (saying ascribed to the Prophet) that he one day told his followers, “Help your brother, whether he is an aggressor or a victim of aggression.” When one of them asked him, “How are we supposed to help the aggressor?” he replied, “By doing your best to stop him from aggression.” This vital distinction between the ‘sin’ and the ‘sinner’ is essential nonviolence.

Badshah Khan was quite aware of this:

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…. But we had so far forgotten it that when Gandhiji placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed.

And finally myth number four: nonviolence can't be used in, or instead of war. At its height, during the repression of 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars numbered more than eighty thousand. They were trained, drilled, uniformed and organized. They were committed to their leader and followed his orders even when they did not understand him–even unto death, as they showed at the Kissa Khani bazaar. That is, they were an army in every sense of the word, except that they were not ‘armed’ with the physical instruments of death but rather, as far as possible, with the inner power of life. The Servants of God were the first community in history to show that just as people can be trained and organized and steeled for war, they can be trained and organized and steeled for peace.

During his visit to Romain Rolland in Switzerland on his way back from the Round Table Conference of 1931, Gandhi cited the Pathans’ courageous example:

By enacting a Thermopylæ in Switzerland, you would have presented a living wall of men and women and children, inviting invaders to walk over your corpses. You may say that such a thing is beyond human experience and endurance. I say that it is not so. It is quite possible. Last year in Gujarat, women stood lathi charges unflinchingly, and in Peshawar, thousands stood hails of bullets without resorting to violence….The army would be brutal enough to walk over them, you might say. I would then say…an army that dares to pass over the corpses of innocent men and women would not be able to repeat that experiment. [Mind 452f:#118]

I have told this story to awaken the possibility of an entirely new path for the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan which at time of this writing (spring 2010) has gone on for nine years (not counting covert operations that began far earlier) and has recently taken the life of the thousandth American service person–along with those of countless, sometimes nameless Afghans. I will not dwell here on the follies, and utter tragedy of that war. Rather, as I say, I want to awaken the concept of an entirely new path out of that war–a path to lasting peace. What I envision is a kind of ‘pincer movement’ that would simultaneously, and in coordinated fashion, rouse the potential for nonviolence from within Afghan culture and introduce units of a new international institution known as Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) from outside to support it. For Gandhi’s dream of a Shanti Sena did not die with him; it is now a living, albeit still quite young reality that has been at work in places like Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Colombia, Haiti, Southern Sudan–many of which present problems of logistics and an intensity of conflict that rival Afghanistan. One organization, the Nonviolent Peaceforce with headquarters in Brussels and more than sixty member organizations worldwide, is quietly building capacity to take UCP to a truly global level.

Wiser strategic minds would be required to work out in detail how this twofold development might unfold. I am concerned to establish that there is no reason whatever in principle that it could not be carried out, and to suggest that if the United States would undertake two steps there is every possibility that, as Gandhi says, a path that is ‘any day a cheap and braver method of dealing with such madness’ would open. The steps are to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, on the one hand, and to allocate 5 percent of the present military costs to the development of nonviolent alternatives, including through NGOs like those that have carried out nonviolent interventions with great courage and vision, learning from their experiences successful and otherwise, for a quarter century.

Of course there is another task. It is called “interpretation” in the peace community: media would have to be guided–and inspired–to carry the story of the miracle that, I feel confident, would slowly unfold in Afghanistan to the wider world. That would assure that we would not only turn one tragedy into a human triumph but pave the way to changing the future for us all.


Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. He is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which received a 2002 American Book Award and has been translated into Korean, Arabic, Italian and other languages; Our Spiritual Crisis: Recovering Human Wisdom in a Time of Violence (2005); The Upanishads (with Sri Eknath Easwaran, 1987), and other books as well as many articles on peace and spirituality.


Manchester University | 604 E. College Ave. | North Manchester, Ind. | 46962