A Modern Gandhian: Khudai Khidmatgar And Faisal Khan’s Politics Of Love In A Post-Gandhi India
"The only suitable approach for India is Gandhi’s way.”
While Delhi enjoyed a brief respite from the relentless heat in the form of a light drizzle, Faisal Khan sat in the living room of his apartment in Gaffar Manzil, right behind Jamia Millia University. Khan pointed at the cup of tea in his hand and said, “You know what the problem with this cup of hot tea is? No matter who holds it, the drink won’t stay hot forever. It’ll cool down. I believe hate works similarly. It is not meant to last.”
If this optimism sounds out of place in this age of extreme ideological, religious and political polarisation, you’re not alone. Khan, with his ultra-Gandhian values, his cheery demeanour, and his overwhelming belief in love as a means to end bigotry feels like a character from a Munna Bhai film. But that should come as no surprise. For Faisal Khan is the man who revived the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement.
Founded by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (popularly known as Frontier Gandhi in India) in 1929, the Khudai Khidmatgars nonviolently opposed the British in erstwhile India’s Northwest Frontier Province. More than 80 years later, Faisal Khan sought to bring this movement back. What started with close to 50 members, eight years ago on January 20, 2011 — Frontier Gandhi’s death anniversary — this registered trust is now almost 25,000 strong. The Khudai Khidmatgars of this day and age fight not the Empire, but social evils. They champion the cause of the oppressed, they provide better education to those excluded from means, and they’re even trying to save rivers.
In Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 after communal violence gripped the area, the Khidmatgars were active in holding peace campaigns and running relief camps. Across villages, they ran temporary schools and centres for women there. In some parts, the Khidmatgar camps also provided legal and educational support to victims of the riots. During the massive farmers’ march in New Delhi in the winter of 2018, the Khidmatgars provided the tired farmers, relief, in the form of tea and breakfast.
The men and women in this organisation aim for social upliftment. Thus, the Khidmatgars, in various parts of the country, run shelter homes and schools for tribal folk. A few years ago, they began EYE India — Empower Youth, Empower India — under which, they set up a reading room-cum-library in Delhi.
More recently, Khidmatgars set up camps to address hate. In the Nagla Heera village near Fatehpur Sikri, in Uttar Pradesh, they arranged talks with the village elders to ensure vigilance against the weaponisation of “Jai Shri Ram” against Muslims and Dalits. In August, they have plans to set up camps in Assam to help those who have been excluded from the National Register Of Citizens with legal aid and counselling. Additionally, they plan to organise multiple interactive sessions called “Yuvaon Nafrat Chhoro” aimed at the youth. These sessions would address the rise in communal hatred and sectarian politics.
The Politics of Social Service
Beyond the well-documented work of the Khidmatgars, however, lies the outlook of its founder. A law graduate from the Aligarh Muslim University, Khan has been a social worker and activist for roughly two decades. He’s worked closely with Medha Patkar and was a longtime member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements. “But I always felt something was missing… I always thought that the qualities that a social worker should possess were missing in us; I pondered on this for a while,” he said. He explained that despite their calls for freedom and liberty, he never felt free while working for organisations such as NAPM. “A social worker should be like Sant Kabir and speak his mind; it’s not like we are part of the government and we’d lose votes because of that,” he boomed. This is what ultimately led him to revive the Khidmatgars.
Khan’s motivations are very telling of his politics. While he regularly reminds the reporter that he has no hate for anyone, his disdain for “Left-liberal” activists, NGOs and civil society organisations is visible throughout the conversation. According to him, “activists” are less interested in solving problems and more interested in preaching their ideology. Khan is, of course, not alone with views like these. He notes that many such NGOs are hegemonic in their structures. He demands, “Ask any of these big organisations, how many of them have Muslims in leadership roles? I am certain the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has more!”
“People sometimes get confused because of the name of our organisation, but when they see us, they know; in fact, they consider us more secular than the others.”
He also calls out what he sees as a double standard. “Inke liye Nizamuddin mein spirituality hai, lekin Birla Mandir mein nahi hai” — For them (social activists), spirituality only exists in Nizamuddin, not Birla Mandir. And it’s not like he feels the Khidmatgars are perfect; he calls them “andhon me kana raja” — a bit better than the others.
Khan, a devout Muslim and Gandhian, says religion has no place for fundamentalism and extremism. Yet, Khan seems not to believe that the Hindu-Right, especially the RSS, is worthy of scorn. Quoting from both Tulsidas and the Quran, Khan says that he cannot hate the members of the RSS. He also believes it is wrong to equate Hindutva with hate. “Some of them are sick and have lost their humanity. But do you leave the sick to die? No, you try to cure them. And that’s what we do. Hriday Parivartan is, after all, a Gandhian tradition.”
“It’s an ideological war. But I bear no ill will for anyone, even if they come and light my home on fire.”
Sensing the reporter’s scepticism, Khan quickly reminds that he doesn’t subscribe to just “meethi boli”, and it was Khudai Khidmatgars along with Tushar Gandhi who had filed a petition in the Supreme Court against lynchings. Yet, he is quick to note that in all of his time as a Khidmatgar, the only attack he has ever faced is from Muslims in Khozikode; not from Hindus. He also adds that even Muslims need to admit that they have made mistakes.
From there, the topic shifts to the notion that Muslims are victimising themselves. “Victimisation is the easiest way.” He says that he is for the victims, but he also believes that a lot of the victimisation narrative is a manufactured one, not to mention “un-Islamic”.
He keeps iterating that Muslims need to change. Unlike political commentators of Centrist persuasions, however, Khan’s urge for change does not come from a place of balancing blame. He genuinely believes it is more difficult for Muslim men and women to be open to understanding other religious beliefs. “A tailor will tell you that khadi is a more difficult fabric to work with. I think the same applies to Muslims. And not just about changing their outlook towards other faiths, but also towards understanding why they need to participate more towards social work.”
For Khan, love, compassion and faith can conquer all. And that perhaps is as Gandhian as it gets. “The only suitable approach for India is Gandhi’s way,” he says with conviction.