One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
]In 2013, he led a “Dil Jodo Nafrat Choro” journey to bridge Hindu and Muslim hearts, travelling with a band of activists in a Tata van from a Sufi shrine in Panipat, Haryana, to the Hindu holy town of Haridwar, Uttaranchal. The same year, he toured riot-hit villages in Muzzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims had staged a mass exodus. There, he, a practising Muslim, visited a series of temples and engaged with Hindus, frequently reciting verses from the Ramcharitmanas.
Faisal Khan is as well-versed in the slokas of that great Hindu epic as he is in the verses of the Quran (and he sings Kabir poems as easily as we croon the latest Hindi film chartbusters).
At 40, Faisal, who offers namaz five times a day, is a man in a hurry: His mission is to rescue his fellow faithful from religious fundamentalism, bring them into the country’s mainstream, present a peaceful picture of Islam, and eventually create a humanitarian secular society in India.
This afternoon, however, he is simply making tea at his apartment in Ghaffar Manzil, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in south Delhi. “If you want to be an effective social activist in a country like India, you will also have to make chai…you will need to have as much fun washing dishes as in holding a press conference at the Constitution Club, and you should know both Quran and Gita,” he says. (The photos you see were taken by The Delhi Walla a day later when Faisal was holding a meeting on the terrace of Indian Coffee House)
Faisal has revived a movement started by the iconic Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in 1929. The great Pathan leader from the westernmost edge of undivided India raised a troop of Khudai Khidmatgars, literally, servants of God, to wage a non-violent struggle against British rule in what was then known as the North-Western Frontier Province. His movement prompted thousands of trigger-trained Pashtun Muslim tribesmen to employ civil resistance methods to challenge the British. After Partition, Khan chose to stay in Pakistan. Despite being a Pakistani citizen, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1987.
On Ghaffar Khan’s death anniversary on 20 January 2011, Faisal restarted the Khudai Khidmatgar at Delhi’s Gandhi Smriti, the site of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s assassination. “There were about 50 people, mostly Muslim, from across India, from Kashmir to Assam,” he says. “There were also 10 women. One of them was Palzeela, who lives in a slum in (south Delhi’s) Okhla and makes her living as a dishwasher in the area’s households.”
Like Ghaffar Khan, Faisal, too, is a Pathan. A law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University, he traces his ancestry to Afghanistan. As the scion of a landowning family in Kaimganj, Uttar Pradesh, he never had to apply for a day job. The family inheritance has allowed him the freedom to pursue his calling.
For a decade (2001-10), he was closely associated with Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey, whose organization, Asha Parivar, works in the field of education, RTI activism and communal harmony. Faisal has worked extensively in Haryana’s Sirsa, Ambala and Jind districts. He is also a longtime member of the Bombay-based National Alliance of People’s Movements (Napm), a loose alliance of organizations such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
“Faisal revived Khudai Khidmatgar just in time,” says Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, who is a Napm adviser. She talked to me on phone. “It is a pressing need to mobilize the Muslim youth and integrate them with other groups to fight against religious fundamentalism of all kinds.” Ms Patkar adds: “Faisal might look very young and agitated but he has a very systematic approach. He is not into netagiri and he engages with everyone, from intellectuals in Delhi to down-to-earth activists in the villages.”
Why restart something that was begun almost a century ago among tribals in what is now called Af-Pak?
Faisal says he restarted the Khudai Khidmatgar (as a registered trust) because Ghaffar Khan’s movement was not limited to resistance against the British, but was also about educating both men and women in the backward North-West, and guiding them away from religious fundamentalism.
As Faisal puts it: “What has changed over the years? The revived Khudai Khidmatgar will not only canvass for education in our villages but will also create an army of cadres to resist the growing communalization in our society. We are building a movement of volunteers who can defuse communal tensions and address general backwardness, especially among Muslims.”
Puducherry-based Sendhil Kumar, a human resources professional in his 20s, is one of the Hindu members of Khudai Khidmatgar and one of the group’s coordinators in south India. “In our country, there are places where Hindus and Muslims don’t mingle together. They are suspicious of each other. I joined Khidmatgar in late 2011 to fight against this religious separation,” he says on phone.
Faisal is trying to expand the organization across India. A day before we met, he had returned from Haryana, where he presided over a health camp at a village in Karnal. He had spent the previous week travelling to Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune to launch Khidmatgar’s national telephone helpline (09718072586), which encourages young Muslims, among others, to discuss issues such as violence and religion. “The point is to counter hate propaganda,” says Faisal. The helpline got 17 calls in its first week; in its initial phase, it is operational only on weekends.
In November, on Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary, Faisal, along with 200 Khidmatgars, marched from freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s tomb outside Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid to Nehru’s and Gandhi’s samadhisbehind Red Fort. “Today it is vital to repeat the ideas and thoughts of these three men, whose ideologies form the foundation of our secular Constitution,” says Faisal. He also organised a ceremony outside the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya to mourn the deaths of the Paris terror attack.
Organizing street marches and hosting vigils in public places is a vital element of Khudai Khidmatgar’s activities. Besides saving money on booking meeting halls, Faisal says, outdoor actions help reach a wider section of society. “If you hold meets at the Gandhi Peace Foundation or the India International Centre, you see the same sort of people, but when you do things on the streets and in the parks, you engage with everyone, from professors to rickshaw pullers,” he says.
“The first phase of Khudai Khidmatgar was noble but had a slight communal tone,” says Firoz Bakht Ahmed, grand-nephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. “But the revived version doesn’t have the baggage of the past and is well-meaning. It wants to align Muslims with the educated gentry. While only time will tell if Khudai Khidmatgar stays on the right path, as of now, it must be supported.”
Four years on, Khudai Khidmatgar has 10,000 members across India, says Faisal. Most of the volunteers, he says, are part-time activists who do other work for a living. Faisal believes part-timers don’t see activism as a profession and can make a significant difference because they are not looking at it as a career.
Almost 60 percent of its members are Muslim—not surprising because one of the organization’s primary aims is to bring Muslim youth into the country’s mainstream.
After the communal riots in parts of western UP in 2013, the Khudai Khidmatgar activists held peace campaigns, ran relief camps, operated temporary schools and provided legal aid to riot victims.
But Faisal emphasizes that Khidmatgars also aim to connect young Muslims to issues that directly affect all Indians. In October last year, Khudai Khidmatgars of Tamil Nadu led an anti-liquor march from Kanyakumari to Chennai, passing through villages where many families have been ruined by the men’s addiction to alcohol. The Haryana unit, meanwhile, is building a cow shelter in a village in Karnal to “remove the misunderstandings between Hindus and Muslims over cow slaughter”, according to Faisal.
Today, at a time when Ghaffar Khan’s homeland has been reduced to a hotbed of jihadi terror, one wonders what hope there is for the new Khudai Khidmatgar.
Faisal has an ambitious plan for 2016. In January, the Khidmatgars will undertake a bicycle tour from Gandhi’s samadhi at Delhi’s Rajghat to Noakhali, the district in present-day Bangladesh where hundreds of Hindus were massacred in 1946, and where Gandhi camped for months to protest against the communal violence.
“Our Sadbhavna and Maitri Yatra will be against religious fundamentalism in both India and Bangladesh,” says Faisal. “Here, we have alleged cow-eaters being killed, and there, bloggers are being murdered… In the Bangladesh part of our yatra, we will raise our voice for the Hindus.”
The real-life Khan