It has been exactly a month since the October 29 arrest in Delhi of Faisal Khan, national convener of the Khudai Khidmatgars, an organisation he had revived 10 years ago. Denied bail, he has also not been brought to trial. Moreover, there are troubling reports that, after the arrest, he tested positive for Covid-19.
Khudai Khidmatgars — God’s servants — were first organised 90 years ago, in the North West Frontier Province of yore, by that astonishing figure, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose people called him Badshah or Bacha Khan. To others, he simply was the Frontier Gandhi. Because they worked for Independence and for Hindu-Muslim partnership, many Khudai Khidmatgars, including the Frontier Gandhi himself, were jailed for long spells. They were among the freedom movement’s greatest heroes, and their presence was an unforgettable rebuke to the pernicious two-nation theory.
After reviving the Khudai Khidmatgars in Delhi, Faisal Khan has striven without pause for two goals — communal harmony and relief for the neediest. He is also a wonderful singer of the Tulsi Ramayan. Hindus of all types, from venerated guru to college students, have been charmed by his rendering of the Ramayan’s verses. Keen, as part of his efforts towards harmony, to identify with the traditions of his Hindu friends, Khan, along with associates, recently performed the much-valued Braj Parikrama. On the last day of this 84-km yatra, they went to Mathura’s Nand Baba Mandir, where they were courteously received by the priest.
When Khan bid farewell to the priest in order to offer namaaz elsewhere, the priest apparently said, “This is a sacred place. You can read the namaaz here.” Khan did this on a courtyard of the temple premises, along with one of his friends. Three days later, however, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested him in Delhi on charges of hurting relations between communities. It seems that misgivings were caused by a video taken at the temple by one of Khan’s associates, which perhaps was over-enthusiastically circulated. Anyone seeing this video, which includes a glimpse of two men doing the namaaz, can observe the friendliness and respect that marked their visit to Nand Baba, as also the priest’s courtesy to the visitors.
A gesture of respect and friendship, which was also a painstaking effort at bridge-building, was later seen or described as an attempt to sow discord, even to pollute a place of worship.
The real question here is whether a dedicated individual whose organisation recalls one of the finest chapters in our country’s history, and who himself has been striving to strengthen relations between communities, should continue to be kept behind bars and denied bail. How normal or acceptable is it that an Indian citizen should remain a month or more in detention without an open trial? Not that Khan is the only one caught this situation. Others have been shut away for much longer, which is not a tribute to the police or the judiciary, or to the ministers who control the police.
If I add my voice to those of other citizens troubled by this episode, it’s for two reasons.
One, I know Faisal Khan and have seen his selflessness, his tirelessness, and his passion for friendship and reconciliation. Second, I also knew Badshah Khan, whom I first met in 1945, when I was 10 and he was staying in our Connaught Circus home above the offices of the Hindustan Times, where my father, Devadas Gandhi, was the editor. I last met Badshah Khan in Mumbai in 1987, a year before his death at the age of 98. Later, I had the chance – and the privilege – of writing Badshah Khan’s biography, where, among other things, I had to address the betrayal meted out in 1947 to Badshah Khan and his Pathans.
That India would permit the continuing incarceration of a gallant man who restarted, in Delhi and elsewhere in the country, the work of the Khudai Khidmatgars is not a thought I can easily stomach. I must express my anguish and request the authorities to free Faisal Khan.
Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The views expressed are personal