NEW DELHI — Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the "Frontier Gandhi" whose struggles on behalf of the Indian freedom movement and his Pushtun tribesmen caused him to spend nearly half a century in jail or exile, died Wednesday in Pakistan.
He was 98 and had been hospitalized in a coma for six months after suffering a stroke.
"The last of the towering giants of our freedom struggle has gone," Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said Wednesday.
Later in the day Gandhi flew to Peshawar, in Pakistan, to pay his respects to the man who had been a comrade of independence leaders Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Ghaffar Khan had been in ill health for years. He had suffered a stroke in August after coming to India to accept the country's highest civilian award, the Jewel of India.
He was born in 1890, and his first demonstration as an Indian nationalist was against the Rowlatt Act of 1919, a British measure aimed ostensibly at thwarting "anarchic and revolutionary" actions. He was sent to prison then.
He remained a familiar figure in the freedom movement, becoming a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi.
By 1947, Ghaffar Khan had spent 14 years in prison for leading his red-shirted followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars, or Servants of God, in nonviolent protests against British rule. He was a prominent leader in the anti-British Congress Party and one of the few Muslim leaders to oppose partition of India into two states, majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan.
"You have thrown us to the wolves," he said bitterly after his fellow leaders of the Congress Party--with the exception of Gandhi--had voted to accept the partition plan outlined by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British viceroy.
Although his stand was based at least in part on protecting the rights of his Pushtun tribesmen, he became a hero to virtually all Indians.
He was held up as an example of a man who put religious prejudice aside in favor of nationalist interests. Yet in much of Pakistan, except for his homeland on the frontier near the Khyber Pass, he was considered a traitor.
Criticism of Ghaffar Khan was particularly vehement in 1969, when he went to India, Pakistan's enemy in the war of 1965, to attend the centenary of Gandhi's birth. But he regained some support by using the occasion to attack the Indian government for allegedly mistreating its Muslim minority.
Then, as Gandhi had done many times before, Ghaffar Khan fasted to protest against the rioting between Hindus and Muslims occurring at the time.
Successive governments in Pakistan jailed him or exiled him to neighboring Afghanistan. In all, he spent 47 years in prison or exile. He was last imprisoned in 1972 and was released in 1976.
In the last 10 years, Ghaffar Khan and his son, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, leader of the National Awami Party, have been controversial figures because of their support for the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. Several million Pushtun tribesmen live in the wild borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they provide the main armed opposition to Soviet and Soviet-supported Afghan government troops.
Afghanistan President Najibullah, himself a Pushtun, praised Ghaffar Khan Wednesday as "an outstanding militant of the subcontinent," according to a Reuters news agency report from Kabul.
It quoted Najibullah as saying that preparations were being made for Ghaffar Khan's remains to be buried in Jalalabad, about 60 miles west of Peshawar in Afghanistan.
Despite the difficulties that Ghaffar Khan and his son have caused over the years for the government of Pakistan, President Zia ul-Haq said Wednesday that Ghaffar Khan "longed and worked for restructuring of society according to his own vision and created a following of his own. History knows very few persons who spent nearly a century in pursuit of a mission they cherished."