Born in village Uttamazai (now in Pakistan) in a Pathan family, Abdul Ghaffar Khan had his early education in Peshawar. He was then sent to Aligarh, where he had the opportunity of meeting several educationists and nationalists, including Reverend Wigram (his principal), Gandhi Jawaharlal Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad. After returning to his own province (NWFP of British India), he worked for inculcation of ideas of nationalism in the minds of Pathans.
His meaningful political career began in 1919 during agitations against Rowlatt Act and Khilafat Movements. Thereafter, from 1920 to 1947, he took a prominent part in the activities of the Congress. He was involved in all major political movements such as Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience, Satyagraha and Quit India. For several years, he was a member of Congress Working Committee but declined the offer of presidentship of the organisation.
During this period (1920-1947), he was arrested several times and spent around fourteen crucial years of his lifetime in jail. In the 1920s, he came to be known as 'Frontier Gandhi' because of his close association with Gandhi. Abdul Ghaffar Khan resigned from the INC in 1939 because of his disapproval of the war policy of the Congress. He rejoined the organisation in 1940 when the policy was revised.
Apart from being an ardent freedom fighter, Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a dedicated social reformer. Realising the need for social reconstruction, he propagated Gandhian principles—principles which he had himself adopted. He firmly believed in the cult of khadi, non-violence, the need for development of village industries and emancipation of depressed classes and women. For the purpose of bringing about positive social changes he set up an organisation, Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) in 1929.
The organisation which was also known as 'Red Shirts', comprised non-violent revolutionaries who were also devoted social workers and played an active role in the nationalist movement. Because of his socialistic zeal, Ghaffar Khan was given the title Fakhar- e-Afghan (the pride of Afghan). In 1940, he founded another Khudai Khidmatgar on the banks of Sardaryab and named it Markar-e-Allai-e-Khudai Khidmatgar.
Ghaffar Khan also advocated national education. He was instrumental in the establishment of a number of national schools in his province, especially the Azad High School of Uttamanzai and the Anjuman-ul-Afghanie. In 1928, he started a monthly journal in Pushto, Pakhtoon, which was stopped in 1931. However, it resumed publication a few years later as Das Roza. Although a pious Muslim, Ghaffar Khan believed in secularism. He condemned the communal politics of the Muslim League and argued against the idea of partition.
After partition, he started a struggle for establishment of Pakhtoonistan for Pathans and was jailed several times by successive Pakistani governments. He lived in exile in Afghanistan for several years. In 1969, he was invited to India on the occasion of Gandhi centenary celebrations. In 1987, he was presented the Bharat Ratna. Ghaffar Khan passed away in 1988.