Abdul Sattar Edhi transcended ethnic division and selective compassion with huge personal will leaving behind a vast untarnished public legacy
As far back as many can remember there have been few consistencies in Pakistan, and fewer still to be proud of. Amid perpetual inter-ethnic strife, military coups and political scandals, an unlikely protagonist has left an indelible mark on the chaotic palimpsest of Pakistani history. Abdul Sattar Edhi, a humanitarian responsible for the world’s largest private welfare organisation and dubbed the “world’s richest poor man”, passed away earlier this month to both national and international esteem that is unlikely to be seen again in Pakistan. Endowed with veneration by civil society, Edhi did, in many ways die as he lived – as a transcendental figure of stark simplicity.
Details of his life are recalled with proud reverie by almost all Pakistanis: that he only owned two pairs of clothes; that he slept in a dingy and bare windowless room in Karachi; that his family had to hide a TV as they knew he considered such items an unjustified excess; that he denied his son a bicycle until the day every child in his cramped residential block had possession of one. Remarkably, by the time of his death, Edhi had created an organisation that constituted a lifeline to the destitute throughout Pakistan. Not only has the Edhi Foundation established the largest volunteer fleet of ambulances in the world, it has also rescued 35,000 abandoned babies, housed 50,000 orphans and set up countless homes to care for individuals with mental health needs.
Born in pre-partition Gujerat (1928), Edhi relocated to Pakistan in 1947 during the bloodshed of partition and his early experiences were central to an evolving philosophy of humanity based on inclusivity and justice. Hailing from the ethnic Memon community that rapidly established successful business and military links in the young nation, Edhi began work at a Memon dispensary that primarily served the interests of this influential merchant class. He was appalled by the discrimination he witnessed against non-Memons, establishing his own dispensary in 1951 at only 23, and dismissing the ethnic chauvinism of his own community with characteristic prescience: “humanitarian work loses its significance when you discriminate between the needy.”
As nationalism and state formation became increasingly associated with ideas of wealth accumulation, power and personal security, for many Pakistanis these ideals could only be realised through frameworks of ethnic division. Edhi however, held little conviction in identity politics and routinely dismissed notions of clan loyalty – and by extension, exclusion of the ‘other’. When asked by members of the religious establishment why his charity’s ambulances were treating minorities he replied curtly, “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
An almost messianic need to advocate for the marginalised and down-trodden allowed him to evade the religious fatalism that told us disasters were “meant to be”. Neither was he foolish enough to see poverty as virtuous in and of itself as other famous humanitarians have. Instead, the need for a robust welfare state to buffer the extreme hardships people had to bear became imperative.
Edhi’s personal will appeared, at times, almost superhuman: as a child, he was deeply affected by the experiences of neglect his mother experienced following a stroke, so years later he stood on a street corner in Karachi begging for money to buy an old ambulance. When his grandson was burnt alive in one of his shelters on Eid day by an unstable patient, he received the news while on a helicopter above a train wreck in Rawalpindi, but felt he had to continue working – holding his grief until days later when he returned home. He also ensured no harm came to the perpetrator, driven by a deep regard for those with afflictions of the mind. “The only time I entered a fight was when somebody teased a mentally handicapped person,” he once remarked. “I grew up feeling deeply about them”.
In a sign of the respect that he commanded in a society beset with intolerance, Edhi’s charity addressed taboos that even today are hard to openly discuss in Pakistan. In a remarkable indication of the vision he upheld, the foundation refused to endorse the pervasive moral and sexual regulation of women. Despite cultural norms and patriarchy often exerting an iron grip over feminine expression and reproductive autonomy, the Edhi Foundation housed victims of domestic violence, survivors of honour-based violence and the offspring of such women banished to the periphery. Edhi rejected judgements that perpetuated gender discourses, simply acknowledging the rawness of human fallibility while refusing to endorse grand moralising narratives of individual agency.
In many ways, it is these dichotomies that marked him out in a society littered with ostentatious corruption and incompetence. Where many sought security in gated communities, he sought a life among the everyday melee of bare existence; where the influential planned careful appearances, he was always personally accessible in his charity’s headquarters; where many strove to preserve privilege, he strove to dignify the quiet and daily suffering; where business elites flirted with charity in attempts to absolve sin, he rejected tainted money for the rupees of ordinary men; and where many marked the nation with self-interest, he marked it with overwhelming tenderness. At times he appeared to be the only person advocating the founding principles of an inclusive Pakistan, going even further than the “one nation, one culture, one language” vision espoused by Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. There were to be no geographical or ethnic barriers to humanitarianism. As he delicately stated, “The five basic tenets of Islam continue onto the sixth for me. [Humanitarianism] That it is not proclaimed as obligatory has deeper meaning; as right or wrong are left to human initiatives, its importance would be lost if forced.”
Edhi’s legacy is one of noble transcendence, beyond borders, beyond privilege and beyond political loyalties. In a stroke of great irony, his state funeral was conducted to reverberations of all of these. Having scant time for politicians and statesmen in life, in death we have seen and will continue to see these very figures fall over themselves to take ownership of his legacy. With Karachi National Stadium lined with generals, politicians and religious elites for the occasion, the funeral was closed to the public – the very people Edhi had devoted 60 years of his life to. As the great humanitarian’s body was lowered into the grave he prepared himself 25 years earlier, one gets the acute sense that Pakistan’s greatest son had already left his reply to these people: “I will go to the heaven where the poor and miserable people live.”
Featured: Via Pinterest Body: AFP/Tribune.com.pk
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