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PEOPLE: Nobel Peace Prize for Abdul Sattar Edhi

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By Ishtiaq Ahmed


Edhi has, through his devotion to suffering, degraded and deprived humanity, demonstrated that it is possible to be a devout Muslim and look upon humankind as one indivisible family
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani nominated last year Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Now the Pakistan government as a whole has done the same. The initiative has been taken in partnership with the ‘Edhi for Nobel Peace Prize’, a campaign launched by SOC Films and Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph. This is a step in the right direction because if ever a man of God in the Muslim world deserved to be recognised and honoured for having devoted his whole life to serving the wounded, neglected, despised humanity, it is Mr Edhi. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 can also be a turning point in the search for role models that Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular can look up to.


Many years ago, I walked into the Edhi Foundation Centre in Islamabad with a view to making a donation. An elderly gentleman with a flowing beard took notice of my presence and that resulted in a long conversation. I told him I wanted my donation to be used only for programmes that delivered help without any distinction of religion or sect. He told me that it was perfectly possible because the Edhi Foundation accepts help from all and helps all in need.


That made me very curious about the people who work with the Foundation. It turned out that almost all of them were retired people who worked voluntarily. The few I met in the office had worked all their lives as clerks, superintendents, school teachers and so on. They were devout Muslims who exuded warmth and compassion just like many other elderly people that I remember. That breed of men and woman still constitute the vast majority of ordinary people, but as elsewhere they understandably do not figure in the news.


The volunteers told me that the Edhi Foundation provided help with funeral expenses to poor Hindus, Christians and other minorities in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area. Many children abandoned by their families were placed in the childcare centres, and if it became known that a child in their care was not a Muslim, no effort was made to convert him or her to Islam. I wanted to believe that and I hope that is also true.


The crux of the argument they presented was that Abdul Sattar Edhi’s non-discriminatory approach to serving humanity did not at all conflict with their faith as Muslims:. On the contrary, they felt it was the only correct path. I am convinced the roots of such a disposition are deeply embedded in our past shaped by the Sufis, Saints and Gurus who bequeathed to us pluralist values and norms.


I was very keen to learn about the moving spirit behind the Edhi Foundation. Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in 1928 in the pre-partition Gujarat province in a Memon household. Memons are almost invariably Sunni Muslims unlike Gujarati Ismailis and Bohras. When Edhi was only 11, his mother became paralysed and later mentally ill. When India was partitioned in 1947, Edhi and his family migrated to Karachi, Pakistan. He started as a pedlar, and then became a commission agent selling cloth in the wholesale market in Karachi. After a few years, he established a free dispensary with the help from his community.


In 1965 he married Bilquis, a nurse who worked at the Edhi dispensary. Together they embarked upon a mission to serve distressed and abandoned humanity all their lives. Bilquis started a free maternity home in Karachi and started adopting so-called illegitimate children and abandoned babies.


Edhi got into trouble for suggesting that India and Pakistan should form a confederation. Not surprisingly, he was accused of being an Indian agent. He did that at a time when the Pakistani establishment was in a trance about militarily liberating Kashmir and plans also to extend the frontiers of an Islamic confederation in the other direction — towards south-west and Central Asia — were very popular. He came under a cloud but weathered the storm stoically and continued with his mission of serving distressed and degraded humanity. It must have been a daunting experience. He continued to expand his activities throughout Pakistan and even extended help to people outside Pakistan. Many good people helped him with donations. That reminds us that apart from the super-rich and corrupt ruling class, people in general have been generous towards the Edhi Foundation and many other such activities.


According to some reports, the Edhi Foundation runs the world’s largest ambulance service and operates free old people’s homes, orphanages, clinics, women’s shelters and rehab centres for drug addicts and mentally ill individuals. To my very great surprise, the Edhi Foundation has run relief operations in Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus region, Eastern Europe and the US, where it provided aid following the New Orleans hurricane of 2005.


Edhi and his wife received the 1986 Ramon Magsaysay Award, established by the Philippines government in cooperation with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1988 and the European Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples in 2000. The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence was conferred on Edhi in 2009. Incidentally, Madanjeet Singh — the artist, writer and diplomat-philanthropist — was born in Lahore in 1924.


It is now a test of the world conscience and indeed of the Nobel Peace Committee that they confer on this man an honour long overdue. Edhi has, through his devotion to suffering, degraded and deprived humanity, demonstrated that it is possible to be a devout Muslim and look upon humankind as one indivisible family. He and his dedicated and devoted volunteers have worked indefatigably under the worst of circumstances. It is through such practical examples that the best traditions and values of inclusive and universal humanism are demonstrated and affirmed. He has demonstrated that politics and religion have to be kept separate if one honestly and consistently believes in humankind as one indivisible family. Abdul Sattar Edhi is undoubtedly the most deserving candidate for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize in the Muslim world. A Sunni Muslim in particular needs to be recognised and honoured so that within the majority sect of Islam the peace and non-violent constituency is encouraged to grow.


[The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at billumian@gmail.com]


(Courtesy: Daily Times, Pakistan)
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