Asian Editors Circle: The Pakistani who missed the Nobel
By Ravi Velloor
24 December 2016

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - As the world braces itself for terrorist attacks in this festive season, humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi's life and work are a reminder of the true essence of Islam. Read The Straits Times Associate Editor Ravi Velloor's commentary here: 

Looking through the list of Asia's greats who passed on in the year gone by, it is impossible to escape a sense of awe at their accomplishments even as you are struck by the realisation that, ultimately, everyone is mortal.

One standout personality who did not waste a moment of his life, and will perhaps be immortal among his people, was Pakistan's Abdul Sattar Edhi.

It is not quite possible to tally the contribution Edhi had made to his adopted land by the time he passed away this July. By some reckoning, he was 88 years old then. But it would be no exaggeration to say he was the most respected Pakistani of his time. All three service chiefs showed up for his state funeral.

The eponymously named foundation he started in 1957 as a tent hospital for victims of the Hong Kong flu had grown into a sprawling enterprise involved in running ambulance services, clinics, maternity homes, blood banks, mental asylums, shelters for street kids and battered women, and much more.

Among the millions who benefited from his charitable work were thousands of dead men whom he had washed himself before shrouding them for burial. Such was the enormity of his humility that he never once considered this too menial, or demeaning, a task.

Edhi was sometimes called the Mother Teresa of Pakistan but that, while intended to flatter, is an inadequate comparison. It is a wonder that the Nobel Committee, which awarded the Peace Prize to Mother Teresa in 1979 and to child rights activists Kailash Satyarthi of India and Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan in 2014, should have overlooked Edhi all these years. He himself did not care about the award, saying he expected a better reward from Allah when it was his turn to meet his maker.

Edhi was born in Gujarat before the Partition of India, and moved to the new state of Pakistan as a young man, his parents choosing to start their new life in the bustling port city of Karachi. The Edhis were from the Momin, or Memon, tribe, who converted to Islam from Hinduism some three centuries ago. Although "edi" translates as "lazy" in the Gujarati language, the tribe was committed to hard work. They also carried a humanitarian streak in their veins. Mr Edhi, who was expelled from school in Grade 4 for fighting, was initiated into social service by his mother.

A watershed moment in his career came in December 1986, when the Pakistani military and intelligence launched Operation Clean-up in Karachi's Sohrab Goth area against anti-social elements backed by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Amid the chaos, street fights and arson, it was left to Edhi's team to pick up the pieces. Working round the clock, his ambulances went everywhere, his drivers and doctors risking their lives as they offered medical help and retrieved bodies. It was said that rival gangs stopped their firefight when an Edhi minivan approached. Such was the respect they had for his work.

Considered the largest private ambulance service in the world - there are some 1,800 Edhi ambulances across Pakistan's four provinces - this was the part of his work of which he was most proud. The vans sprang from an incident a half-century earlier when he tried to ferry his badly ill mother to hospital and was told that the entire city of Karachi had just one ambulance and that was owned by the Red Cross.

In the last decade of his life, more than the dispensaries and the sheltered children, it was the ambulances that would regularly highlight Edhi's work for they were often the first responders to the many terrorist strikes that Pakistan suffered.

The dalliance of the Pakistani deep state with terrorism had come to rebound on the nation badly. Having first used irregulars as early as 1947 in an attempt to wrest Kashmir from India, Pakistan's generals in years to come would allow their nation to be used as a staging point by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which stoked the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan by propping up the Taleban. Likewise, the killers who staged the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 were armed and trained in Pakistan by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), another outfit considered close to the Pakistani intelligence establishment.

As former prime minister Shaukat Aziz notes in his recently published autobiography, for years, Pakistan's establishment had unwisely distinguished between terror groups that attack the state and those that have their focus away from it. To Pakistan's dismay, some of the terror groups had begun to turn on their hosts. The rudest shock it got came in December 2014, when the Tehreek-i-Taleban Pakistan entered the army public school in Peshawar and massacred more than 130 students sitting their exams.

A determined thrust against these groups by the stout-hearted army chief Raheel Sharif, who retired a few weeks ago, has yielded dividends. From 5,379 terror- related deaths in 2013, when General Sharif began taking on the groups in earnest, the number has slid to 1,332 for the first 11 months of this year, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. More than 700 of those slain this year were terrorists; civilian casualties have eased to a fifth of the 2013 figure and the economy has begun to turn around.

In the weeks before his death, Edhi was probably gratified to see the decline of violence in his country even as his ambulance service had less to do.

An obituary in The Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom accurately described Edhi as a "symbol of Pakistan's shrivelled secular tradition". It was this part of his personality that so irked groups such as the Taleban and the LET, which often issued death threats against him and labelled him a "kafir", or unbeliever.

In January last year, Hafiz Saeed, a cleric wanted in India for masterminding the Mumbai attack, attempted to set up a rival foundation in Karachi with a fleet of 15 ambulances. Edhi shrugged off the challenge.

The full-bearded Edhi was once asked why he was prepared to help people from all faiths, without prioritising Muslims over others. His response was "because my ambulance is more Muslim than you".

As the world braces itself for terror attacks in this festive period conducted in the name of Islam, his life and work are a useful reminder about the true essence of the Islamic faith.

This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.

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  • Asian Editors Circle: The Pakistani who missed the Nobel

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