How does one gets to know a man? Is it by looking in to his past, his achievements, his success, his family or his personal life. While there are many ways of ascertaining that yet the greatness of a man may only be fathomed by what he stands for and perhaps what he thinks or does for others selflessly without thinking for personal ambitions or drives. If we are to take this concept then Abdul Sattar Edhi was such a man. A man who gave his life for others. Not in a battlefield but on the roads and the streets reminding people of their collective responsibility towards social welfare, about helping humanity, for the general uplift of the masses, without which, he believed the slogan for social change was a mere whitewash. Nevertheless, completely understanding a man like Edhi is not possible if we are only to look at his service alone, even that is good enough for one to understand him, but if one wants to know him in the real sense- one has to dig deeper in to his life.
I shall narrate an incidence of a chance meeting with him in Rawalpindi back in 2005. I was working for a project of the UN, at the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners Aid (SHARP), in providing legal protection to the Afghan refugees. We used to refer some of the women without protection and shelter to Edhi Home in Rawalpindi. When my colleague told me that their staff, due to some problems, had refused to take in Afghan women; I had to go and meet the relevant people to sort this out.
When I reached there I found out that the staff was apprehensive of the behaviour of some Afghan women within the shelter home and had decided not to allow them anymore. I did a lot but could not convince them. In the meanwhile a man came in to the hall from a side room, during this discourse, and joined us without notice, or protocol or announcement. It happened so quick that it took me a while to note that it was none other than Abdul Sattar Edhi himself standing in front of me, smiling and throwing his hand out to me, said, ‘Assalam-o-Alaycum.’ When I realised who it was, I suddenly sprang up from my seat, greeted him with an inward bow (which you normally would do while greeting any elder) and said, ‘Sir, it is both my pleasure and honour to meet you in person’ and sat back again.
He was clad in his usual Malaysia long shirt and white shalwar wearing chappal on his feet and that unmistakable Jinnah cap on top. His long grey beard suited him so well and was looking so lovely on him. He was after all the personification of greatness within himself. Upon his inquiry I briefed him the matter, he listened to his staff about their part of the story as well and remained quiet for a while. Then he instructed his staff never to let that happen again and allow all women if there is capacity within the home (there was room for more women that I knew). He then cautioned the relevant staff that they do not need to think about nationality or anything else. If they are Afghan women they are still women and if they are destitute and without shelter or protection, they had come to the right place. Then he also instructed me to make sure that the women do not quarrel with the staff over petty affairs and maintain discipline in the shelter home and do their daily chores assigned to them, as that was a part of routine of all the people who stayed there, as per Edhi Foundation policies. I promised him we shall counsel the women and ensure compliance.
He was a bit restless in his chair. We had a discussion about a few things of importance in our field (social welfare / development) and the problems that lie in implementation. I realised that he had a sharp eye on the problems that existed and his perspective was real and true- the perspective of the poor man. He was a bit anxious and somehow uneasy about the attitude of some politicians towards social welfare and that was irritating him. I shall never forget his adorable accent of Urdu symbolic of the Memons of Karachi. I then said something, which I have forgotten now, quite regrettably, in response to which he stood up went to a room and came back with his autobiography called Abdul Sattar Edhi- A Mirror to the Blind. He gave it to me with a faint smile and then we took leave. I still remember very clearly that I felt so small, so weak, so meagre in my senses, feeble in my thoughts and a complete invalid in my service before him. I was completely humbled deep within, praising him, for I was immensely inspired and touched. I realised, at that time, who he was? One of the greatest sons of the soil and I was silenced by the impressions of greatness of the very man I had met. I kept thinking about the things he said to me, his ideas and his vision on my way back to office, where I was once again easily consumed by the hustle bustle of my workload.
Edhi had a dream. A dream not only of serving humanity because serving humanity was already his mission. But in fact, and some might not know this, he had a dream of seeing a Welfare State in Pakistan that is reflective of the greatness of the nation that he saw on the roads and the streets in the eyes of the common man. He kept fighting with the political whitewash that always stood in his path. He did not give up but kept fighting it till his last days even though he had in his heart somewhere that people will not listen to him and implement what he dreams of- hence the title of his autobiography ‘A Mirror to the Blind.’
He had an idea of a collective social welfare supported by the very structure of the state as he knew that that is what the poor common man of Pakistan requires and desires. But he believed in social welfare on the basis of self-help rather than donations creating beggars. Without this, he understood, there is no other way for progress. He saw this dream as he would work down in the streets, mingling with the common people, this proclaimed Fakir understood the grass-root problems of the society at large and knew there and then that without the uplift of the poor people of this country the actual problems will never be rooted out.
He proved the worth of his dream by living it himself. Having buried hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, given medical aid to a similar number of destitute, caring for thousands of the psychologically and mentally challenged, bringing up orphans, assisting those in prison on the basis of their human rights simply because they were all human beings- Edhi embarked on a journey where his own life and his mission became one. It is not easy to begin as humbly as a singular dispensary in Karachi without any other support and end up having the most effective and efficient social welfare system run through a foundation, the Edhi Foundation, which boasts an annual turnover of around PKR 100 million. It takes a lifetime of unfettered struggle based on a conviction to convert a dream in to reality, which is what this apparently ordinary man proved to us all. If he could do it, why not a state with huge budgets? Edhi cared for humans and humanity beyond religion, borders, caste, ethnicity or any other notion, as he kept moving on undeterred, unfettered throughout his life.
In my opinion, Abdul Sattar Edhi is a great example for the contemporary Social Welfare Departments and Human Rights institutions of this country and beyond, the Non-Governmental Organisations and the social development sector on the whole not only in Pakistan but the world over.
It is indeed such tireless effort, determination and devotion that is required of all the people in the social development sector that will enable us to uplift the masses on the basis of self-help towards the grand scheme of collective social welfare, based on humanitarianism and protection of human rights on the basis of equality, that we shall be able to foster a culture of human rights for sustainable development.