My father Omar Asghar Khan, my hero

Updated June 25, 2016


My father Omar Asghar Khan and I.
My father Omar Asghar Khan and I.

Omar Asghar Khan was a Pakistani politician and social activist born on July 3, 1953. He taught economics, philosophy and politics at Quaid-i-Azam University.

He formed a non-governmental organisation called Sungi, which gained recognition for its community-based health care, forest protection, sustainable agriculture, women empowerment and the re-settlement of displaced persons. He also formed his own political party Qaumi Jamhoori Party.

He died under mysterious circumstances on June 25, 2002. Today marks his 15th death anniversary.

My eldest — an inquisitive five-year-old boy — often asks me wistfully: "Where is my nana?"

I lost my father, Omar Asghar Khan, 14 years ago, in 2002. At the time, I was really young, perhaps meant to live a different life until his death threw me on an entirely new path. He is no longer the key presence in my life that I had imagined him to be, but an indelible memory that I carry forth.

My spouse and children have never met him so I feel the onus is on me to keep his memory alive; to make him real for them and an entire generation who might have never heard of him.

Read more: The mysterious death of Omar Asghar Khan

My father wore many hats — with aplomb. He was a loving father, son and brother; a leading economist, politician and social activist; a voice to the voiceless; and a quiet, empathetic listener.

My father Omar Asghar Khan and mother Samina.
My father Omar Asghar Khan and mother Samina.

Is it any wonder then that we discovered the many lives he had led after his death?

He was said to be charismatic even in his boyhood. He excelled in sports at school, captaining the hockey and swimming teams. He was a prankster and would often pull an odd prank or two — such as sneaking in a squeaky toy under an unsuspecting groom at a family wedding. It was his way of teaching us to never take anything too seriously in life.

Our family in Skardu.
Our family in Skardu.

In everything that my father did — be it during his time in the army, in politics or teaching — he always stood up for what he believed was right, come what may. I'm so grateful for his unwavering belief in principles and quiet activism seeping into all of our consciousness.

His demand was simple: Rights for all

It was this very activism that made him a thorn in the side of those in power. Early on his career, he was dismissed under false pretext from the Punjab University by General Ziaul Haq, after which he joined my grandfather's political party Tehrik-e-Istiqlal.

He subsequently travelled across the country to meet the common people in remote cities, towns and villages; to listen to their concerns, and empathise with them.

My father and the rest of the family at a birthday party.
My father and the rest of the family at a birthday party.

He, and the organisation he founded, Sungi, stood up resolutely to hostile maulvis opposed to education of girls and against the timber mafia in Hazara. As a member of Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet, he was a voice for the poor and disenfranchised. Omar’s achievements were extraordinary in a society so hostile to change and forward movement. He succeeded far better than most, with his unique mix of idealism and pragmatism. Many of us have our own reasons for being grateful to Omar.
—Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy

Returning inspired and motivated, he went on to establish the Sungi Development Foundation with a mission to mobilise marginalised communities; to transform their lives; and to establish a peaceful and prosperous society based on social justice, equity and equality.

Many generations of girls and boys — who might not even remember him now — have an education, drinking water and roads in far-flung areas of Pakistan, where, at the time, no one ever dared to venture before. He helped them find a voice, educated them about the system and all its hurdles and taught them how to demand their rights.

To him, they were his partners in building a better Pakistan from the ground up.

Much of the time he spent travelling to different corners of Pakistan to meet with people was time that he spent away from us, his family. We never resented it because we knew he was changing the lives of so many disenfranchised Pakistanis.

Omar Asghar Khan's legacy

In the terrible, bleak days that followed his death, we were humbled by the scores of people, old and young, who came to Abbottabad for his funeral, just to catch a glimpse of him.

We heard from countless communities that they had taken my father in their tribes and clans as one of their own. This was heartwarming, as well as astounding, to learn because they had never let an outsider in their community before.

An old man, who was associated with Sungi as a driver, recalled that when he took my father to remote villages, he would never ask to exclusively sleep in a separate room at night but instead preferred sleeping with everyone together.

My brother Abdullah and I with our father.
My brother Abdullah and I with our father.

When I hark back to my own memories of him, there is one that makes me particularly nostalgic: During his time in Sungi, my father decided to grow a beard and he would mostly wear shalwar kameez. A young teenager at the time, his conservative appearance used to embarrass me greatly, especially when one of my friends commented, "Your driver has come to pick you up." I now recall his appearance with pride.

As Minister for Local Government and Rural Development during Musharraf's regime, he took out two hours from his hectic schedule everyday to meet with citizens. Every morning, while we were getting ready for school, there would be a long queue of people outside our house, waiting to talk about their grievances with the government, or other leaders.

See: Omar Asghar Khan, the man with a vision

He invited them into our home as guests and they ate and drank with us, routinely confusing the government staff and security at our house, who had never seen such a lack of formality and pomp around a federal minister’s residence.

The scale of his work was so massive that it leaves me overwhelmed at times.

I crave for my children to learn from and to follow my father’s legacy; to consistently stand up for people, without any fear, despite the odds.

For me, he lives in all the people he met and impacted, and their expressions of love when they find out that I am his daughter.

And so my response to my five-year-old son is always: your grandfather is among all of us.

—Photos provided by author