Not many Pakistanis inspire the kind of unmitigated respect and affection among their compatriots than does Abdul Sattar Edhi.
The sentiment cuts across divisions of creed, class and ethnicity — because over the course of his charity work, this octogenarian has proved time and again that all that has ever mattered to him is our common humanity, the thread that binds us together as one single race.
One wishes that this remarkable man’s life, his spirit of service to mankind, his selflessness and humility, would also inspire some introspection among Pakistan’s ruling elite.
But that is a vain hope in a country where security-centric policies take priority over people’s welfare and political point-scoring trumps long-term investment in human capital.
Of late, as rumours about Mr Edhi’s failing health started making the rounds, a procession of ‘notables’, from Pervez Rashid and Rehman Malik to Imran Khan and Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, have been treading the path to Mr Edhi’s bedside to wish him a speedy recovery, and score a photo-op.
Even the army chief has sent flowers. The values that Mr Edhi embodies, and the vast gulf that separates them from those of Pakistan’s pampered and self-serving elite were never more powerfully highlighted than when former president Asif Zardari offered to have him flown abroad for treatment. The philanthropist declined the offer, indicating that he preferred to receive treatment in his own country, among his own people.
Through several decades of Pakistan’s tumultuous history, Abdul Sattar Edhi has been the one constant: providing relief to traumatised survivors of catastrophes both natural and manmade, picking up the wounded, tenderly bathing bodies too mutilated for even family members to handle.
His charitable work, under the umbrella of the gargantuan Edhi Foundation, has also taken him on disaster relief missions elsewhere in the world.
Finally, it seems ‘officialdom’ is attempting to own him, but the whiff of self-promotion behind the solicitousness is unmistakable.
For the common man however, Mr Edhi has long been a national treasure, that rarest of individuals who shunned a comfortable existence and instead dedicated himself to creating something akin to a welfare net for the nation’s poor.
His philanthropic services, including shelters for the needy, orphaned, mentally disabled etc, and his vast, countrywide ambulance network, cater to those whom the state has historically neglected.
Bringing a measure of comfort to these disenfranchised people has been the purpose of his life.
Whether he is ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize or not, something that a number of his compatriots have been tirelessly campaigning for, he has already won Pakistan’s heart, many times over.
Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2016