Abdul Sattar Edhi was enigmatic. He hailed from the state of Gujrat in India, a region known for nestling and nurturing super souls, such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to quote a few.
Edhi influenced people by attaining the status of an icon in service to humanity, and without resorting to high politics. Unlike Imran Khan, he steered clear of using high politics to be the messiah of the deprived and dispossessed. He also gave a wide berth to the high lifestyle by embracing simplicity typical of a dervish who, while sitting in his dargah (hospice), cares for all, irrespective of religion, caste or creed, not Muslim, Hindu or Christian but ‘Human’.
Setting this goal to serve humanity for oneself in a country like Pakistan is almost impossible, where parochialism and exclusionary tendencies have pervaded to the core. Therefore, the Edhi phenomenon is quite anomalous. Despite being a part of this social setup, he not only refrained from the exclusionary practices but also came up with unequivocal condemnation of exclusion.
My colleague Dr Umber bin Ebad refuses to accept Edhi and his inclusionary style of philanthropy as typically Pakistani. Edhi belonged to a generation that nurtured in the multicultural (and syncretic) environment of pre-partitioned India. The communal friction from 1920s onwards, notwithstanding, pre-partition North Indian literati cared for humanist values, which was reflected in the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Ghulam Abbas.
Ashfaq Ahmed’s short story Gadaria and Ghulam Abbas’s Anandi are extraordinary depictions of humanism which transcend religious affinities. Particularly in Gadaria, the character of Dau Ji epitomises syncretism. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Majeed Amjad, Ustad Daman and Munir Niazi underscore the same humanistic value.
Unfortunately, the tradition to be syncretic and eclectic could not be carried over to Pakistan in the real sense, although there had been a few exceptions like Edhi. All these laureates expressed humanism in various art form, prose or poetry, but Edhi practised it with extraordinary courage and temerity.
Humanism professed by the aforementioned writers and poets was substituted by a quest for locating our identity in religious exclusion with the likes of Nasim Hijazi as its propagandists. That is probably why we find a huge disconnect between traditions practised by our forebears from the pre-partition era and traditions our generation adheres to. The religious unilateralism which has come to define Pakistan, particularly after the cessation of Pakistan in 1971, has submerged the category of a ‘human’ with that of a religious denomination. Therefore, for us human is human only if he/she is a Muslim.
Same holds true for the citizen of Pakistan. An individual will practically be recognised as a citizen of Pakistan if he is Muslim, and in many cases he has to be a Sunni Muslim.
All said, human as a category does not exist in our national discourse. However, Edhi, despite all odds, remained engaged with human, which to my reckoning makes Edhi what he eventually became, a social icon and a beloved of all but a very few.
We know through several references made after his demise that he was well conversant with Karl Marx and Lennon, and he might have drawn inspiration from their works. But by embarking on philanthropic path and subsequently establishing Apna Ghar and the Edhi Centre, he seemed to have drawn much of his inspiration from medieval institution of dargah.
Dargah catered to the human, irrespective of the attendee’s religious identity. Langar (free kitchen) was its hallmark where everyone was welcome. That in fact was a unique symbol of rebellion against the entrenched hierarchy imposed through the caste system.
Edhi too was an advocate par excellence of social equality. His own persona was no different from that of a dervish with his simple attire and unpretentious lifestyle and mannerism. More so, as also indicated above, the biggest attribute of a dervish is his indifference to the material gain. In the South Asian culture, only dervish can wield the trust of the masses — and Edhi not only wielded that trust but also honoured it.
Edhi has been insinuated by a (Deobandi) maulvi for adopting children, abandoned by those who would have sired them. In the medieval era, dargah was a place where such “unwanted” children were deposited. Many of those children used to grow up into malangs and some became the servants of dargah. Edhi’s adoption of these children seems to me as another legacy of dargah.
However, he treated such children with greater kindness and compassion than the medieval dargah. Thus, we can argue that Edhi’s setup is a far more evolved form of the medieval dargah.
Edhi was a unique phenomenon. But whatever he achieved had its historical antecedents. But it was extremely daunting to carry it out. No one else can do it. That probably is the reason, hardly anyone aspires to emulate him.