Smokers’ Corner: Edhi, the politician

Dawn.com : Much has been written about Abdul Sattar Edhi, the tireless philanthropist who against some extremely daunting odds, managed to construct a most effective, loved and trusted charitable empire in Pakistan.

Edhi Sahib’s overwhelming humanitarian impulse which often throbbed for the needy without exhibiting any religious or social bias, is brilliantly captured in Tehmina Durrani’s 1996 book, Mirror to the Blind.

However, surprisingly, there is one aspect of Edhi Sahib’s celebrated life that has only scarcely been documented. That of Edhi, the politician. At least for the first 25 years of his career as a restless philanthropist, Edhi was not repulsed by politics. His disdain for politicians and members of the clergy started to became more apparent from the late 1980s onward.

Durrani’s book suggests that certain obstacles which he faced in conducting his charity work in Karachi’s impoverished Kharadar area in the early 1960s, saw him making an attempt to enter politics through Ayub Khan’s ‘basic democracies’ framework.


The one scarcely documented aspect of Edhi Sahib’s celebrated life


But instead of allying himself with Ayub’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Convention, Edhi instead approached the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) during the 1965 Presidential election. In the election, over 80,000 ‘basic democrats’ were to be elected by the people across West and East Pakistan. The elected candidates in turn were to elect the President.

Ayub had come to power through a military coup in 1958. He became president at the height of his largely liberal regime in 1962. But by 1965, the regime had begun to lose its sheen when the economic gaps between a new business and military elite and other sections of the society began to widen.

COP was a mixture of various left and right parties. For example, it had the time’s largest left-wing outfit in Pakistan, the National Awami Party (NAP), as well as the conservative religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). These two, along with some smaller parties, had convinced Fatima Jinnah to be their presidential candidate.

Ms. Jinnah was the sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (d.1948). She had become vocal against the Ayub regime, accusing it of being undemocratic and tilted towards benefiting only a handful of ‘cronies’.

Durrani, in her book, alludes that Edhi Sahib’s decision to become a basic democrat candidate for COP was also influenced by the fact that he became perturbed by the accelerating rate of poverty in Karachi’s many impoverished areas.

Though Karachi voted heavily in favour of Ms. Jinnah, Edhi lost from the area he was contesting from i.e. his beloved Kharadar. Ayub was reelected as President.

Not much is known what position Edhi took during the countrywide movement against the Ayub regime in 1968. But he again registered as a contestant, this time for the historical 1970 general election — the country’s first based on adult franchise.

Z.A. Bhutto’s populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in West Pakistan, and the Bengali nationalist outfit, the Awami League in East Pakistan, were emerging as the time’s two strongest parties.

But the staunch individualist in Edhi saw him registering as an independent candidate from Karachi’s working-class area of Lyari. Due to his charity activities, he had become a much loved figure here. Nevertheless, by 1970, Lyari had already begun to emerge as a boisterous bastion of the PPP.

It is not known why Edhi did not associate with the PPP which was promising to radically uplift the economic status of the poor. A few years ago, in an interview to a local news channel, his wife, Bilquis Edhi mentioned that Edhi Sahib refused to spend any money on his campaign and would even refuse to treat potential voters with a cup of tea!

More interesting is the fact that it was the conservative Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which came forth to support his candidature. So much so, that the hefty and rather excellent compilation, Elections in Pakistan, by researcher, Tahir Mehdi, places Edhi as a JI candidate.

The election was won by PPP’s A. Sattar Gabol, who received 48,444 votes.

Edhi managed to bag 10,425 votes, despite the fact that he hardly spent any money on his campaign and the JI had very few voters in Lyari.

But some sources maintain that Edhi withdrew his candidature and actually made speeches in favour of the PPP; and that the JI candidate was ‘some other Abdus Sattar.’

Whatever the case may be, Edhi’s affair with politics was not dented. Though the government of Z.A. Bhutto began to support his charitable cause, Edhi was disappointed by the slow pace of Bhutto’s reforms.

In 1975, he was back as a candidate, this time during a by-election in the Karachi 7 district which today comes under the large NA250 constituency. The constituency had been won in 1970 by Shah Ahmad Noorani, the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP). He had vacated the seat in 1975 to become a senator.

Once again Edhi registered as an independent. In his book, A Journey to Disillusionment, veteran progressive politician, Sherbaz Khan Mazari, wrote that the combined opposition alliance, the United Democratic Front (UDF), botched the election when two of its religious outfits could not agree upon a consensual candidate.

UDF was formed in 1974. It was made up of the right-wing/religious JUP, JUI and JI; the centrist PML factions; and the left-wing NAP. Mazari wrote that JI wanted its candidate to be backed by the UDF in Karachi 7. JUP, which had won the constituency in 1970, refused, and instead put up its own man. The JI in turn decided to back Edhi.

The commotion gave PPP’s Noorul Afrin an opening and he won by bagging 27,623 votes. The JUP candidate came second with 24,224 votes. Edhi could bag only 7,611.

Ms. Durrani’s book suggests that Edhi developed a lasting soft spot for Z.A. Bhutto when the latter was hanged by the Gen Zia dictatorship in 1979. Edhi’s relations with the reactionary Zia dictatorship were not cordial. But he refrained from taking any political stand during this period.

With the rise of ‘welfare’ organisations associated with militant religious outfits during the Zia regime, Edhi frequently found himself being challenged by the more aggressive tactics of these organisations.

This is also when he began to be accused of being a communist and a ‘bad Muslim.’ Edhi responded by suggesting that he found nothing wrong in the philosophy of Karl Marx. According to his wife, once when they were performing the Haj, Edhi Sahib refused to pelt the pillars symbolising the devil. Instead, he kept the pebbles in his pocket, saying that there were bigger devils in Pakistan and he will pelt them instead!

He would also attract the wrath of the clerics by regularly praying alongside his wife, daughters and female orphans at the Edhi-run orphanages.

In 1985 Edhi once again decided to contest an election. This was during the year’s ‘partyless polls’. Political parties were debarred by the Zia regime from contesting. But many parties, including those who were boycotting these elections (such as the PPP), did support individual candidates.

Edhi volunteered as a candidate from a constituency in Karachi. The PPP decided to support him. Edhi accepted the backing, but eventually dropped out of the race for unknown reasons.

After this, Edhi quit politics altogether, even though he was offered party tickets by the PPP in 1990 and 1993; and, according to some, by the Musharraf-backed PML-Q in 2002. But by then Edhi was convinced that politics had become an anathema for those willing to resign their lives doing selfless deeds of charity.

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