A recent movie made by two Pakistanis, Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick, has made me revisit a subject about which I have written often. The film called These Birds Walk is about a man many regard as the greatest living Pakistani, Abdul Sattar Edhi. Not many outside the subcontinent know of Edhi. One reason is that he has wrongly been denied the Peace Nobel. In that, he resembles another South Asian.
No Nobel Prize for Peace was given in 1948. This was because the Nobel Committee was so embarrassed by its repeated ignoring of Gandhi, who was killed on January 30 of that year, that it chose to observe his passing in silence. It remains the most striking omission in the history of the prize. Much later, in 1999, the organisation published the background of why it continually rejected the man who transformed Hinduism, liberated India, inspired Martin Luther King to liberate Americans from their bigotry and is now called the apostle of peace.
In 1937, Gandhi was first nominated for the prize by the Norwegian parliament and Ole Colbjornsen of the Labour Party. “He is undoubtedly a good, noble and ascetic person,” the committee assessing him was told by an expert. On the other hand, he was “too much of an Indian nationalist”. On that ground, the prize that year was given to Viscount Cecil of Chelwood. History remembers him as the man famous for wanting all nations to speak the common language called Esperanto.
Gandhi was nominated again in 1938, 1939 and 1947. Each time, someone else was chosen. In 1948, Gandhi was nominated for the last time, this time by independent India. Even theLondon Times felt moved to admit that if Partition had not produced even more bloodshed than it did, “Gandhi’s teachings should get a substantial part of the credit”. But yet again, the Nobel Committee felt Gandhi was not deserving. The truth is that till 1960, only Europeans and Americans were deserving enough to win the award. Coloured people were coloured in their nationalism as much as in their skin. After Martin Luther King won the award in 1964, in his Nobel Lecture he said of Gandhi: “He struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul force, non-injury and courage.”
When he was martyred, Gandhi was considered for a posthumous prize, which would have been unique, because the Nobel is only given to the living. But just leaving the prize go un-awarded was thought a better way of acknowledging him. And in 1999, as we have seen, the committee felt moved enough by guilt to publish an explanation of its omission.
Knowing this background, it is difficult to understand why Abdul Sattar Edhi has not been given the Nobel Prize for Peace. In terms of impact, personal credibility and devotion, his services to humanity are unmatched. He began as a man, who sought to give the dead a respectable burial, but then began also to heal the living. Edhi currently houses 6,000 destitute people. He has saved 20,000 abandoned babies, raised 50,000 orphans and trained 40,000 nurses. These are staggering numbers and it’s puzzling and sad that the Nobel Committee has ignored him this long. Even if it gives him the award this year, it must ask itself why it took it till he was 85 to recognise his gift. And this, when it has continued its bizarre choices. Who could have thought that Henry Kissinger would win a peace prize? Or Yasser Arafat? What contributions to peace has Al Gore made, or for that matter, Barack Obama?
Edhi has much in common with Gandhi. Both are Gujarati and fellow Kathiawadis. Both are eccentric individuals produced by Gujarat’s superb mercantile community. Gandhi was a Bania and Edhi is a Memon, converted from the Lohana caste of merchants. Both felt their primary responsibility was social work. Both made this work their life — Gandhi for 60 years, till a fanatic took him away from us, and Edhi for even longer. Both lived in austerity and both were uncompromisingly secular. Both were ignored by the Nobel Committee, to its shame.
One of them is dead and cannot be given the award. The other, however, is alive. The Nobel Committee will have to again explain its omission if Abdul Sattar Edhi is not recognised by it this October for the hero he is. Awarding it to Edhi will raise the value of the Nobel Peace Prize. Pakistan and India must lobby strongly in his favour.
About the author: Aakar Patel is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar