Remembering Omar Asghar Khan
Friends and admirers go down memory lane


The events surrounding the death of former Federal Minister, Omar Asghar Khan, are indeed tragic but the family grief is no doubt compounded by the controversy being whipped up by contradictory and highly speculative explanations emanating from various sources. This confusion could have been avoided and his family spared the additional trauma, if the Sindh Police had promptly provided an authoritative version of events, to be followed by the findings of an autopsy. This is the least one expects from a police bureaucracy given our media exposure on how such issues are being handled in other countries.

The wider tragedy here is that the late Omar Asghar Khan was a breakaway from the mainstream political tradition. After a short stint in the army, he embellished himself academically, graduating from Essex University and getting an M Phil in Economics from Cambridge University. His career choice as lecturer on Economics at Punjab University was cut short by his sacking as part of the neo-McCarthyist tendencies of the time. However, his commitment to promoting community-based development continued through newspaper articles and later through the highly successful multi-sectoral community-based programme implemented in the Northern Areas and NWFP by SUNGI, an NGO he founded in the 1990s. His was role-model path to parliamentary politics, the only commonality with other rising politicians being the dynastical aspect, his father, Air Marshal Asghar Khan being a veteran politician. However, his 1988 and 1990 runs for the National Assembly were not very impressive, and he may have lacked enough of the common touch.

Unfortunately it did seem in the later part of his stint in Islamabad that the late Omar Asghar Khan’s principled politics and educated approach did not get with the prevalent political culture. Even as a Minister incharge of Local Bodies, he remained an Islamabad outsider which explains his resignation in December 2001 and his desire to start afresh as the President of Qaumi Jamhoori Party, founded by him early this year. That continued effort to contribute his best is what makes the late Omar Asghar Khan’s death a considerable loss, one which his family and colleagues we hope, will have the strength to bear. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Courtesy: The Nation


Omar Asghar Khan graduated from the Cambridge University. He earned quite a name when he was ousted from the Department of Economics, University of Punjab, by the university administration during the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq.

He later made efforts to form a thinkers’ forum in Abbottabad and was also able to gather some intellectuals on its platform, who were given a tough time by the military regime.

In 1989, Omar Asghar Khan formed a non-governmental organization called Sungi and became its executive director. Sungi gained not only nation-wide popularity, but also won various awards from foreign donor agencies. The main area of work of the NGO was the community-based health care, forest protection, sustainable agriculture, women empowerment and the re-settlement of displaced persons.

Among the major tasks he carried out as the head of Sungi were the fight for the settlement of the affected people of Tarbela Dam. He did a commendable job to stop deforestation in the Hazara division, prepared different studies for the most deprived sections of the society, specially women, labourers and farmers. He gave new ideas about joint ventures of NGOs, government and donor agencies.

The target areas of the NGO in the Hazara division were Haripur, Balakot, Kaghan and other far-flung areas, where, on the partnership basis, he developed a chain of small NGOs, working in different villages of Hazara. Sungi was awarded the 1996 United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific Award for its exemplary work in the field of human resource development. Omar Asghar Khan reviewed the elections’ results and published a white paper. He had been a non-active member of his father’s party, Tehrik-i-Istaqlal, for a short time before he was made the party chief of the Frontier province. He, however, preferred to work for his NGO.

He was a relatively young, but dynamic politician, whose mysterious death in Karachi, shocked his admirers across the country. He travelled to different countries and attended countless workshops, seminars and meetings. He had developed good working relations with a number of donor agencies and government functionaries of other countries. His works benefited him when he was appointed the federal minister for manpower, labour and overseas Pakistanis by President Pervez Musharraf. According to some circles, the local bodies plan was the brainchild of Omar Asghar Khan, who as the minister for local bodies, did the spadework. In his earlier days, he was very close to labour leaders and organizations.

Being an active member of the Musharraf regime, he was considered to be an ideal choice for the future setup. Some circles had been dropping the hint that he might be given an important slot in the future setup after the October elections. After working as the minister for more than two years for the Musharraf government, he resigned and formed his own political party, Jamhoori Party, which is still in its infancy. His untimely death was widely condoled in the Hazara division Omar Asghar Khan is no more among us, but he will remain in the hearts of his admirers, specially labourers.

Courtesy: DAWN


by Dr Tariq Rahman

He wore the blue shirt of the Abbottabad Public School in those days. This I remember distinctly. What I do not remember anymore was whether I wore the white shirt of Burn Hall or not. He was three years (and a few months) younger and we met first time in the sixties somewhere in the lush green valley of Abbottabad. We were boys then and I remember almost nothing of our meetings. I remember the next phase. This time it was in the winter of early 1972. I had been commissioned in 1971, before the war, in Probyn’s Horse (5 Horse) and Omar joined it after the war. We lived in a jungle, a plantation near Multan, where wild boars were as common as domestic cats in urban homes. Omar was a quiet youth with a genial, almost shy, smile. He was very soft spoken and not in the least boisterous as most young subalterns in cavalry regiments were in those days. He was a good listener too and that is why I started confiding in him.

I needed a sympathetic listener because I was against that war. Such views could hardly have been popular among swashbuckling young cavaliers but, surprisingly enough, except for one or two of my colleagues, others were mostly indulgent towards me. But Omar and Jameel Malik were the best of them. Omar genuinely listened to me with a genial smile, his distinctive feature, playing on his face. He visited my tent in which he was fascinated with rows of books by Bertrand Russell and the classics of literature. We talked of many things as the regiment moved from the jungle to the open fields of a village near Chichawatni and then on to the sandy border lands next to the Indian border. In February 1973 we came back to Multan and here all the young cavaliers wanted to buy brand new huge motorcycles. I was least interested in these contraptions. I loved horses, of course, but these things on two wheels were in no way substitutes for horses. Omar too wanted a motorcycle and he knew how he could get it - he would sell his car. This car had once belonged to his father. It was a Fiat-600 of 1961, a very small, deep blue shiny little thing. I loved it at first sight and I offered Omar a price which was enough to buy the motorcycle. The snag was, as in most cases, that I did not have the cash. However, after some soft loans from my mother and a hard loan from the local bank, the money was procured. So Omar’s blue Fiat became mine and Omar got his precious roaring motorbike. This was another bond with him.

Then Omar started discussing the possibility of leaving the army. His father, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, was in politics and an opponent of Mr Bhutto the then prime minister. He felt he did not have a career anymore in the army and he did want to leave. However, I do not remember him telling me any specific causes of his belief. He resigned as a lieutenant and left. I stayed on and got posted to the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul where I was promoted captain. Omar used to visit me quite often. I too visited his house which was a small picturesque little hut now as his father’s bungalow had burnt down. I loved the idea of living in a small hut with huge, green grounds all around one. It was in this phase of his life that he talked seriously about going to study abroad. I remember having fired Omar with enthusiasm about England. I remember how happy he was when he got admission in the University of Sussex. Later, for his M Phil, he also went to Cambridge.

When he came back from England I could not meet him for many days. I learned that he was in the Punjab University. I then learned with great regret that they did not appreciate him and the university, already notorious for not being able to attract talented young people, lost Omar too. When I met him I too had said goodbye to the army and was on my way to England.

Again several years passed. Both of us had got married in between. When we met again in the 1980s both told each other how happy our marriages were. He was a very satisfied man as his NGO Sungi had started doing well. Sungi did a lot of very good work in Hazara some of which I saw myself. Omar was once threatened by the forest mafia i.e. people who cut the trees illegally and sell them down in the cities. However, was not frightened by them. When I was doing research for my book Language and Politics in Pakistan in 1994. I wanted to study the Hindko language movement. Omar’s Sungi office in Abbottabad organized my meeting with the activists of this movement in Abbottabad. This was Omar’s contribution to my research and it was of immense help. But for it I would have wasted weeks in tracing them all out. Now I met most of them in one single evening and then met them separately on my own.

Soon after Omar joined the government of General Musharraf. We met at a seminar organized by Sungi in Abbottabad. We talked like old friends — about all issues except politics. Indeed, during this phase whenever we met, as we often did in parties, we never discussed politics. He was always happy. I never found him frustrated or angry. He told me he would quit the government when Chomsky came to deliver a lecture in Islamabad but I did not ask him why and he never told me why. The only time Omar discussed politics was the evening of 14 June in the house of our mutual friend Dr Shaheen Rafi Khan. The occasion was the departure of Shaheen’s brother and Omar’s friend, Dr Shahrukh Rafi Khan. He said that he would plunge himself in electioneering for the October elections. Some friends suggested that he would contest the seat from Islamabad. He was looking forward to October. He did not seem like a man who was tired of life. This was the last time I met Omar. And then, on the evening of 25th June a friend told me on the phone about his death. I felt as if drained out of strength. I heard myself almost shouting that this was incredible but from somewhere deep in me reality spread its icy tentacles. Death, the inevitable, inescapable, incomprehensible enormity of death sunk into my consciousness. Suicide? I could not think. I just went immediately to his father’s house and for a few moments met his wife. But what could I tell her. My voice broke when I told her what she knew already that I had known her husband as a boy. She wept silently. Then I came out and heard people trying to make sense of what had happened. After 4 pm, Wednesday the 26th of June 2002, they consigned him to a grave around which were lush green trees. The music of water in the Illyasi mosque was not audible but the water was not far. I know some people want to make sense of this strange death. Of course they should do that. But I want to close my eyes and look back to one who was so gentle in life and who made such a difference to so many peoples’ lives. I do not have the strength to make sense of this bedlam. All I know is that a bond with my childhood is snapped. I will never hear his gentle monosyllables again! But I also know that I can draw inspiration from a life of goodness and gentleness such as one can never forget.

Courtesy: The News


by Zarina Ayaz

On June 25th, the light of our family was extinguished forever. My beloved nephew Omar Asghar Khan was murdered, leaving behind a grieving family. This is an irreparable and devastating loss for his young wife and three children, as well as his parents, siblings and the entire family. Not only have we lost a charismatic and gentle family man, but Pakistan has lost an innovative, emphatic and hard working citizen. Omar’s concern for the downtrodden was genuine. He reached out to the poor in a way no other young man of his background and upbringing in this country ever has. As a member of the Khan family and an eyewitness to the events following his death, I would like to share the grief expressed by the masses, underprivileged Pakistani men and women who poured in from all over the country.

Around 11 pm on the night of June 25th, almost 12 hours after Omar was found dead, he was brought to his childhood home in Abbottabad. The coffin with a glass top was laid in the front room and people from all walks of life entered the house in large numbers. All night and the following day, men and women arrived, the constant flow of tears reflecting their broken hearts. They came from all over Pakistan, the non-stop stream of wailing and stunned women and men clearly in shock. The majority of these mourners were very poor, their faces ridden with suffering and hardship. Many looked older than their age, malnutritioned and prematurely wrinkled. They arrived on foot in carts and buses. For the next few hours, people filed past Omar, everyone given an opportunity to see him lie peacefully in his coffin. As I spoke to a group of impoverished women, I learned that they had come from a small village near Mansehra, where there were no roads, water or electricity. They said Omar Asghar Khan would come to them in his worn old pick up. He helped bring water to the village and worked alongside everyone, resting only when the villagers stopped. Omar would sleep in their mud homes on a rope bed, he would eat the same bread as the villagers, often insisting not to be given special treatment. As one woman said “He got wells dug, latrines and roads made, he changed our lives. We are poor and for us he was a saint. No other saab has ever done what he did for us.”

A wrinkled and hunched old woman entered with a large group, and stood in stunned silence, staring at Omar’s face. She then kept saying “mein saadqai jawaan”, meaning I would sacrifice my life for you. She later told me that in their village they had no water and had to walk a long distance to fill pitchers and carry them back on their heads. “Omar Asghar Khan made a well close to my home and after sixty years we now have water. I should be in that coffin, he was a saint for us, no one else in this country ever came to our village as there was no approach”. Omar’s wife Samina encourages village women to take up embroidery, helping sell their work through Sungi, a non-profit organization. Omar was one of the pioneers of this organization with his wife. All proceeds from Sungi go directly back to these village women. As one woman said “Samina bibi sells our work and now we are earning for ourselves. We can get food and also have money to go to hospitals.” Another poor woman wailed, “today for us is a black day. Who will help us now, who will listen to us?”

The question deserves an answer. Omar Asghar Khan did not own a house. He lived with his father after resigning from his ministership. He drove an old Toyota pick-up, with a wife who is a dedicated NGO-worker. Omar was a unique person, completely unmaterialistic. Although he could have had what he wanted, he was a great patriot who lived for serving the poor and needy. He did not think of acquiring wealth for himself or his family, and as a minister he was a man of great integrity, firmly opposed to nepotism. The people of Pakistan, especially the educated and privileged, can learn much from the legacy of this great son of the soil. Although our beloved Omar has now departed his dedication and work will never be forgotten. He will be remembered not only as a brother, son and father, but as a compassionate, dedicated and caring young man. Omar was a man who lived for serving his country, a man with a vision that will forever live in the hearts of millions of men and women in Pakistan.

Courtesy: The News


by Anees Jillani

Omar Asghar was one of those characters whom one finds difficult to criticize. Now when I look back at my association with him extending over two decades, I notice that he was an extremely, mild-mannered and soft person. I first met him when he visited the office of Dr Parvez Hassan to file a writ petition against his illegal dismissal by the Punjab University for participating in a labour rally against martial law regulations. He was cool and cheerful at that traumatic juncture in his life when he had just lost his job and I saw him in this “nirvana” state throughout the next 20 years. He worked as a consultant and proved to be a thorough professional. When it came to forming the Sungi Development Foundation in 1989, he asked us to contribute Rs. 1,000 each. Within a span of 12 years, Sungi became one of the largest non-governmental organizations of the country. It has made a mark in the Hazara region and people from all denominations regardless of their political affiliations admired Sungi’s work. In recognition of this endeavour, Sungi was awarded an Escap award in 1996. Omar and his wife devotedly worked for Sungi. From half a desk and one employee, the organization has grown to nine offices and a staff of more than 150 persons.

Despite such a large setup, few could complain of Omar ever dealing with anybody in a harsh manner. Some opposed him but it was always on ideological and political grounds, never for personal reasons. The maulvis and the timber mafia were never fond of him but I doubt if they ever had anything personal against him. Ironically, 16 years after dismissing him from service, the military decided to take him as cabinet minister in 1999. Omar remained confused about this until his resignation and kept asking me to join hands with him which was nice of him. While being a minister, he did not bring about a revolution but proved to be one of the most active ministers I have so far seen. He was socially mobile and attending functions arranged by the civil society. He, felt that the NGO community was his constituency and would prove to be a political force if he ever decided to initiate a political party. As a labour minister, he did a lot to improve on the child labour situation and kept trying to announce a labour policy during his tenure but could not. He worked tirelessly to get some of the major labour laws consolidated and delayed his resignation to announce it but could not accomplish this ambition and the matter remains pending till now.

He managed to announce a historic Wage Award for the journalists. His policies in the environmental field would go a long way in protecting our environment. He formed a political party and kept asking me till the end to join him. I could not because I felt that it would not go anywhere. Unfortunately, it proved to be correct. The folks surrounding him while he was minister were nowhere to be seen when he was simply a political worker. Even the Abid Hassan Minto’s party and his father’s Tehrik-i-Istiqlal refused to merge with his Qaumi Jamhoori Party and this isolation probably started to get to him.

In a meeting on May 24, he remained quiet most of the time, which was unlike him. I met him on the Swiss National Day reception and his wife Samina told me that he did not want to leave home but she dragged him out. They then went for a three-day vacation to Nathiagali. I last met him just 48 hours before his death. He tried to hug me which I found strange because he had never done that before. I wish I had not resisted it. He was having dinner at the Club with Samina and his children, Yasmeen, Abdullah and Mustafa. He wanted us to join them for dinner but we left. That was the last I saw of him until the night of June 25 at the Islamabad Airport when Samina faint-heartedly opened the top of the box to peep at her Omar, one last time in the privacy of the ambulance before it went on his last journey towards Abbottabad.

Courtesy: DAWN


by Pervez Hoodbhoy

Omar’s sudden departure is an utterly devastating blow: it is so hard to believe that this energetic, dynamic man is gone forever. It does not matter how he died —whether it was he, or someone else, who took away his precious life. What matters is how he lived, for what he lived, and what he did for others. Omar’s commitment to progressive social change, to uplifting the poor and downtrodden, and to a better society remained unchanged in the 20 years that I first met him. He, and the organization 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. He was an open, caring, and courteous person who I had never seen being rude to anyone. I am deeply grateful to Omar that he encouraged me to speak and write about General Zia’s fraudulent Islamic science at the peak of that repressive dictatorship. Months, sometimes years, would go by between the times that I would see him but he would always meet with the same genuine warmth and friendliness. Pakistan is poorer today for having lost one of its best. He leaves behind many who grieve for him. In deep sorrow.