In life and in death, while he lived and nearly fifteen years after his death, Waqar Pyare Khan’s phenomenal influence continues to improve the lives of thousands. There are heroes who get official recognition, and then there are heroes who rise beyond all official recognitions to earn the eternal badge of selfless service to humanity. The story of Waqar Khan is that of a very ordinary villager from Uttar Pradesh transforming himself into an extraordinary social activist and social worker in the city of Mumbai and beyond.

Waqar Pyare Khan was born on February 16, 1965 in the small town of Aonla in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. Plagued by poverty, Khan migrated to Mumbai in 1980 to earn a living and support his family: his parents and younger siblings, three brothers and two sisters. Educated up to the seventh standard in Aonla, young Waqar started out by selling bananas on the pavements of Bombay and finding temporary shelter in the slums of Dharavi.

Often he would be driven from one street to another by policemen refusing to allow him a place to sell his goods. Gradually, he ventured into the garment business. First, he would repair and sell used clothes. Next, he started stitching new shirts. With perseverance and sheer hard work, he rose to become a successful wholesale trader of shirts. He not only ensured that his parents were taken care of, but helped his siblings to settle down well in their lives.

Following his marriage to Ms Mehtab, Waqar Khan proved to be a loving husband and a model father to his children, Gulzar, Zaheer, Nazia, Shagufta and Aayesha: all of whom are not only very enterprising but have inherited their father’s social conscience. His wife Mehtab empathised with his passion to help the less fortunate and stood by him as an unassuming pillar of support all through, ensuring that the family was taken care of during those long periods of time when Waqar Khan devoted himself fully to social work. His children too would follow the noble path shown by their father, especially the eldest, Gulzar, who now takes care of his late father’s charitable foundation and other social missions.

Waqar Saab would tell his children often, “For a village kid like me, Bombay was a dream world, a place where I expected movie stars to be roaming the streets. But when I set foot in this city, I realised its harsh realities.” And his son Gulzar recalls, “My father never looked back in his life. Arriving absolutely penniless, with no support, he worked day and night to reach the heights we admire so much.”

The 1992-93 riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid shook Waqar Khan to the core. He could not imagine friends and neighbours who had known each other for so long killing each other in the name of religion. He decided he had to go out on the streets, stop the violence, and have people come together again. He became involved with the peace committees set up by community social workers and senior police officers like Julio Ribiero and Satish Sahney.

The turning point was his meeting with Dharavi’s noted social worker Bhau Korde. Korde and Khan became inseparable friends, a power-packed team, who would carry on a life-long crusade for peace and harmony not only in Mumbai but across India and even abroad. Going door to door, speaking of the essence of India that lies in her diversity and inter-religious harmony, Waqar Khan, ably supported by veteran social workers like Bhau Korde, Yasmin Shaikh and many others, used his natural eloquence and his creative ideas to help heal wounds, bridge divides, and persuade the masses to end all animosity in the name of religion.

The famous unity poster designed by Waqar Khan, depicting children of various religions giving the message ‘Hum Sab Ek Hain’ or ‘We Are One’, was put up across government offices, police stations and public places in Bombay. It imparted the life-saving message of unity amid diversity, so crucial when Bombay was burning. As Bhau Korde emphasises, “Waqar was a genius. His slogan ‘Hum Sab Ek Hain’ was just what was needed to counter the poison of communalism and extremism. He spent several thousands from his own savings to have posters printed, and create and distribute cassettes and DVDs containing messages, skits and songs promoting communal harmony.”

Communal harmony would become the focal point of Waqar Pyare Khan’s social activism. In the words of Bhau Korde, “Waqar Khan was an unschooled philosopher and a visionary. His cassettes and posters and videos doused the flames of religious extremism, not only in Mumbai in the 1990s, but much later, also in Ahmedabad and in Malegaon, wherever conflicts broke out, even after his passing.” This saga is poignantly captured in the documentary film ‘Naata’ made by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. In grateful recognition of his contribution to the cause of alternative media, the School of Media and Cultural Studies at TISS instituted the Waqar Pyare Khan Memorial Prize for Best Media Project.

The Babri riots were just the starting point. Khan would go on to extend his philanthropy to diverse spheres of life and in varied, innovative ways. Time and space, religion and caste: no barriers could hinder his generosity of spirit. As his strong ally Bhau Korde adds, “During Moharram, Waqar would ensure that his charitable works extended particularly to non-Muslims.”

The selfless team of Korde and Khan would go on to dedicate every single day to removing barriers, reconciling people of diverse backgrounds, and above all, rendering their priceless support to every noble cause ranging from fighting poverty to promoting literacy, combating disease to empowering women, uplifting backward communities to helping youth find employment and fulfilment.

Truly altruistic, they never expected any returns, nor pursue political power or fame. They would together ensure that no clashes took place between Muslim and Hindu communities during their festivals celebrated in close proximity to temples and mosques, that police and civilians co-operated with each other, that things never went out of control in Asia’s largest and most crowded slum, home to people from perhaps every religion, caste, tribe and profession in India.

After 1992-93, Waqar Khan became one of the very few who dedicated himself to inter-religious dialogue, pluralism, humanism, and building bridges among various communities. He would organise get-togethers for communal harmony such as Id Milan and Holi Milan, inviting people from diverse faiths and cultures. He ensured that no one in his vicinity felt even the least bit discriminated against due to their religious or cultural backgrounds. He truly was a man ahead of his times. No wonder, people from all walks of life approached him for peaceful conflict resolution. “He would say that all problems can be solved through dialogue and discussion. Approaching the police or other law and order agencies should be the last resort. We should try to reduce the burden on our law enforcement systems, by trying to resolve all disputes through peaceful dialogue,” remembers Gulzar.

Waqar Khan resolved numerous disputes through sincere mediation and extensive dialogue, without ulterior motives. He had very sound techniques: he would study the dispute in depth, listen carefully to all parties, never take any sides or involve any personal interests, consider the issue from all angles, analyse it critically and then arrive at a conclusion.

He was a valuable link between the police and the public, who ensured that governance was carried out and community decisions were made by every member of the community, and not by government officials imposing their decisions on the public alone. Bhau Korde recalls how he and Waqar Khan ensured that an inter-faith marriage did not escalate into a major clash between Hindu and Muslim communities and even saved the lives of the young couple in love.

Whether it was juveniles who fell in love and eloped or boys and girls who married across religious and caste divides, Khan ensured that they were treated with compassion and dignity, that they were accepted by the community and allowed to have a peaceful, meaningful future.

His phenomenal rise, as a barely literate villager in one of the world’s biggest metropolises, remains an enigma. His son Gulzar tries to unravel the mystery: “Indeed, Bhau Korde inspired my father. So did former Mumbai Police commissioner Julio Ribiero and other members of the Mohalla/Peace Committees.

In fact, back in Aonla, my father had a teacher in school named Mr Sageer, who taught him that no religion is greater than humanity and no service is greater than service to humanity. But Waqar Khan, I feel, was a man set apart by birth. He was an inspiration to so many. He always took pleasure in philanthropy, never believed in any kind of distinctions, neither religion nor caste nor gender nor age mattered to him. He was born to help others. Even before the 1992-93 riots, he was actively involved in social work and people would approach him constantly for some kind of help or the other. Every minute of his rather short life was lived to the fullest; he gave more than he had, contributed more than his means permitted, and did more charity in one brief lifetime than most of us would do over several long lifetimes.”

Bhau Korde recalls, “I am still amazed that this man, who had studied just up to seventh class in a village school, so deeply imbibed the lessons of humanism taught by his primary school teacher, that he could influence several generations. Without any formal education, he was way ahead of his times in thinking about communal harmony. He could speak with equal eloquence and wisdom about the Holy Quran and also about the Ramayana, having acted in several Ram Lila plays in his native Bareilly.

His ability to interpret the shared essence and pluralism inherent in religious scriptures was stunning. Again, he was ahead of his generation in encouraging women’s empowerment, calling for a ban on triple talaq, rescuing more than 30 Muslim women from unlawful talaq (divorce), ensuring increased amount of meher or compensation for divorced women, encouraging women’s education and participation in government, and more.”

Waqar Khan receiving the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award bestowed upon him by the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission in 2008

Of course, social service offered its own challenges. Waqar Khan had no enemies, at least on the surface. He got along very well with people of all ages and almost everybody, young or old, would approach him for advice and guidance on varied matters. He commanded tremendous respect and trust across communities. Yet, things would not always be the same.

To quote Bhau Korde, “A social worker’s life always has its own challenges, both big and small. When Waqar Saab made the ‘Hum Sab Ek Hain’ poster, he could not find a child ready to shave his head and pose as a Hindu priest. He made his own son Gulzar to do the same. Several Muslims found fault with him for this. Later, the same detractors praised his life-saving poster.”

In 2008, Khan and Korde were invited to the London School of Economics for a lecture on the social work they had dedicated their lives to. Waqar Khan could not go to the UK, despite the invitation from the LSE, because he was refused a visa. Korde too refused to go without his friend. Finally, the LSE cancelled the event. This discrimination against a man, who had never discriminated against anyone all his life, just because his surname was Khan, came as a shocker to all who knew him and his work. Yet no matter what challenges came his way, Waqar Saab went ahead without a pause, as his goals were noble and lofty.

Waqar Khan managed to devote quality time and care to his family despite his busy life. His close relatives recall that, as a father, he loved his children immensely. He nurtured a special bond with all of them, explaining things to them with great patience. He was always the generous provider of good things to his parents and siblings and later to his wife and children. His eldest son Gulzar remembers fondly, “The most important thing he taught me was to never cheat or harm or hurt another human being. Second, he drilled into my mind that there is nothing greater than humanity. And a person who does not have a humane and compassionate heart can never be a truly genuine person. Whenever I face a challenge, I ask myself how my father would have overcome it. I shall feel proud of myself, if I become at least 10 percent of what he was.”

However, Waqar Pyare Khan shone bright for too brief a time. His yeoman service towards communal harmony won him the Gandhi Peace Award in March 2008 in Maharashtra. The very next year, in 2009, his early demise by a sudden heart attack was a great loss to India. As his son Gulzar testifies, “He had so many good qualities. As a son, it is hard for me to think of any flaws he had. I feel, he had none. His entire life has made an indelible mark on me. I am so proud to be his son. The quality I admire most in him is his total impartiality. He never discriminated on the basis of religion or any other consideration. He dealt fairly and objectively with all those who came his way. He focused on people’s problems and the solutions to the same, never on anything else. Till my last breath, I shall never forget the purity and magnanimity of his soul, his unwavering commitment to upholding the truth at all costs till his passing on April 6, 2009.”

From a shy village kid to a great orator, from a street hawker to a famous philanthropist, Waqar Khan’s journey is a truly incredible one. What stands out is the unique mix of idealism and practicality pervading everything that he undertook. Friends like Bhau Korde vouch for the absolute purity of Waqar Saab’s motives. “And he did everything without an iota of selfishness, never sought power or fame, never entered politics or publicity campaigns. For him, not only the end but the means to the end were equally important. For instance, several people advised him to have celebrities or movie stars or sportspersons on his famous Hum Sab Ek Hain poster. But, he was dissatisfied with the personal lives of many of them and felt they could not be genuine role models. Finally, he decided that four innocent children representing various communities would be the best ambassadors of peace and harmony.”

Today, Waqar Pyare Khan’s legacy continues through his Hum Sab Ek Hain Foundation. The organisation, with its motto of unity and pluralism and harmony, has forayed into new areas of social activism and service under the leadership of his son Gulzar Waqar Khan. The Hum Sab Ek Hain poster has become a kind of national icon. Tushar Gandhi, in one of his recent articles, muses about the great impact the story of this poster had on him and those around him during the Congress-led Bharat Jodo Yatra last winter.

During the Covid pandemic, Gulzar led a host of NGOs and youth activists in distributing essential supplies to disemployed families on the brink of starvation and in successfully conducting vaccination and sanitation drives. The foundation also helped educate children, especially young girls, who had missed school or college or had no money for tuitions during the pandemic. Thanks to such efforts, Dharavi emerged as a shining example for the country, with its exceptional handling of the Covid19 crisis. Waqar Saab’s spirit shines forth in the social work across various spheres of life, carried out by generations of enthusiastic young men and women, in Dharavi, home to the oppressed, who drive the engines of India’s financial capital.

Dr Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam is Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London