Abdul Sattar Edhi is not the first person in the world whose legacy will be shaped by the elites that he so disliked. It is a tried-and-tested strategy of those who rule over us: wait for rebels to die, thereby rendering them unable to speak for themselves and then claim that they were the embodiment of the nation.

Certainly, Edhi was no Habib Jalib or Gul Khan Nasir whose political activism brought them into direct confrontation with the state, only for them to metamorphose into patriotic Pakistanis after their deaths. But for all the naysayers who have spent the last few days asserting that Edhi was the "moral conscience" of Pakistan and not a political man, the details of his life confirm quite the opposite.

A man with socialist ideals

Ours is a land ridden by class and status divisions, in which the most affluent wash away their sins by either wearing religion on their sleeves or donating to charity – or both. The rich and famous do not become saints when they contribute money to charitable foundations. It is these same elites that fuel poverty, squalor and suffering by sustaining oppressive political and economic structures, something that was never lost on Edhi.

His son Faisal, whose discomfort standing next to Pakistan’s most powerful man, General Raheel Sharif, at his father’s funeral was plain for all to see, clarified in an interview that Edhi espoused socialist ideals and had brought up his children accordingly. The younger Edhi went on to suggest that reactionaries had always opposed his father’s work and would continue to create hurdles for the Edhi Foundation after his death.

What is socialism? It is, in simple terms, the conviction that all human beings are entitled to equally share the fruits of human labour. The notion that a social worker like Edhi was apolitical flies in the face of his commitment to those Pakistanis who have been deprived of an equal share of society’s collective product – he might have chosen not to express his commitment in the form of overt political activism, but on more than one occasion he indicated his understanding of, and position towards, power politics and its seasoned players.

During Zia's regime, he left the country for some time, after it became apparent that the dictator was clamouring to give him some role in government to provide legitimacy to so-called Islamisation. Edhi also rejected a significant donation from the dictatorial regime, as he has done with donations offered by foreign governments, including, most recently, that of Narendra Modi in India. In his apparent role as a philanthropist, Edhi had to maintain some degree of cordiality with powerful men and their sycophants, but his actions spoke louder than words.

Charity and politics

Those who choose active political engagement do not believe that charity addresses the root causes of exploitation and oppression. I doubt that Edhi ever believed that his work – despite its impressive scale – was ever a substitute for comprehensive socio-economic change so that poverty and suffering is not reproduced on an everyday basis. This is why he was always insistent that he had to keep going – because there were always more who needed help than he and his foundation could possibly cater to.

Having said this, revolutionaries everywhere have always found ways to prove that their ideas of an egalitarian society do not just remain ideas; most of the popular communist upheavals of the 20th century were culminations of drawn-out struggles in which one liberated zone after another was created where health, education and other basic human needs of all segments of the population were guaranteed.

The most recent example of a successful leftist movement of this nature is that of the Maoists in Nepal who managed to mobilise large numbers of working people against that country’s monarchy precisely by setting up parallel administrative and service-delivery systems providing for basic human needs. They took over the government long after demonstrating their socialism in practice.

To position social workers such as Edhi on the opposite end of the spectrum to political activists is to ignore that both serve the interests of the wretched of the earth, that both, in one way or the other, challenge the unjust status quo. Indeed, what happened to individuals like Perween Rahman confirms there can be no such distinction.

In an age where tenant farmers in Okara and katchi abadi residents in Islamabad peacefully struggling for the right to livelihood and shelter are labelled ethnic-nationalist "traitors" fighting for self-determination in Balochistan and Sindh, we can either choose to delude ourselves about what people like Edhi stand for, or acknowledge that they are fighting the good fight through other means.

When you get a hold of that commemorative coin that declares him one of Pakistan’s heroes, spare a thought for all the others that we choose not to remember.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

This article first appeared on Dawn.