DOHA: Ansar Burney, a name synonymous with human rights advocacy in Pakistan and beyond, is a pioneering figure whose life’s work has left an indelible mark on the global struggle for human dignity and freedom.
Born on August 14, 1956, in Karachi, Pakistan, Burney embarked on a journey of activism at a young age, propelled by a deep-seated belief in justice and equality. His legal education provided a solid foundation for what would become a lifelong commitment to combating injustices and championing the rights of the oppressed.
As the founder of the Ansar Burney Trust in 1980, he has tirelessly worked to eradicate human trafficking, slavery, child labour, and to provide support for prisoners of war, and the wrongly incarcerated. Recognised as Pakistan’s first and foremost human rights lawyer, Burney’s efforts have transcended borders, making him a venerated figure on the international human rights stage.
Gulf Times spoke to Doha-based award-winning Pakistani author Shehar Bano Rizvi and her co-author Tasneem Premjee Chamdia, who both combined with Burney to launch his autobiography entitled Awaaz: Echoes of Freedom and Justice in Karachi recently.
Excerpts from the interview:

What inspired you to co-write Ansar Burney’s autobiography?

Shehar Bano: In December 2018, I met Burney Sahib during his visit to Qatar for the Doha Forum. As he shared his stories, I was deeply impressed by the magnitude of his work in the field of human rights, leaving me in awe of his faith, courage, and resilience. However, I felt embarrassed that, as a Pakistani, I wasn’t aware of this real-life hero who had been recognised as an Anti-Human Trafficking Hero by the US State Department.
When I asked him if he had ever considered writing a memoir, he graciously invited me to undertake the task. After a series of exclusive interviews, I realised the complexity of this project and approached my friend Tasneem. Inspired by Burney Sahib’s story, Tasneem agreed to join me, and together we started working on the manuscript. Our primary aim in documenting the legacy of Ansar Burney was not only to ensure that future generations would know about him but also find inspiration and valuable lessons from his life. The world needs individuals like Ansar Burney to remind us of what a driven individual is capable of and that we belong to the tribe of humanity before any other.

Can you share a surprising or lesser-known fact about him that you discovered during your research?
Tasneem: Writing this book has been a journey filled with surprises and revelations. One particularly intriguing discovery was that the character portrayed by Salman Khan in the Bollywood blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijan was inspired by Ansar Burney, based on one of his cases. Despite the movie’s widespread popularity among millions of Indians and Pakistanis, his connection to it remains largely unknown. It’s both surprising and dismaying that despite Burney Sahib’s extensive work on cases spanning from Japan to Africa, he remains relatively unknown globally, continuing to be an unsung hero.

What impact do you believe he has had on philanthropy and beyond?
Shehar Bano: Burney Sahib has touched countless lives globally by championing human rights causes, irrespective of borders, beliefs, or political views. While many dedicate themselves to humanitarian causes, his unparalleled fearlessness sets him apart. His tireless efforts in combating human trafficking, aiding oppressed individuals, and advocating for prisoners’ rights have not only led to the release of over 900,000 innocent people from illegal captivity but have also raised awareness. However, I believe the story of a man like Ansar Burney needs to reach a much wider audience worldwide to have an even bigger impact.

Were there any aspects of Burney’s life or work that particularly moved or inspired you?
Tasneem: For me, the entirety of Ansar Burney’s life and work has been deeply moving and inspiring. Woven into his memoir is a central theme: faith. Despite starting with very little in terms of resources, he always possessed a vast wealth of faith — a deep-seated belief that if he set out to do the right thing, God would provide whatever he needed to complete the job. This meant taking risks that some might view as utterly insane, but he was willing to take those chances because, to him, ensuring justice for the oppressed was worth it. We see this faith shining through the book as he navigates through some very challenging situations.

Did your perspective on Burney change during the course of this work? If so, how?
Shehar Bano: Before meeting Burney Sahib, I knew very little of him, mainly associating him with the Ansar Burney Trust’s work to reunite missing individuals with their families. However, when I undertook this project, I was warned by some of my well-wishers about him having a “controversial” persona. Despite warnings, I followed my heart and spent five years closely collaborating with him.
Working with Burney Sahib, I realised that people are quick to judge others without verifying information sources or knowing the whole story. I also learned that working for human rights is completely different from social welfare. Being a human rights activist means standing up for the weak, against oppressors, which can upset influential people and create enemies. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many great names tarnished in the past due to this.
Many rumours about Burney Sahib were debunked while writing this book. For instance, some people perceive him negatively because of his past involvement in student politics and time spent in jail. However, few know that his jail experience was pivotal, and a turning point in his life. He left politics, studied law, and founded Prisoners Aid Society to advocate for prisoners’ rights.
Through this memoir, he provides a candid, vulnerable and honest insight into his life, which I believe have the power to alter many people’s perceptions of him and his work.

What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
Tasneem: It is my hope that our readers will go beyond merely enjoying Awaaz as an interesting story. I want them to consider Ansar Burney as a role model and feel inspired to raise their voices for humanity whenever the situation calls for it. To be honest, I cannot think of a more relevant time than today, with a genocide unfolding before our eyes in Gaza. Can we too make sacrifices and risk speaking up for those enduring injustice, regardless of their ethnicity or religion? I certainly hope so.
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