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Bashir Ahmad

Bashir Ahmad, the first Member of the Scottish Parliament to be either an Asian or a Muslim, died on 6 February 2009. He was 68.

He was born in Karachi and spent the first 21 years of his life there before coming to the UK, as The Herald describes:

Bashir Ahmad was born in Karachi on February 12, 1940, in the midst of a world war and at a time when the struggle for Indian independence had been put on hold. The first seven years of his life were therefore spent as a subject in the jewel of Britain’s empire; the next 14 would be spent in newly partitioned Pakistan.

One of his favourite anecdotes concerned his arrival in Scotland in 1961. The Scotsman retells it best:

Times were hard, however, and, when he was 21, his family sent him to live with an uncle in the Glasgow district of Pollokshields. A friend, paid by the family, was supposed to meet the young man at Glasgow airport but absconded with the cash, leaving Ahmad alone and with little English or money. Throughout his later life, he delighted in telling friends, politicians and constituents about the cheery Glasgow Corporation Transport bus driver who went far out of his way, literally, to drive him to his uncle’s doorstep in Pollokshields, a district he would call home for the rest of his life. Inspired by the driver, whom he never later managed to find, he got a job as a bus conductor.

He threw himself into his work and soon established himself as a successful businessman and leader of the Scottish Pakistani community, then as a local politician in his adopted home city of Glasgow. Here’s what The Times has to say:

He subsequently owned restaurants and a hotel. He served as president of the Pakistan Welfare Association and joined the SNP in 1995 after meeting Alex Salmond, the party leader. In that year Ahmad also founded an organisation called Scots Asians for Independence. “Independence is a good thing,” he said later, “whether it is for a child, a man or a country”.

The decision to join the SNP was by no means an easy one, flying in the face of traditional Scottish Asian political allegiances, as Osama Saeed describes in The Guardian:

It seems strange to think that, back then, being in the SNP was anathema to Asian people, who felt the Labour Party was their natural home. This move by some into the SNP was seen as divisive and was derided as a waste of time since the party carried no power. It was also put about that the SNP hid a latent racism and would soon be revealed as the northern branch of the BNP. But because of Ahmad’s fortitude, people like me are now respected for being SNP members.

His move to the SNP saw him move up that party’s hierarchy rapidly:

Ahmad joined the SNP national executive committee in 1998 and the following year was ninth on the SNP’s Glasgow list for the first Scottish parliamentary elections. In 2003 he was elected to represent the Pollokshields East ward of Glasgow city council, becoming the SNP’s first Asian councillor.

First Minister Alex Salmond, writing in The Independent, recalls Ahmad’s pride in both his native and his adoptive culture:

When he won his Holyrood seat, Bashir took his oath in Urdu, clad in traditional Pakistani dress. But he was equally at home wearing the kilt. His election symbolised how Scotland’s democracy reflects all of Scotland and all of our increasingly rich and diverse communities. He brought the dignity of his faith to the very centre of our democratic process and his lasting legacy will be one of hope, decency and inclusion.

The Scotsman characterises his brief tenure as an MSP thus:

For a politician, it was surely a unique tribute to Bashir Ahmad that he was known to many of his Glasgow constituents, and not only his fellow Muslims or those of Pakistani origin, as “Uncle Bashir”. The young man who came here to collect fares on Glasgow buses ended up being the first Asian, Muslim, indeed, non-white, member of the Scottish Parliament, a giant leap for Scottish politics. He was also one of the most-loved politicians by his peers from across party lines.

But the last word goes to his party leader, Alex Salmond:

As I said to MSPs as the Scottish Parliament paid tribute to Bashir, if our country could be just half of what he thought it could be, we would be a great nation indeed. I think through his life and work that he repaid his debt to Scotland in full.

When Bashir launched Scots Asians for Independence at the SNP conference in 1995, he developed a phrase which he was so fond of that he worked it into every available speech. He said that “it isn’t important where you come from, what matters is where we are going together as a nation”. Let that stand as his epitaph.

(Bashir Ahmad MSP, born 12 February 1940 in Karachi; died 6 February 2009 in Glasgow)