Bashir Ahmad: The Scottish Parliament's first Asian member

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The Independent Online

Bashir Ahmad was a man of extraordinary grace, kindness and decency. The Scottish Parliament, in which he served all too briefly as its first Asian and first Muslim member, is much the poorer for his passing.

And the genuine warmth with which members of all parties paid tribute to him at Holyrood is testament to that.

In the Islamic funeral rites it is common for the Imam to ask forgiveness on behalf of the deceased to the assembled congregation for any wrongs or injuries done by that person. That is how it should be, because in all great religions forgiveness, like self-sacrifice, is at the centre of the order of things.

And so it was during the prayers for Bashir at his funeral in the Central Mosque in Glasgow. Appropriate though the appeal may be, I have never known anyone less in need of it than he. For the 15 years it was my privilege to know Bashir, he did no one knowingly any injury, harm or hurt, but rather left everyone who met him feeling that bit better about themselves and about life. That is a major quality for any human being to have – in a politician it is priceless. Or, as Robert Burns put it: "The heart aye's the part aye. That makes us right or wrang".

Born in Amritsar in pre-independence India, Bashir came to Scotland as a young man with little English and few prospects. He landed at Glasgow Airport in 1961 with the belongings he carried and a scrap of paper bearing the address of relatives already living in the city. A family friend who had been due to meet him did not turn up, leaving the young immigrant lost in a strange land.

A friendly Glasgow Corporation Transport bus driver took pity on him and went out of his way by taking him and his belongings to his relatives' front door in the Pollokshields area of the city. Bashir never tired of telling that story of his very first day in Scotland. It seemed in many ways to define the rest of his life. He never did manage to track down the friendly bus driver, but he did enter the same line of work, becoming a bus conductor.

Through hard work and dedication, he worked his way through a career on the buses to become a successful businessman and owner of shops, restaurants and a hotel. He was five times chair of the Pakistan Welfare Trust, elected to Glasgow City Council and then made history as the first Asian member of the Scottish Parliament in the election of May 2007.

All of this would be a matter for pride, and Bashir was a proud man – but it was not a pride in himself. Bashir's pride was for family, community and for country. He was fiercely proud of his family – his wife Naseem, their five daughters, two sons and 11 grandchildren. This family was Bashir's pride and joy. He was also proud of his faith and community.

All of us in entering Parliament embrace a duty of care to our constituents. Bashir had such a duty all of his life. At his burial service I met a man whose younger sister had tragically died last month leaving behind a young family. Not only had Bashir visited the family as their MSP, but he had already visited the graveside on no less than three occasions.

When someone is the first to make a mark in a job or profession or sit ina parliament, the character of that person becomes hugely important. The Muslim community, indeed the community of Scotland, were hugely fortunate in the character of our first Asian MSP.

Bashir, of course, had enormous pride in his adopted country. He was probably the most patriotic Scot that I have ever met. Since he arrivedin Scotland he embarked on a near half-century campaign to repay the debt of kindness offered by that Glasgow bus driver. Bashir could see no wrong in Scotland. To him, our manifest faults were incidental to the essential goodness he had witnessed and experienced.

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.

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, businessman and politician: born Amritsar, India 12 February 1940; married (two sons, five daughters); died Glasgow 6 February 2009.