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article imageUK's first Muslim MP appointed Governor of Punjab in Pakistan

By Robert Myles     Jul 31, 2013 in World
Glasgow - Mohammad Sarwar, a former Labour Member of Parliament in the UK’s House of Commons is to be appointed Governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest state.
On July 19, BBC reported that 60-year-old Mr. Sarwar was likely to return to the country of his birth to continue his political career, after stepping down from the UK Parliament at the 2010 general election. Subsequently, Pakistan’s The Nation reported that Southern Punjab legislators had backed Mr. Sarwar as a non-controversial candidate for the Punjabi governorship and as someone well known as having given valuable services to Pakistan in the social, political and economic fields. The appointment was confirmed in a brief Press Association report this morning.
For Mr Sarwar’s appointment as Governor of Punjab to proceed, the former MP for Glasgow Govan constituency in Scotland has had to renounce his UK citizenship. Mr. Sarwar’s return to Pakistan will mean he has gone full circle in a remarkable, and at times controversial, political journey.
Born in Pirmahal in Pakistan, on August 18, 1952, Mr Sarwar went on to study politics at the University of Faisalabad. Married to Perveen Sarwar in 1976, Mr. Sarwar has three sons and a daughter. After moving to Scotland in 1978, along with his brother, Mr. Sarwar went on to establish a highly successful wholesale business in Glasgow. So successful was the business that Mr. Sarwar’s personal wealth has been estimated at £16 million (over $24 million).
Mr. Sarwar formerly represented the Labour Party for Glasgow Govan constituency, an area of the city that was in flux. A mixture of large scale post-industrial re-development and demolition of swathes of sub-standard housing saw Glasgow Govan suffer from depopulation, ultimately resulting in the constituency disappearing in 2005 as a result of electoral boundary changes.
First elected to represent Glasgow Govan at the 1997 General Election, Mr. Sarwar became the UK’s first Muslim MP as well as being the first British Member of Parliament to swear the Oath of Allegiance on the Qur'an (Koran).
When Mr. Sarwar was last elected MP for the former Govan constituency at the 2001 General election, he took almost 50% of the vote. That was more than twice many as the runner-up, the Scottish National Party candidate, a strong indicator that Sarwar’s popularity as a constituency MP extended beyond political affiliations. Later, he became Member of Parliament for the newly created Glasgow Central constituency, before retiring as an MP in the British House of Commons at the 2010 General Election.
In his political career, Mr. Sarwar was no stranger to controversy. In 1997, to the dismay of many in Scottish politics, who regarded his election as the UK’s first Muslim MP as a unifying talisman and an inspiration to others from ethnic minorities to embrace politics, Mr. Sarwar was suspended from the Labour Party and barred from holding party office having been charged with offences under electoral law. Mr. Sarwar always protested his innocence. He was subsequently acquitted in 1999 and had his full membership of the Labour Party restored.
At the 2005 General Election, where Mohammad Sarwar was Labour Party candidate for the newly created Glasgow Central constituency, he took a principled stand against a candidate at the same election representing the far right, anti-immigration British National Party (BNP). Mr. Sarwar refused to share a platform with the BNP candidate. He persuaded the other mainstream party political candidates to follow suit. Unusually, the electoral returning officer announced the result alone on the rostrum, in the absence of any of the candidates.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Mr. Sarwar was one of a number of prominent British Muslims who were highly critical of UK foreign policy in the Middle East. In an open letter to the then Prime Minister (and Mr. Sarwar’s Labour Party leader) Tony Blair, Mr. Sarwar and his co-signatories said, “the debacle of Iraq” and the “failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East” increase the risk to ordinary people in that region, and also provides “ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.”
In 2007, Mohammad Sarwar announced he was stepping down as an MP at the next General Election. Sarwar made the decision after receiving death threats from a Pakistani gang linked to three convicted killers of a Glasgow teenager. Following police identification of likely suspects in the killing of Glasgow teenager Kriss Donald, Mr. Sarwar had been instrumental in ensuring the killers faced justice in Scotland. After Kriss Donald was slain in a Glasgow street, his alleged murderers fled to Pakistan which has no extradition treaty with the UK. Mr. Sarwar’s political connections in Pakistan enabled him to negotiate a one-off extradition treaty for the three suspects. They subsequently faced trial in Glasgow for the murder and were convicted.
Even Mr. Sarwar’s swansong from British politics was not without controversy. He was expected to be elevated to the UK’s House of Lords having been nominated by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The UK’s Inland Revenue and Customs objected to the appointment. Although Mr. Sarwar stated that any differences with UK tax authorities had been resolved, he never reached the UK’s Upper House. That Mr. Sarwar leaves the UK, never having been convicted of any criminal offence after seeing his entry to the House of Lords blocked, leaves an uneasy feeling that higher standards of probity are demanded of those from ethnic minorities than the population at large. Only persons convicted of treason are barred from taking a seat in the House of Lords.
The contrast between Glasgow Govan and Punjab could not be greater. At the 2001 UK General Election, Mr. Sarwar represented an estimated electorate of around 54,000; the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous state, has a population of around 96 million. So central is Punjab to the fabric of Pakistan that the position of Punjabi Governor is often considered to be the third most powerful figure in the government of Pakistan.
Talking to the Daily Telegraph about his new role, Mr. Sarwar says he wants to focus on education, referring to Pakistan’s position as being the second most illiterate country in the world. In that task, he will work closely with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now the United Nations’ Special Envoy on education. Their ambitious plan is to bring education to 3.5 million Pakistani children of school age over the next three years.
As Governor of Punjab, Mohammad Sarwar’s experiences in his former Glasgow constituency, containing some of the worst pockets of multiple deprivation in the UK, will serve him well. As he told the Daily Telegraph, “The passion of my life has always been fighting poverty, particularly child poverty, and people in my constituency loved that. What I'm leaving behind is great memories of Scotland, my children being born there, and the respect and honour given to me by the people of Glasgow."
Mohammad Sarwar’s legacy in Scotland will live on. In becoming the UK’s first Muslim MP, he blazed a trail for other Asian-Scots to follow, not just in politics but also in diverse fields from the law to entertainment. There are now a number of Scots-Asian Members of the Scottish Parliament representing both main political parties in Scotland, the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party. His family legacy also lives on in Scotland as one of his sons, Glasgow-born Anas Sarwar, now sits in the House of Commons as Labour MP for Glasgow Central as well as being Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in Scotland.
Scottish politics will be diminished by Mohammad Sarwar’s waygoing but only the most churlish of Scots will not wish him well in his new role in Pakistan.
More about Mohammad Sarwar, Politics in Pakistan, Punjab, Scottish Labour Party, Muslim politicians
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