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Asma Jahangir, a gutsy rights activist who pulled no punches when criticising either India or Pakistan

It is difficult to imagine people demand a state funeral for a human rights activist. That tells you what a towering figure Asma Jahangir was. Asma died of a cardiac arrest in Lahore on Sunday. She was 66.

Her life has been the sort which fills history books with the label 'freedom fighter'. Pakistan has had military rule three times in its history, totaling 33 years. If Pakistan has seen frequent suspension of democracy and suppression of human rights, it has also seen brave dissenting activists such as Asma whose name will be counted among Pakistan’s famous revolutionary poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib.

Asma's father found himself in jail often for opposing the first military dictatorship, that of Ayub Khan. A young Asma even defended him in court. Her father had even opposed what Pakistan was doing in what is currently Bangladesh.

Asma found herself opposing the other two military rules as well. She was there at the forefront of every difficult moment in Pakistan, opposing Zia and Musharraf alike, standing up for women and minorities, for peace with India and against military intervention in the democratic process. She, along with other women activists, was jailed in 1983 for opposing proposed rape laws that gave weightage to a man’s testimony over a woman's.

File image of human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir. She died on Sunday. Reuters

File image of human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir. She died on Sunday. Reuters

General Musharraf had her put in house arrest in 2007 after imposing Emergency. She sent an email from home saying the General-President had “lost his marbles”. She spoke against the Pakistani army in words so strong many others feel they can’t do it without having to face the consequences. In 2012, she said her life was under threat from the Pakistani establishment but refused to leave the country.

Personal and institutional legacy

After the initial shock of her sudden death, the usual clichés came out. The void will be difficult to fill and so on.

But the truth is that Asma leaves behind a legacy of human rights activism in Pakistan. The legacy is both personal and institutional. Those standing up for human rights, freedom and democracy in Pakistan have often been inspired by and will continue to be inspired by her. She was courage personified, refusing to leave Pakistan even when she felt her life was under threat. She was often there on the streets, marching and protesting, saying things many wouldn’t dare to.

Her institutional legacy will live on in the Pakistani judiciary as well as formal human rights activism. In 1987, she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which is similar to India’s People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

There is no one in India today who could be compared to Asma for reference, but a fair comparison would be the late founder of PUCL, Jayaprakash Narayan, the Gandhian freedom fighter who became the icon of the anti-Emergency movement.

As the lawyers' fraternity has been increasingly radicalised, Asma will shine on for those lawyers who seek to use the law to secure freedom and rights. In 2007, Jahangir was a leading figure in the lawyers’ movement that threw out General Musharraf. In 2010, she became head of the Supreme Court Bar Association amidst much opposition. To understand what a big deal that was, one has to realise that Jahangir was always at the receiving end of the right-wing, called anti-Islam and a foreign or Indian agent routinely.

Core principles over everything else

What explains her larger than life stature is not just her courage but also her commitment to principles. She had found herself at the receiving end of scathing criticism from the Altaf Hussain-led Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). A political party that dominates Karachi, the MQM has openly used violence to keep itself in power. Asma did not see eye to eye with the MQM, but when the Pakistani television regulator banned news TV from broadcasting Altaf Hussain’s press conferences, she rose to defend him in court. No other lawyer was willing to do so, but for Asma it was about the principle of freedom of speech.

When Asma met Bal Thackeray

The Pakistani right-wing has often used a photo of her with Bal Thackeray to show her up as not only an ‘Indian agent’ but also as someone who was in cahoots with the anti-Muslim right-wing in India. But that photo is from a meeting she had as part of her job as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. She was in India to work on human rights in India, including issues pertaining to Indian Muslims. That was in 2008. It is unthinkable today.

Kashmir and Balochistan

Similarly, the Indian right-wing discredits her by using a photo of her from a recent protest against human rights violations in Indian Kashmir. But that's what Asma was. Advocating human rights in Pakistan, and peace with India, did not make her mince words about human rights violations in India or elsewhere. Advocating human rights in Kashmir did not mean that she was silent about Balochistan.

It is difficult for those who indulge in partisan politics to understand what it means to take a principled position on issues, no matter what the context. Silence, for Asma, was not an option. She was a Muslim and a Pakistani, but she also belonged to the religion of freedom, and the nation of human rights, thus becoming an inspiration for everyone.


Updated Date: Feb 12, 2018 13:03 PM

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