Long Live Asma Jahangir

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If death is defined as the end of life, Asma Jahangir hasn’t really died. The larger than life, iconic defender of human rights and the most daring challenger of the status quo, Asma Jahangir breathed her last at her home in Lahore on Tuesday. With her, we lost the most towering hero of our age, the tallest of Pakistani, rather South Asian, citizen.
My mother broke this news to me calling on the phone from her home in Lahore. With her voice quivering and her words jumbling, she wanted me to tell her that it was a fake news. Something that I kept hoping for several hours to prove true – may this be a fake news. We were not that lucky though.
My friends Asma Shirazi, Ayesha Tanzeem, and Beenish Saleem called one after the other, all shell shocked and unable to speak. Mehmal Sarfraz wrote on WhatsApp and that’s when it slowly sunk in my system that something terrible had happened.
The first time that I heard of her was from my mother when I was a toddler. Eventually, her name became a part of regular conversations at our dinner table – of Ammi’s talks with her friends and of her heated arguments with Abbu on something that Ammi used to call ‘dark days’. I could barely understand whatever was happening. Those were the years following Ziaul Haq’s martial law. Then in early 1980s, my mother took me with her to a demonstration where a lot of people were raising slogans (I later learned that it was a women’s protest demonstration against Ziaul Haq’s Qanun-e-Shahadat). Raising slogans at the top of her orotund and penetrating voice, that five-feet-something woman caught my attention. That was my first introduction to the gutsy and courageous woman that Asma Jehangir was.
In 1989, when I was running for student union elections after Benazir Bhutto’s first government reinstated unions for a year, I met Asma Ji – the way I always called her – as an aspiring volunteer. After Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, she was the one who inspired a teenager me so strongly that it became my goal of life to be like both of them in every possible way. Especially, Asma Ji’s perseverance, her clarity of purpose, her strength of character, her unprecedented courage, her commitment to human rights, her itch to question the powers of the time, and her passion to fearlessly fight for the oppressed and for whatever she considered right, come what may.
Then in 1990-91 when I was running a campaign as the president of Pre-Medical Students Association for the rights of girl students seeking admissions to medical colleges, I was stunned to receive her call. She told me to remain steadfast and offered her help. We were disgruntled girls with pre-medical certificates of high achievement in our hands but denied admissions in medical colleges as boys with half our achievements were given admissions.
Mian Nawaz Sharif’s provincial cabinet was hell bent to brand us ‘miscreants supported by Benazir Bhutto’ and brush away every argument that we had for open merit as opposed to maintaining 1:2 girl-to-boy ratio in medical colleges. Asma Ji supported us by highlighting our struggle and guiding us for running a successful campaign. By the end of 1991, we had won our case from Supreme Court. I could not thank Asma Ji enough.
From there onwards, there was no point of return for me personally. Ammi was very excited to see that I was following Asma Ji – something that she herself couldn’t do because of family pressures. Since then, Asma Ji was there whenever I needed guidance and strength. She pushed me to become a member of the HRCP – the institution of its own kind that she founded as part of her struggle for human rights in Pakistan. Her contribution to my life is just a tiny part of what she has done for this country. Every marginalised and oppressed segment of our society, be it religious or ethnic communities, or issues like rights of children, women, labourers, and farmers, or citizens’ right to govern themselves through a democratic system – Asma Ji left her indelible mark in all these struggles, a mark that is impossible to ignore or forget.
Her detractors would call her anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam because of her strong voice against state-sponsored militancy, oppression, extremism, and against usurpers of power. Vile and venomous campaigns would be sponsored against her to demonise and otherise her in bid to discredit her work. Few years ago, a picture of her with Bal Thackeray, India’s firebrand nationalist considered strongly anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan, became viral. Little did her detractors realise that Asma Jahangir was meeting Thackeray as part of a fact-finding mission about anti-Muslim riots.
The self-proclaimed ‘Pakistani nationalists’ would criticise her for what they understood as her silence on some of the issues that they wanted to propagate disproportionately e.g., Indian atrocities on the Kashmiris. She remained focussed on the rights of Pakistani people but was hardly silent on human rights violations elsewhere in the world. Last year, the demonstration in solidarity with Kashmiris organised by her and her strong statements in 2017 as UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran against rights violations of religious minorities and against persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar are most recent examples.
What has inspired me most strongly was her unflinching commitment to basic principles of social justice, human rights and democracy. She would not hesitate to help even the harshest of her critics when they needed support in standing up for their rights. She was probably the only one from the ‘civil society’ of Pakistan who had such a clear idea of the complex nature of Pakistan’s politics and civil-military equation. The anti-politician rhetoric, mainly propagated by the undemocratic forces, never swayed her commitment to democracy unlike the rest of our comrades.
She braved most despicable, mephitic and malicious attacks on her integrity, mostly with her signature smile. She would always tell me to never give a slightest hoot to these attacks on social media, which had affected me badly a couple of years ago. Many people would ask me why she was so angry always. She was angry because she cared, because she was strong enough to be angry and to channel her anger into the amazing work that she did at AGHS Legal Aid Cell, HRCP, and through scores of other platforms – international, regional and national. She was the first of the only three Pakistani women appointed as UN’s rapporteurs. Just so the readers may know, she was not all that angry all the time. I have seen in her a very bubbly and fun-loving connoisseur of arts and music.
The last time we spoke a few days ago, she was talking about a national dialogue that she wanted to initiate on the concept of ‘national interest’. “What exactly it is, have you ever wondered?” she asked, knowing that her question carried the answer. We discussed the matter on a long phone call and ended the conversation with her promise to have a detailed meeting when she comes to Islamabad next. This is just one of the scores of other unfinished agenda items that she has left to us.
Her last public address was at the Pakhtun sit-in in Islamabad. That was her – a woman with resolve to stand up for the oppressed. Her ethnic, religious or national identities hardly mattered for the people she stood for. She transcended these mundane boundaries. So now, she must be seen as an icon of humanism, and a symbol of social justice and equality.
Pakistan was blessed to have Asma Jahangir, who was truly the conscience of this country. She symbolised the best of human qualities. A hero of this stature cannot just pass away or die with the end of breathing. She is survived by hundreds and thousands of little lamps that she had lit in the form of human rights defenders and activists for democracy and justice. Long live Asma Jahangir, rest in power.

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