Asma Jahangir: The street fighter


Immediately after the horrific Quetta terror attack on August 8, 2016, Dr Danish, a television anchor person, tweeted pictures of Asma Jahangir with a caption in Urdu which translates as: “When lawyers were being killed in Quetta, the so-called leader of the lawyers was enjoying herself in the northern areas.” The post was enthusiastically retweeted, shared on Facebook and distributed through WhatsApp groups.
Asma Jahangir was not “enjoying herself in the northern areas”. She was in Gilgit-Baltistan on a human rights fact-finding mission when the attack happened. There was no way she could travel to Quetta the same day. She took to Twitter and responded to the anchor person: “Shame on you for exploiting facts even when people [are] in grief ... Ask [your] spy friends not to stoop to the lowest levels of viciousness.”
A picture of her from a March 2008 meeting with Bal Thackeray, the now deceased leader of Mumbai’s Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena party, created a similar furore. Nationalist websites and media persons wrote thousands of words to denounce her for sharing the same space with one of Pakistan’s most vicious detractors. It did not matter that she had met Thackeray in her capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, investigating violence against Muslims in India.
Indeed, many people go ballistic every time her name is mentioned. Haroon Rashid, an Urdu-language columnist with a large fan following, wrote in 2013, “warning” that he would lead a march on to Islamabad if Asma Jahangir was appointed caretaker prime minister. She had said earlier that she had no intention to accept the post.
If anything, these examples suggest a pattern: often wild, unsubstantiated allegations are levelled against her. Often she, too, responds to her detractors in a no-holds-barred manner. In 2012, in typical Asma Jahangir style, she accused intelligence and security agencies of trying to eliminate her. National and international concern and outrage poured in with such vehemence that the plan, if there was any, had to be dropped.
It seems Asma Jahangir seeks controversy — her critics attribute it to a search for glory. The Lebanese-American writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a word for it: “antifragile” — that is, things and people that benefit from volatility, shock, disorder, risk and uncertainty.
Asma Jahangir does not agree. She argues that she does whatever she does in order to adhere to her core principles — not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity.
In September 2015, the Lahore High Court ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to black out the coverage of Altaf Hussain, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) supremo. Very few, if any, lawyers in Lahore were willing to represent him due to his alleged involvement in acts of violence in Karachi and his volatile speeches and media statements. Asma Jahangir was perhaps the unlikeliest lawyer he would get: the two had never found themselves on the same side of the political divide. In May 2007, MQM had called Asma Jahangir a “chauvinist lady” who should form her own “chauvinist party”. An MQM statement had also accused her of having a secret affiliation with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
But she agreed to represent him.
Her opponents took to the streets. A small group of lawyers in Lahore brought out a demonstration, demanding the cancellation of her licence to practice law. Her supporters in bar rooms were also uncomfortable with the idea but they knew she could not be swayed against fighting for someone’s freedom of speech — no matter if the person concerned was a serial abuser of that freedom. “Well, that is how she is,” says one of her supporters, shrugging their shoulders.
When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group’s senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.
Asma Jahangir’s earliest recollections of activism are from her time in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a church-run school in Lahore. The head girl there was always selected by nuns but Asma Jahangir, as an O level student there in the late 1960s, arranged a protest demanding that there should be “at least a semblance of an election”. The school administration reluctantly agreed to an election process while retaining a veto power. That method for finding a head girl still continues at the school.
Asma Jahangir’s exposure to public life happened at a very young age. On December 22, 1971, the military government of Yahya Khan detained Asma Jahangir’s father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, under martial law regulations. Malik Ghulam Jilani, a former civil servant and politician, was sent to jail in Multan after his detention. He sent his family a letter through a jail employee, listing possible grounds on which a petition could be filed for his release. Then only 18 years old, Asma Jahangir filed the petition at the Lahore High Court.
“Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Bannu. He remained in jail in Multan. But we were not allowed to go see him there. He did not want us to go there and see him. We always saw him in courts. So, for me, the court was a place where you dressed up to meet your father. It had a very nice feeling to it,” Asma Jahangir reminisces, light-heartedly.
Mian Mahmud Ali Kasuri, a lawyer that her family generally consulted on legal issues, was federal law minister then and, therefore, could not be her counsel. The second choice, Barrister Manzur Qadir, a former foreign minister and a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court, was not eligible to appear in the court that he had once headed. Qadir referred Asma Jahangir to M Anwar, considered one of the finest lawyers of the Lahore High Court at the time. Anwar thought it was a strong case because the governor of Punjab had signed the detention order before taking oath of office. (The detention order was changed later, Asma Jahangir says, to remove that anomaly). The Lahore High Court, however, dismissed her petition.
Asma Jahangir went to the Supreme Court. Qadir then decided to be her lawyer in what became known as Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. “The courtroom used to be full,” she recalls. “Since I was a petitioner, I got a special seat and felt very important.” She remembers Qadir with awe and admiration. The arguments he made were absolutely fabulous, she says. “I have never heard those kinds of arguments again. He was not just a lawyer, he was a philosopher.”
Asma Jahangir also credits the proceedings at the Supreme Court for initiating her into the cynical, realpolitik world of courts. “What I saw was the manipulation behind the scenes — how cases are won and lost.”
In 1972, after Yahya Khan’s government had ended, the Supreme Court decided Asma Jahangir’s petition in her favour. In a first for Pakistan’s apex court, the judges declared the military government illegal and Yahya Khan to be a “usurper”. History had been created and a young girl found herself at the centre of it.
Malik Ghulam Jilani waged a somewhat lonely political struggle — particularly at the tail end of Ayub Khan’s government and during Yahya Khan’s regime. He was on the wrong side of the consensus in West Pakistan on the 1971 military operation in what was then East Pakistan and when that region declared itself as the independent state of Bangladesh, he advocated against official Pakistani recognition instantly.
That period in her father’s life has had a deep impact on Asma Jahangir. “When we were children, he always talked about fundamental rights and adult franchise and, believe me, I did not know for a long time what adult franchise meant except that he was fighting for it.”
Asma Jahangir remembers her mother exhibiting a different sort of character. She was not in any way politically active and was almost nonchalant about the frequent imprisonment of her husband. “Whenever my father got arrested, she would sell her car and would move around on a tonga, believing that everything will work out or she would rent out our house and go to her father’s house and put us in his dressing room.”
Asma Jahangir comes from a well-off family — the spacious house her parents built is located in one of the priciest parts of Lahore’s Gulberg area. But she does not see money having played any part in her upbringing. “We never felt that we were privileged or non-privileged,” she says.
Back in the early 1980s, Asma Jahangir and her father decided to set up a trust to support political prisoners. The two pooled in their own money to put together the trust, named after her father and headed by Nisar Osmani, a senior journalist and human rights activist. Prominent lawyers such as Khursheed Kasuri, Aitzaz Ahsan and Khalid Ranjha were among its trustees and Asma Jahangir was its first secretary.
The trust made lists of political prisoners and then approached their families to give money. This was not sustainable — the lists were never exhaustive and the trust’s funds had never looked enough to survive long. In late 1986, Asma Jahangir and Osmani decided to hold a seminar titled ‘Dimensions of Human Rights’, at the Pearl Continental Hotel, in Lahore. They wanted to test the viability of the idea that there could be a membership-based human rights organisation in the country.
They were pleasantly surprised to find an overwhelmingly positive response to their invitation for the seminar. People from all across Pakistan converged in Lahore to participate and endorse the decision to form HRCP. When the commission was set up in 1987, Justice (retd) Dorab Patel, a former chief justice of the Sindh High Court who had refused to take a fresh oath as a judge of the Supreme Court under Zia’s diktat, was appointed its first chairperson.
The most outstanding feature of the newly created HRCP was its overtly secular mandate. The participants of its founding seminar had passed two resolutions, among others, on the protection of the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.
Asma Jahangir fondly remembers how Habib Jalib, the legendary revolutionary poet, bantered with her on the occasion. Earlier that year, she had dragged him to a women’s demonstration outside the Lahore High Court where he was beaten up by police. “I am very happy that at least from The Mall you have been able to come to Pearl Continental,” was his way of differentiating between street protests and institutionalised civic action.