Asma Jahangir, a defiant and combatant civil rights icon and custodian of human, women, minorities and social rights of the voiceless, died as her most sensitive heart could not take the agony of the unjust anymore she has been fighting against for too long. Her death is the death of hope for millions of hopeless. The void is hard to fill.
The whole elite of Lahore thronged her residence after hearing about her untimely sudden demise—either with a pinch of guilt or a show of respect. She was from the elite, but took the side of the have-nots and dispossessed. Hundreds of thousands of those who were rescued from the clutches of bonded labour or prisons of various kinds by her were not there to be seen, but must be mourning the death of their benefactor. She was tireless and unstoppable, by both friends and foes, in her cause for human dignity and emancipation.
Asma got her first taste of authoritarian rule when her father was arbitrarily arrested and she dared to challenge General Yahya Khan’s ruthless military dictatorship that resulted in the victory of famous Asma Jeelani case. It showed her the way to fight for civil and human rights and then she did not stop against all successive military dictators. Her creed was democratic, secular, enlightened and humanistic, and she never compromised on her principles about human dignity, a civilized polity and rule of law. Her unflinching passion and commitment was to universal human rights, women’s rights, equality of minorities as citizens and civil liberties. Whoever tried to trample upon the rights of the people found a dauntless resistance from this physically meek but invincible woman-Asma.
She came into prominence during the long decade of ruthless and reactionary dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. When the dictator used the sacred name of Islam to perpetuate his rule and brought anti-women laws, including the Hudood Ordinance, she was among those feminists who formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981 to fight against patriarchy and for women’s equal rights. WAF came into prominence when led by Asma her comrades took out a procession on 12th February 1983 in Lahore and were lathi charged while defying the barricades. Incidentally, she died a day earlier to celebrate the anniversary of women’s struggle against tyranny. Asma became quite active in the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and was sent to prison. These were the most oppressive times when she along with Justice Durrab Patel, I. A. Rehman, PFUJ leader Nisar Usmani and Editor Aziz Siddiqui established the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in 1987.
The HRCP became the most outstanding platform for all the good causes, including human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, prisoners’ rights, bonded labourer’s liberation, social rights, liberal democratic values and a secular polity. She was a great believer in pluralism, tolerance and enlightenment. Even when democracy was restored, she continued to fight for more democracy and good governance. Her most remarkable struggle was against bonded labour and enslavement of peasantry. Similarly, she led the struggle against the child labour and sexual abuse of children. She moved to Geneva in 1986 and became the vice-chairperson of the Defence for Children International for two years.
Though her relationship with Benazir Bhutto was very cordial, she even did not spare her when it came to the rights of the people. She continued to steadfastly follow a consistent democratic line while opposing any kind of political role of military since she was an ardent believer in civilian supremacy. Asma was extremely critical of the role of the presidency under Article 58-2(b) in dissolving four successive governments. She was one of the pioneers of movement for the restoration of judiciary after the imposition of emergency and became the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. When Benazir Bhutto (BB) came back in 2007, after breaking a deal with Gen Musharraf, she advised her to stand up to all kinds of extra-constitutional pressures and bring reforms into the Constitution to strengthen the supremacy of the parliament.
She was a great democratic activist and never compromised on her principles. Being a staunch human rights activist, she stood with all those whose rights were violated by the state institutions. Asma was a vociferous critic of the jingoistic paradigm of a national security state and always stood for peace and friendship with the neighbours. She was accused of being “anti-national”, “unpatriotic” and a “foreign agent”, but it did not bother her. In fact, she did not leave any stone unturned for confidence building and amity among the neighbours. She was associated with the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Friendship Forum and, later, established South Asian Forum for Human Rights. Given her role in promoting human rights, she became the vice president of International Federation for Human Rights.
She was internationally acclaimed for her services to the human rights and was made the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion from August 2004 to July 2010. It included serving on the U.N. panel for inquiry into Sri Lankan human rights violations and she was sent on a fact finding mission on Israeli settlements. She was also sent by the UN to report on atrocities being committed against the people of Indian-administered Kashmir. She was rewarded for her selfless services with numerous awards, including 2014 Right to Livelihood Award, Freedom Award in 2010, Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Ramon Magsaysay Award, Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights. But, Asma was much bigger than the prizes as she was too selfless. She wrote two books: The Hudood Ordinance: A Divine Sanction and Children of Lesser God, besides hundreds of articles in the local and international press.
In her death, Pakistan has lost an outstanding and brave daughter, who fought for the dignity of human beings and liberal-democratic values. She symbolised a civilized Pakistan, which should have given her the respect she deserved. Lastly, I owe her an apology and beg her forgiveness for a misunderstanding.