The first time I heard the political colossus called Asma Jahangir was at one of the sessions at the Karachi Literature Festival. As she spoke, she commanded the attention of everyone seated in the hall.
Asma wasn’t there to flatter the liberal elites that evening, neither was she there to exchange pleasantries with them. She came with a dire warning: of how the dream of a liberal and tolerant Pakistan was being swept from right under their feet while they indulged in their evening soirées, comfortably numb of their reality. This was classic Asma – someone who would never play for the galleries and instead say what needed to be said, without fear or favour. Sitting with rapt attention, the crowd clung to every word she said, like their lives depended on it. Perhaps it did, and still does. Now more so than ever.
Years of judicial activism had not dimmed Asma’s resolve for a democratic and constitutional polity that respects rule of law and guarantees the basic human rights of all its citizens, not just the landed aristocracy, the generals, the political elites or others born into privilege. And for that she suffered. But she plod through, regardless of the dangers her missions entailed, getting more and more resilient with every passing year.
Choosing principle over complacency, a sense of purpose over positions of power, Asma had made some very powerful enemies during her exemplary career. Whether it was politicians, the establishment or militants, her message to all of them was loud and clear: she was here to stay and safeguard whatever little specks of liberty remained in our dysfunctional political system. She was not one to be intimidated by them and go into a self-imposed exile. She chose to stay, despite all threats, and ironically was labelled unpatriotic and seditious.
Sure, she was a divisive figure – all great public personalities are. But she spoke with a passion for civil liberties that only a few people dare to in today’s Pakistan. A passion that could only spring from a deep concern and love for the land of her birth and it’s people. She was a firebrand revolutionary, but certainly of a different kind.
Her ammunition was her words; instead of coercion, she would make her opponents yield by using her power of persuasion. Her arena of battle was the courts where she would represent both the prince and the pauper if she felt either was being denied justice. Much to the chagrin of the judges of the time, on purely non-judicial reasons, she represented in court bonded brick-kiln labourers. She was a renegade who chose to work within the system rather than sulk in cynicism, or worse, join the ranks of the very people she had sworn to confront in her many years of service.
With her gone, a giant obstacle is out of the way of the elements who want to dismantle the founding ideals of our country. Her absence has left all of us impoverished. The political discourse gets more skewed without her dissent and the dream of a progressive tolerant Pakistan, further out of reach. I do, however, feel a sense of relief that she did not meet a violent end like Benazir Bhutto, Sabeen Mahmud, Perween Rahman and so many other women who dared to question the status quo, and sought to find a bigger role for themselves in this republic instead of staying confined to their homes.
But we must ask ourselves: Is this the Pakistan we want? A Pakistan where our wives, mothers, daughters and sisters are persecuted if they rail against the patriarchy or seek to be politically engaged citizens? Asma Jahangir’s entire life’s work is the answer to that question. She backed her words with actions, whether it was in the corridors of power or out on the streets.
A giant has departed, and there is no one to fill in the void created by her absence. We owe it to ourselves and our country to be ever so vigilant in safeguarding our liberties, be more politically engaged, more cavalier than we have been. Not that we should be reckless in doing so, but when it comes to principle, not to budge even an inch. This is what Asma Jahangir did and expected from others. Long may live her proud legacy.
The writer is a former TV producer andresearch analyst.