Asma Jahangir fought for her principles and not for or against a person or institution. Regardless of her ideological and personal differences, she would fight for the person or institution if they were ever wronged principally. She stood for democracy, protection of human rights, rule of law and civilian supremacy.
It was on her petition that the Supreme Court declared Yahya Khan a usurper. She then continued her struggle against the dictatorships of Ziaul Haq and Musharraf because she was a true believer in the principles of democracy. In 2015, she accepted the legal brief of MQM leader Altaf Hussain after Pemra banned his speeches from being boradcast. But before all this, in 2007, it was the same MQM that had labelled her a ‘chauvinist’ and recommended her to form a ‘chauvinist party’. But she stood for the protection of the right of freedom of expression, irrespective of whose right it was.
When Musharraf suspended the judiciary and the judges of the Supreme Court and high courts were sent packing, Asma fought for the independence of the judiciary and rule of law in the Lawyers’ Movement. Later, she openly disagreed with the judicial decision on the Panama Papers case. Till her last breath, she opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify an elected prime minister because she believed in the supremacy of parliament. She once openly declared that she voted for the PPP, but if there was ever a question of human rights or democracy, Asma was never found to be prejudiced or biased.
After the Army Public School incident, when many argued that terrorism suspects’ basic human rights should not be protected, she took up cases of military courts’ convicts only because she believed that the right to fair trial was inalienable to every individual. She was unhappy over the establishment of military courts through the 21st Amendment. Asma’s principled stance was that military courts should only have jurisdiction in cases of military nature. She was of the view that temporary measures could not help Pakistan and that there was instead a need to improve the country’s criminal justice system and regular courts.
Once during a visit to Peshawar where she was supposed to speak at the University of Peshawar’s Department of International Relations, some students of the Islami Jamiat Talaba began protesting, calling for her speech to be called off. Later when the programme was organised outside the university’s campus, the protesting students also joined in. One among those students complained about the problems they faced at the varsity as well as the violation of their right to form a students’ union. She at once promised to fight their case for the restoration of students’ union free of charge, because she was a true believer in student politics and student unions.
Asma openly fought for those victimised due to their ethnic affiliations and took up cases of missing persons of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Throughout her life, Asma tried to protect every individual’s right to life, liberty and fair trial, irrespective of what the circumstance were.
Asma was the brave woman who stood and fought for the rights of all the weak and oppressed, regardless of what gender, race, religion they belonged to or what political affiliations they had. Till her last breath, she opposed internment centres and fought for people detained in them. Asma was happy when the National Assembly had passed the bill extending jurisdiction of the constitutional courts to Fata, because she believed in equal rights for all citizens. She openly spoke for the people of Fata, the difficulty the media faced in accessing and covering Fata’s issues.
She started her struggle at the age of 18, against the martial law of Yahya Khan and kept her resistance alive till her last breath. Asma fought for rights and principles legally and peacefully, and had a rare intellectual clarity . She shattered the myth that women are weak. She was a feminist, impartial and unbiased in her fight for the rights of women. She was an exceptional woman who stood for the rights of minorities and provided legal assistance to anyone against the misuse of law. There are hundreds of stories of her bravery and courage, of her struggle for human rights and democracy.
Asma was a fearless human rights defender and her principles were clear. She even openly criticised the civil society and argued that civil society activists also needed to look within their own ranks. She was a strong believer in the independence of the media, but had also openly condemned yellow journalism and had requested Pemra to take timely actions.
She established towering standards and her death has created a vacuum which would take a long and difficult time to be filled. But it is the need of the hour for everyone who believes in the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law to redouble their efforts and carry Asma’s legacy forward.
The criticism that continues against her even after her death proves that her principled fight did not go down well with certain quarters. Had there not been any criticism, there definitely would have been doubts about her work and cause and we would have assumed that she compromised on her principles.
In today’s modern world, welfare states encourage the protection and promotion of human rights, but our government and state’s position on Asma’s death was very sad. It was an opportunity for the government and the state of Pakistan to educate the public about Asma’s vision and work. Certainly, the state missed this opportunity to assure the world that Pakistan is a progressive country that believes in human rights and pluralistic values, and condemns the narrative of the extremists.
The writer is a Peshawar-based lawyer.