Always an optimist

On why people, even a generation or two apart, enjoyed talking to IA Rehman

Ibn Abdur Rehman, popularly known as Rehman Sahib was an icon to generations of human rights activists from across South Asia. To me, as a child growing up around him, he was the small kind man, with a twinkle in his eye and a gentle smile on his face, who would always take time out from deep conversations with important people to engage with me. Young people enjoyed talking to him because he dignified them by hearing them out. When my mother Asma Jahangir suddenly passed away, he quietly became the person I would go to, the barometer by which I would measure an idea or a situation, much like he was for the entire human rights community in Pakistan.

Rehman Sahib was an ardent believer that, given their many failings, the politicians had had had a raw deal in the country. He had immense sympathy for Pakistani politicians, whom he saw targetted both by the military and the extremists. He always reminded me of the resilience of the Pakistani political class and civil society. He once said about Benazir Bhutto, “First they expelled her, but she returned to politics and Pakistan; then they attacked her, but she again returned for another fight. They finally killed her because she would not go away.”

There was never a protest for fundamental freedoms that was too small for Rehman Sahib. Even at the age of 90, I would often see him in his khaki pants, walking determinedly to a protest, come rain or shine.

He was an indomitable optimist, who believed that no struggle was in vain, no fight was without a result. Rehman Sahib believed that the people of South Asia cannot prosper till there is peace between nations. He was at the forefront of the movement for peace between India and Pakistan. He was also a mentor and founding member of South Asians for Human Rights, a regional network of human rights defenders.

Rehman Sahib was awarded many prestigious awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award (2004) and the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award (2003), but remained humble and never used his stature to throw his weight around.

Rehman Sahib believed that the people of South Asia cannot prosper till there is peace between nations. He was at the forefront of the movement for peace between India and Pakistan.

In 1987, Rehman Sahib was a journalist, when Asma Jahangir walked into his office and said “ Rehman Sahib you have to join us at the Human Rights Commission.“ He looked up and said “but I want to continue as a journalist.” Asma Jahangir resolutely said, “You can always continue to write, but you have to help me with the Human Rights Commission.” According to journalist Hussain Naqi, a long-time colleague, Asma Jahangir took IA Rehman that very day to the small HRCP office at Gulberg’s Main Market that she had acquired. Their journey together began right then. They then went to all corners of the country, establishing regional offices of the Commission, picking rights activists who shared their ethos and passion for the fight for democracy and equality. Within years, with the help of their colleagues, they had not only established an internationally recognised human rights body, they had also had put together a network of activists who would shape the future human rights discourse in the country and draw strength from one another. IA Rehman and Asma Jahangir led many fact finding missions of the Human Rights Commission in far flung trouble spots of the country, bringing to light grave human rights abuses, often forgotten or suppressed in the corridors of power.

He was the very soul of the Human Rights Commission and helped shape the human rights movement in Pakistan for 40 years. Rehman Sahib believed that every individual in Pakistan had the right to fundamental freedoms and no notions of nationalism could rob them off these rights. Rehman Sahib lamented that constitutional rights were never fully guaranteed but pointed out that whenever Pakistan made progress towards democracy its human rights record too improved.

Rehman Sahib spoke the truth, even though twice he had to go to jail for it. He suffered a great deal, but I never heard him complain. It takes courage to make sacrifices for the principles one professes. He began his life as a believer in Marxism and till the very end he believed in the philosophy. There will be many who try to fill his shoes, but there will never be another Rehman Sahib. That small man with a twinkle in his eye has left a giant legacy.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist and filmmaker who currently hosts the current affairs program, Spotlight, on Aaj TV

Always an optimist