I first met Asma Jahangir, who died on Sunday, in 2003 in Mumbai. I was an eager law student attending what was advertised as a talk by a Pakistani human rights lawyer. The lecture itself was laden with clichés on the rule of law. Perhaps Asma was aware that as a Pakistani in Shiv Sena land, boring was preferable to provocative. It was the “Q&A” that left an impression. A young Maharashtrian angrily asked: “You talk about democracy and secularism in India. But that does not exist in Pakistan.” Asma was disarming, “I request you, don’t compete with us over our weaknesses.”
So hooked was I that I applied for a Pakistani visa to spend two months as an intern with her human rights law firm in Lahore. I was informed by the Pakistani consular officer that there was no visa category for “Indians who want to work in Pakistan”. He added as an afterthought: “Especially to work with Mrs Jahangir.”
It was a miracle that I was given the work visa in 2005, a drip perhaps from an episodic thaw in India-Pakistan relations. Soon after arriving, I sensed what the consular officer meant. Otherwise friendly officials and lawyers would turn silent at her mention. For the English-speaking — often foreign-educated — wealthy of Lahore, her name would evoke anger. She was a class traitor who had broken the unspoken contract of convenience they had made with dictators, Islamic demagogues and corrupt politicians.
Asma worked from an unmarked office near Liberty market. Though peaceable at the time, the auguries of violence were there — the openly-displayed donation boxes for Laskhar-e-Taiba, the ladies’ tailor who would lecture on cutting India into pieces. Her office also consisted of her brilliant if less pugnacious sister, Hina Jilani, and a team of understated lawyers. Towering bodyguards stood guarding either side of the bulky entrance door, opened only if you were vouched for.
Asma and her sister were legal defenders of vulnerable women. One such woman had fled her violent husband, sought a divorce. Afraid her parents might kill her, Asma’s law firm squirreled the woman away. But mother insisted on seeing daughter, a meeting was set up at the office. Along with the mother came another man to help her navigate the narrow steps. As soon as they reached upstairs, this man opened fire with a concealed gun and killed her.
Stories like these were repeated casually in the office, and never by Asma. A little over five feet, she could dominate unfriendly judges at the Lahore High Court through argument. Between cases, we would sit in the bar association waiting room, where she would conduct a rancid post-mortem of the judge or opposing counsel. A circle of floor tiles would form around us as other lawyers kept away.
Asma’s loneliness reflected the place that civil society — even the incremental, bourgeois variety — had in Pakistan. In most other countries, what she did would have been heroic but hardly life-threatening. And for all her celebrity status abroad, Asma lacked a constituency within Pakistan.
I met her again around 2013. General Musharraf had given way to genuine elections, but the politicians, as usual, were giving democracy a bad name. What was less usual was that Asma was now being feted in her country. She had been elected head of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association a few years earlier, a body at the forefront of the fight for democracy. She was even being talked of as a possible President of Pakistan. The lawyers’ movement and an emerging middle class were demanding a new equation with the state. Though she still had enemies, Asma was seen as sufficiently distanced from the old regime — the alliance of politicians, Islamists and armymen — to symbolise a break from the past. In the midst of this new-found domestic respectability, I bumped into Asma at Amritsar airport. She had driven from her house in Lahore to Wagah border, walked across, hired a cab to Amritsar, and was now flying to Delhi.
I asked about her journey from the periphery of the establishment to its centre. Had she changed? No, she replied. Pakistan had. Somewhat.