It was a Black Sunday for everyone who cares for human rights around the world. The death of Asma Jahangir is a great loss for all those who believe in democracy, justice and freedom of expression. A frail woman, she kept the torch of civil liberties aflame for decades in the darkness of oppression. She always disapproved of religious extremism, racism and war-mongering.
Asma Jahangir has emerged as Asia’s Joan of Arc. Many of us in Pakistan realised that she was a one-woman movement fighting for our rights — this movement must continue after her death. The well-known artiste from across the border in India, Shabana Azmi, very rightly said in her tweet that “Pakistan has lost its most fearless crusader and human rights movement its tallest leader”.
Asma always struggled against child labour, rescued teenagers from death row, defended people facing fake blasphemy charges and sought justice for the victims of honour killings without any interest.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan said “despite our differences I always respected her for her fight for human rights”. What were her differences with Imran Khan? She opposed his famous sit-in of 2014, which was aimed at toppling the elected government of Nawaz Sharif. Asma’s only argument was that the elected government must complete its term.
The young chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, tweeted: “My personal inspiration and mentor who had so much more to teach me. Pakistan produces the bravest women of the world has ever seen. Asma was one of them”.
Bilawal’s late mother Benazir Bhutto was a personal friend of Asma Jahangir. During her two terms as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto asked Asma to become a judge of the superior courts but she declined. In 2011, when the elected government of Asif Ali Zardari faced the infamous “Memogate” scandal, and PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif collaborated with the army chief and chief justice at the time to criticise Zardari’s elected government, it was Asma Jahangir who stood with the “traitor” Zardari.
Then in the 2013 elections, she was offered the post of caretaker chief minister of Punjab, but Asma continued to stay away from power corridors. In 2017, the Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges and Zardari supported the disqualification – but this time around Asma was found standing with Nawaz Sharif. All she did was repeat her fundamental belief: An elected prime minister should not be removed through a clause in the Constitution inserted by the former dictator Zia-ul Haq.
I saw Asma for the first time in 1983 on the Mall Road in Lahore. She was leading a procession of women activists and lawyers against the military regime of General Zia. I was a young college student and joined that procession because my favorite poet Habib Jalib was also there to recite some of his rebellious poems. Suddenly the police launched into a baton charge and arrested Habib Jalib. Brave Asma and her female comrades surrounded police officials who were trying to drag Habib Jalib towards a police van. Asma was vociferously raising slogans against the military dictator. In the meanwhile, women police arrived and she was also arrested.
I saw her the second time when my father, Prof Waris Mir, suddenly died in 1987 under mysterious circumstances. Asma and her sister Hina Jilani arrived at our home with tears in their eyes. When she saw my father’s blue face, she began to shout, “They have poisoned him, we want a postmortem”. We were helpless. Slowly but surely, she became the voice of the voiceless.
Asma Jahangir founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in 1987 and started providing legal aid to the poor and helpless people. She was appointed a Special Rapporteur by United Nations on Freedom of Religion from 2004 to 2010. Later on, she was named UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights violations in Iran. She played a major role in the lawyers’ movement against the emergency of General Pervez Musharraf in 2007. She received the Right Livelihood Award in 2014 along with Edward Snowden in 2014.
Snowden had exposed many secrets, including a conspiracy to assassinate Asma Jahangir. A report in ‘Washington Post’ alleged that in May 2012, US Intelligence became aware of a plot to kill her by some rogue elements within the Pakistani security apparatus. This revelation was based on a top secret report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and was leaked to the ‘Washington Post’ by Edward Snowden.
Some jealous people declared Asma a CIA agent after that report in the ‘Post’ but no inquiry was held. She received many threats from many people for many reasons but she never surrendered to any threat. Just a few days before her death she called me. She was concerned about my hard-hitting speech in a sit-in of tribal Pashtuns in front of the Islamabad Press Club against the extra-judicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud. She told me like an elder sister, “Yes, you speak the truth but don’t compromise your security, you already have two bullets in your body. Be careful, because our enemy is mean and ruthless”. But the very next day she came to Islamabad from Lahore and addressed the same sit-in and made a fiery speech.
She led a candle-lighting ceremony many times at the Attari- Wagah border along with Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar on August 14 and 15. She wanted peace between India and Pakistan. She wanted the civil society of India and Pakistan to stand up jointly against human rights violations and war-mongering. Some people called her an Indian agent in Pakistan when she spoke against human rights violations in Balochistan. Many people criticised her in India whenever she condemned the use of brutal force and pellet guns by Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir.
But Asma Jahangir was not an agent of any State. She was the agent of the poor and helpless masses. Today, a majority of Pakistanis are sad at the death of an “Indian agent”, while many Indians are paying tributes to a “Pakistani agent”. People like Asma were trying to bridge the gaps between us. We are losing those bridges very fast. We can, and must, pay our tribute to Asma Jahangir by continuing her movement for human rights and peace, in Pakistan and across the region. We are proud of our Joan of Arc.