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Asma Jahangir, Pakistan rights icon and feisty fighter at the barricades, dies

Asma fought Zia’s military dictatorship, her lawyer’s office in Lahore becoming a shelter of sorts for those persecuted by the regime. She was also at the forefront of the battle, against the anti-women Hudood laws that Zia introduced.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chandigarh |
Updated: February 12, 2018 7:13:50 am
Asma Jahangir, Pakistan rights icon and feisty fighter at the barricades, dies Asma fought the system in the country’s law courts, even though justice was far from assured.

On September 30, 2007, over 500 lawyers clashed with police outside the Pakistan Supreme Court in Islamabad over the election commission accepting General Pervez Musharraf as a presidential poll candidate despite serious questions over his eligibility. Right in the middle of it all, was Asma Jahangir.

As the police burst tear-gas shells and swung their batons, barely 100m from the poll panel’s office, a lawyer fell on her. With blood from his face and head on her clothes, she stood up, screaming in anger and contempt — for Musharraf and what the police had done on his behalf.

READ | Jahangir will be remembered as a champion for the disenfranchised

That’s the image I will carry always of Asma, feisty fighter at the barricades that Pakistan’s rulers frequently put up against their own people — women, children, people accused of blasphemy, victims of religious intolerance, Baloch, Pashtun, pro-democracy activists, and those who wanted peace with India. She battled for each cause, and as a lawyer, went far beyond turning up at processions and candle-light vigils.

On Sunday, the 66-year-old died of a cardiac arrest in Lahore. “I am devastated @ loss of my mother Asma Jahangir. We shall B announcing date of funeral soon. We R waiting 4 our relatives 2 return 2 Lahore,” her daughter Munizae Jahangir posted on Twitter.

Asma fought the system in the country’s law courts, even though justice was far from assured. But foremost, she stood against the military usurping the role of main arbiter. She was fearless in her criticism and spoke her mind freely. In one television programme, she famously described the military generals as “duffers”, saying Pakistan would be doomed if it continued to be led by them.

Her earliest fight against the military is now part of Pakistan’s legal history — as Jilani vs. Govt of Punjab. The case dates back to 1972, when the young Asma Jilani appealed to the Supreme Court against her father’s detention under Yahya Khan’s martial law. The martial law was held to be illegal.

Khan had stepped down by the time of the judgment in the wake of the crushing defeat at India’s hands in 1971, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had become president and the first civilian administrator of martial law. The judgment paved the way for the removal of martial law and the framing of Pakistan’s 1972 Constitution, in which Article 6 makes usurping the Constitution a treasonable offence.

Though that did not deter Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf, it is a constant reference point in Pakistan’s history, and was quoted liberally by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary in his own battle for restoration in 2007 — and subsequently, as he held as illegal Musharraf’s “second coup” in October 2007.

Asma fought Zia’s military dictatorship, her lawyer’s office in Lahore becoming a shelter of sorts for those persecuted by the regime. She was also at the forefront of the battle, along with other members of the Women’s Action Forum, against the anti-women Hudood laws that Zia introduced.

In the 1980s, Asma’s sister Hina Jilani and two other friends established the country’s first all-woman lawyers’ firm that provided legal aid to women in distress and took up constitutional matters. In 1999, it was at this firm’s office that the family of a woman who wanted to divorce her violent husband shot her dead in front of her lawyers.

For being an outspoken critic of the military, Asma had as many opponents in Pakistan as fans and supporters. She was once arrested during Zia’s time, survived an assassination attempt, and routinely got death threats. There were fatwas against her for speaking up against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. She was even accused of being an agent of several foreign spy agencies, including India’s R&AW.

But Asma never let that deter her from taking up causes that were unpopular or considered “unpatriotic” — for instance, of the scores who had gone missing in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, suspected to have been “disappeared” by the military.

In 2006, Iftikhar Chaudhary, who had started to come into his own as chief justice, took suo-motu notice of several instances of men gone missing, mainly from Punjab, during Pakistan’s “war on terror” under Musharraf. He pulled up the ISI at every court hearing, and wanted the chiefs of the spy agency and Military Intelligence to present themselves in court or face contempt charges.

When I asked Asma then if Pakistan was witnessing a new kind of judicial activism, she said the true test of how far the court was willing to go would come if it pursued the case of the missing in Balochistan as vigorously.
When Chaudhary was fighting his battle against Musharraf, she threw herself into the lawyers’ movement. But when the same lawyers applauded the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, and showered flower petals on his assassin when he was produced in court, she took them on for their regressive views. Months earlier, in November 2010, she had won a bitterly contested election to become the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. She would also speak out against Chaudhary, as some of the cases he took up after his restoration threatened to upset the country’s fragile democracy.

Asma was one of the founding members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, whose detailed reports documented atrocities across the country. Among the most controversial of these reports were on Balochistan and “Azad Jammu & Kashmir”, the part of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s control.

Asma was well known in India, and a source of inspiration to human rights and women’s rights activists in this country, and for the positions she often took against her country’s leadership. She had many friends in this country. In collaboration with journalist Kuldip Nayar, she led a candle-lighting ceremony at the Wagah border every August 14-15.

But those Indians who often pounced on her remarks to validate their own views on Pakistan were left confused and disappointed when she came out equally hard against India for alleged human rights excesses, especially in Kashmir. Tellingly, for her critics in Pakistan she was not enough of a Pakistani, and not anti-Pakistan enough in India — some dismissed her as “one of those mombatti-wallahs” for wanting India-Pakistan dialogue and peace.

In 2009, months after the 26/11 Mumbai attack, Asma and another well known Pakistani human rights activist, I A Rehman, visited Delhi on the invitation of an NGO. Their hotel rooms were raided by Delhi Police, prompting then prime minister Manmohan Singh to personally apologise to them. The two later laughed it off as treatment they had gotten used to in Pakistan, and of the region’s bureaucratic disease of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing.

In recent months, she had criticised both the Army and judiciary for Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal by the Supreme Court, and held Imran Khan to be a proxy of the military. Asma Jahangir’s untimely death robs South Asia of a bold and fearless public intellectual. Pakistan and India need more people like her.

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