March Issue 2018

By | Cover Story | Published 6 days ago

Braveheart.  Little Sparrow Braveheart. That’s how Asma Jahangir will forever remain etched in my consciousness.

As far back as I can remember, there she was, in the ultimate battle of unequals: David pitting herself against Goliath – all that was wrong with the world.

Pakistani policewomen arrest human rights activist, Asma Jehangir (C-L) in Lahore, 14 May 2005. Asma, by then an internationally known Pakistani human rights activist, was detained along with scores of supporters ahead of a rally in support of women’s rights.

And so, throughout her meteoric life, Asma Jahangir fought what was unarguably, unquestionably, the good fight. As the undisputed Queen of Pakistan’s black coats, the first female president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association and the moving spirit behind many bar elections, Asma’s judicial journey began early. Before she turned 18, she embarked on her first case, appearing as defence counsel for her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, a left-wing politician/civil servant on the wrong side of a dictatorial military regime.

This case set a legal precedent and led to a lifelong crusade, with Asma going on to take up cases for the rights of women, minorities, the missing, bonded labourers, victims of honour killing – anyone marginalised, abused, terrorised. No case was ever too big or too small for Asma. And then to bolster women’s protection, she, along with her sister, Hina Jilani, set up the country’s first legal aid cell for women, providing them recourse to law and security when they had none.

Chairperson of The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Asma Jehangir (L) and her companion A.R. Rehman pose with the annual report ‘State of Human Rights in 2005’ during a launch ceremony in Islamabad, 04 February 2006. 

It must have been a quintessentially humanistic spirit and an unbridled yearning for righting wrongs, for snatching peace from the jaws of war, for a desire to nuke nuclear arsenals, and a craving for justice for all, which propelled Asma to set up, along with other crusaders, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), and the Lahore chapter of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), to become a trustee of the International Crisis Group, a founder member of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) and a member of a myriad other rights’ organisations. And it must have been the same relentless urge to identify and address injustice, irrespective of nationality, caste, colour or creed, that led to Asma accepting the post of United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Extrajudicial Killings.

Asma’s official forays took her across oceans to countries and continents that spanned the planet, these journeys sometimes in single-engine, worn-out planes. “Aren’t you ever scared?” I once asked her.  “Certainly not,” she answered tartly, appalled perhaps by my fear of flying, of the inherent danger that must surely have lurked in such disaster zones. “These are expeditions that yield a fortune – a treasure trove of information, which in turn can lead to awareness that can trigger desperately-needed change,” said Braveheart.

But with her fearlessness there was also a deep-seated wisdom, a recognition of the fact that the good fight could only be fought with the right tools. And so it was that Asma stayed steadfast to the course of all that came within the ambit of the law – as long as it was just, of course. Because there also was Asma, questioning the legal or constitutional validity of judgements proclaimed by illegally constituted martial law courts. And there she was fighting the unholy, arbitrary decrees conjured up by Shariah courts. Or there was Asma refusing to hold her peace when the statements by, or judgements of, the country’s judiciary reeked of bias, of fear, of moral or financial corruption.

Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat Narendra Modi (L) presents a momento to Asma Jahangir when she was Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – March 2008.

A long-time crusader for peace, Asma routinely traversed with confidence the Wagah divide, even as India and Pakistan eyeballed each other with mutual distrust and animosity, even as each had a finger hovering around the nuclear trigger. Braveheart could do this because she believed only human contact, only rational discourse, only overtures of peace could help the people of both nations bridge that yawning chasm of evil let loose by war-mongering governments. And so she was feted in India by all those who believed the same truth.

But at home, not everyone agreed. She was often reviled as an “Indian agent, a Hindustani spy.” I am mortified to admit we sometimes argued because during our stint as members of the SAHR bureau, on visits to India, I could not contain my anger when I encountered smirking, hostile Indians of the Hindutva variety, while she interacted with them with civility and her usual nonchalance.  I didn’t understand then how she made that diplomatic nonchalance a workable formula, another tool, for attaining mutual understanding with an end goal of peace. Once, during a closed-door SAHR bureau meeting, I allowed my anger (and the cherubic Doc Mubashir Hasan’s whisperings from behind my shoulder) to come to the fore. I wanted to be allowed to visit Gujrat as a member of SAHR and as a South Asian for a fact-finding mission. But I. K. Gujral, one of India’s arguably most civilised, rational and kind heads of state, then SAHR co-chair with Asma, said that as a Muslim woman from Pakistan, this might prove counter-productive. I wasfurious and I argued – only to be ticked off by Asma  and told to sit down and be quiet in words just short of ‘shut up.’ Outraged I sat down and sulked with both, Gujral and Asma. Subsequently, both of them visited the state and their respective reports of the carnage there carried the most scathing indictments of the crimes committed. Her partiality for India did not stop her from her equally scathing report on the government-sponsored human rights excesses in Occupied Kashmir and her tongue-in-cheek description of “Modi the cowardly mongoose.”

When people accused Asma of not raising a voice for the Muslims in an increasingly saffron India, or for the Rohingyas, or the Palestinians, she retorted that she was deeply saddened by such evil, but charity began at home. That, she said, is where the heart is, and so it was in Pakistan where she carried out her most relentless crusade against atrocities, against injustice.

Asma was often questioned, even by me, why she seemed to favour one  political party with questionable moral and financial credentials over all the others. She would smile and say, “they are all corrupt, all power-hungry, and, down to a man, they would even sleep with the devil to achieve their ends, whatever those may be. But if there’s a choice, I would opt for the more secular, liberal party, because only in that is there some hope for a progressive Pakistan.”

Yet when she saw politicians and political parties she had no truck or patience with, and even less passion for, being subjected to the short end of the stick by despots or the flawed arm of the law, she would be in their court, and use any public forum, including the electronic and print media, to plead their case.

Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jahangir (C) and others hold placards as they chant slogans during a protest against Israel in Lahore, 19 July 2006. More than 300 people have been killed in Lebanon after Israel unleashed a massive military assault.

A sum of so many parts, Asma Jahangir embodied complex diversities: an affluent, upper-class, left-leaning humanist who was as comfortable striding the corridors of power as she was negotiating the slums of inner cities, a champ of the charm offensive in tricky diplomatic situations, but a street fighter on angry streets, and when aggravated, on talk shows, even at public forums.

With her acerbic tongue she could hurt, but never so she couldn’t love that pain away. And she was a raconteur, a satirist, a mimic. Neither death threats, nor the virulent hate campaigns launched against her could diminish that indefatigable spirit. Asma would find humour even in the darkest circumstance. And while she was the worst of enemies to those she perceived as morally indefensible, she was also the very best of friends.

So there are the memories, so many of them. Of travelling with Asma and after a long, tiring day, of passing out on the sofa. I remember Asma walking me to my bed, tucking me in, and waking me the following morning with a steaming mug of coffee. Of Asma insisting I take the comfortable bed while she feigned a love of sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

I remember Germany, when as a group of four women, we were invited to visit the country and meet with their parliamentarians, members of the judiciary and women’s groups. So there was our female parliamentarian refusing to engage, except for her consistent refrain in Punjabi to be taken shopping, and Asma interpreting that to our hosts, one of them the Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, as Madam Parliamentarian’s desire to apprise Germany of the long-standing Kashmir conundrum. And I remember the same parliamentarian taking her wine glass to the ladies room during a formal dinner,  presumably for ablutions. I almost died trying to suppress my laughter as Asma explained to the perplexed host – without missing a beat – that the honourable MNA  needed to take medication and was embarrassed to be seen popping so many pills publicly.

Asma Jahangir with women participants of Women on Wheels (WOW) riding their motorbikes during a rally launching the WOW campaign in Lahore on January 10, 2016.

And I remember the night at Asma’s house in Lahore when I had just retired at 3 a.m. only to be woken at 5 a.m. with her screaming outside my door, “She’s gone.” I hadn’t a clue what she was referring to. And before I could ask, she had called my husband in Karachi, woken him, and demanded he find out the circumstances behind Benazir’s sudden ouster. Needless to say I had to suffer the shout-down from my rudely roused husband.

I remember insisting, during one of our SAHR bureau stints in Sri Lanka, of going to what was then still Tiger Eelam. I remember Asma orchestrating the permissions and logistics. I remember complaining about the discomfort and heat incessantly, while the SAHR bureau, many of them geriatric, sat  patiently, silently, confined for hours in a bus with no air-conditioning, surrounded by rifle-wielding Tigers, who refused to let us proceed or return home. Naturally, Asma would explode. “You asked for this,” she said to me. “Now shut up, and suffer in silence – or I’ll kill you before the Tigers do.”

I remember Neemrana, that gorgeous palace hotel in Rajasthan, where I actually saw peacocks fly, and where Asma refused to let me use the landline – cells weren’t working. “Make yourself hard-to-get. That’s how our husband and kids will appreciate us,” she said to me. I did – and I was.

Asma’s generosity was legion. From taking on many, many cases free of cost, to her completely open home where she nurtured and pampered all visitors, to the generous ear she lent to all those who needed to be heard… I have no memory of her ever turning down hard-luck cases sent in her direction – she certainly never rebuffed anyone I asked her to help. I have personally witnessed her kindness with those who worked with her. And I have seen her adoration of children. When, after her death, I met I. A. Rehman, one of Asma’s most revered and adored colleagues and friends – and my guru of all things good – we both wept. And then he said to me, “She loved you very much.”  I answered,  “I know, she made me feel loved, but I hope she knew how much I loved her. We fought so much.” To which he responded, “She knew. You both also laughed so much.”

I hope to always remember my friend Asma Jahangir with a smile –even if followed by a tear.





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