People & Society

Asma Jahangir: The poster person for democrats and human rights defenders

Published Feb 12, 2018 01:38pm

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M Arif, White Star
M Arif, White Star

The father of the nation was a lawyer. Something to ponder as Pakistan turns 70 this August. Yet, of these years, for 34 less august ones, the country’s laws have been manipulated to fit the whims of military power. For 46 of these, more than two-thirds of Pakistan’s existence and more than three-fourths of Asma Jahangir’s, she has been the undaunted, courageous resister and tenacious fighter for the rule of law, justice and equality. So, that is the math of it.

While she is the most vocal about arguing for rule of law, she speaks for the sum total of Pakistanis who remain voiceless.

Born and married into privilege and power, now in her sixties, five feet in height and 10 feet tall in stature, Asma is the Lahore-based lawyer at the forefront of the fight for rule of law in Pakistan. She is on the streets, in the courts and on television talk shows, representing and defending the rights of the most powerless, most vulnerable, fearlessly and aggressively, with a take-no-prisoners approach. And for this she has been arrested, threatened, accused, vilified and abused, often by the so-called upholders of the law themselves — the powerful holders of powerful offices.

Asma has defended human rights – civil and economic – through courts and through fact-finding missions in every corner of Pakistan. She is the face of justice in Pakistan. Bane of the ‘boots’, blunt, bravest of the brave, warrior queen — these are the words that come to mind while describing her.

She is a founding partner in Pakistan’s first all-women law firm, AGHS, along with Hina Jilani – Asma’s sister and the formidable defender of the rule of law – and two friends. They started the firm in 1980 in the treacherous years of the Hudood Ordinances and Ziaul Haq. She is also the founding member of the Women’s Action Forum which openly challenged the dictatorship of Zia, coming out on the streets to protest and fight his rule in courts. In those years, she also started taking up cases of blasphemy, rape and bonded labour.

Asma is a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and on freedom of religion — having investigated violence against Muslims in India and violation of human rights of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan. She was also elected as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association a few years ago. And she was part of the leadership of the Lawyers’ Movement in 2007 until she became unpopular among its members after she called out the hypocrisy of its increasingly smaller than life mascot Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who had started using the movement for his personal aggrandisement.

She is accused by her detractors of seeking glory from adversity. To accuse a human rights lawyer of benefiting from adversity is akin to accusing a democrat of benefiting from military dictatorship. Rumour once had it – around 2013 – that she might be appointed caretaker prime minister. Accepting that position of power by her would be comparable to marrying one’s tormentor. She expectedly quashed the rumours.

M Arif, White Star
M Arif, White Star

Asma could be the reason why we might still be okay. She may be the reason why, 70 years on, we might still have a modicum of humanity left in us in spite of the blood we have shed for allegedly creating a country in the name of religion and then shedding some more blood for reportedly not having the right type of religion in the Islamic republic of ours.

She was a teenager, only 18, when the seminal moment arrived, when the ‘boots’, not quite busy enough in a civil war in East Pakistan, showed up in the middle of the night of December 22, 1971 to drag away her father Malik Ghulam Jilani, a former civil servant and politician, to jail. That night and in the days to follow, she became the poster child for human rights fighters, forever.

She filed a petition for her father’s recovery in the Lahore High Court, challenging the legality of Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship and its right to enforce disappearances of its opponents. The Lahore High Court rejected her petition. Undeterred, she took it to the Supreme Court that declared Yahya Khan “a usurper” — though after his rule had already ended. That day Asma won and so did the rule of law. It couldn’t have been so easy for a teenaged thin thing to stand up to the forces of power, but she did.

The verdict in the case, famously known as Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab, did not end martial laws though. The worst of them was just waiting in the wings.

It always tends to be that way: after they come knocking, it makes headlines. But it remains a headline until they come knocking at your own door smashing it down in the middle of the night. They set up courts and promulgate laws of their own. They try to muzzle those who write poetry, compose a few lines of prose, give speeches. The abrogation of the Constitution, the disappearances, the overturning of laws -- all the suffering it causes. Everyone wants to avoid it. Except a few. There is I A Rehman. May he live to be 100. Hina. Ditto. The fewest of the few. And there is Asma.

No one ever cares about defending human rights, really. It’s ugly. And not your business. Until it’s your turn to have your rights taken away from you and the ‘boots’ come calling to kick down your door in the middle of the night to accuse you of treason towards the state or disobedience towards God. And then you cherish and understand Asma. God forbid you should need her. But you will thank God that she is there if you do. When they come knocking and there is no one who helps or has the will to help, Asma will find you and fight your case.

Many detractors who have supported the forces of repression and have worked against her when in power have reached for her in their hour of vulnerability and fragility. She defended Hussain Haqqani, ex-ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, against the state of Pakistan on treason charges. She agreed to defend Altaf Hussain, once among her most famous detractors, against the state for his right to freedom of speech.

A profile of her in this magazine last year described her as a contrarian, avant-garde, advocate, activist, politician. She is an article of faith. What if we could all be like her? What would our last 70 years have been like if we were all like her? Instead, what have they been? Make all your sons and daughters like Asma. If you do, we are on our way home, free for the next 70 years.


This was originally published in the Herald's August 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is the author of novels, 'Mass Transit', 'On Air, Stay With Me', 'A Matter of Detail', and a book of short stories, poems and essays, 'Sarajevo Saturdays'.