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Asma Jahangir: A fighter against injustice to the last

The entire country is reeling from the shock of Asma Jahangir’s sudden passing away on February 11, 2018 and in mourning. Her unexpected death has elicited an unprecedented outpouring of grief and accolades for this icon of struggles for justice, human rights and against oppression. From an early coming-of-age case as a 21-year-old law student fighting her father Malik Ghulam Jilani’s incarceration by the Yahya dictatorship for condemning the military crackdown in East Pakistan because no lawyer would touch it, to literally her last breath when she was discussing on the phone the contempt case against Talal Chaudhry, Asma Jahangir remained committed and consistent to her principles. The first case mentioned above finally earned Yahya the title of a ‘usurper’, but unfortunately the Supreme Court (SC) did not adhere to its own laid down principles in what became known as the Asma Jilani case when dealing with subsequent military usurpers such as Generals Zia and Musharraf. In the latter cases, the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’ made a surreptitious re-entry in our jurisprudence. Only time will tell if the efforts of Asma Jahangir and others have succeeded in finally laying to rest this obnoxious doctrine used time and again to legitimise military coups since the Ayub takeover in 1958.

All her life, Asma, whom I had the honour to call a friend, remained fiercely committed to fighting against injustice, for human rights and the rights of women, persecuted religious minorities and the oppressed. Her list of achievements and awards, national and international, beggar belief in just the reiteration. A co-founder of AGHS in the 1980s, the first all-women law practice dedicated to defending women’s rights, Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987, and the platform South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) in the 1990s, Asma never shrank from speaking truth to power. The widespread respect she enjoyed in the lawyers’ community and society generally propelled her to the position of the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010, an accolade earned through sheer dedication, hard work and principle.

Apart from these accomplishments, amongst the honours, awards and positions Asma held here and abroad, the notable ones are vice-chair of Defence for Children International in Geneva (1986-88), vice-president of International Federation for Human Rights, the UN’s (which has paid her tribute after her passing) special rapporteur on freedom of religion (2004-2010), member of the UN panel for inquiry into Sri Lankan human rights violations during the Tamil struggle, member of the fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements, and many more. The awards she received during her lifetime included the 2014 Right Livelihood Award, the 2010 Freedom Award, Hilal-i-Imtiaz and Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2010, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the 1995 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights and France’s Officier de la Legion d’houneur. There may be more that I in my ignorance am unaware of. She was featured in Time magazine’s list of the hundred most influential women in the world. This is far from a complete list of the manner in which her lifelong struggle was acknowledged at home and abroad.

Asma’s defining personality trait was courage. She remained undaunted in the face of extreme pressure and even threats to her life. She was imprisoned because of her participation in the 1983 Movement for the Restoration of Democracy against dictator Ziaul Haq and placed under house arrest in November 2007 when Musharraf imposed an emergency to quell the lawyers movement for the restoration of the judiciary, in which Asma played a prominent part.

Despite knowing her since 1979 when I returned to live in Lahore, my first collaboration with Asma came on the issue of bonded labour and its attendant affliction child labour in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The SC verdict declaring the peshgi (advance) system prevalent in the brick making and other labour intensive industries as bonded labour breached the conspiracy of silence surrounding the pathetic conditions of servitude and modern slavery that millions of the poor suffered on this count. The verdict paved the way for the subsequent Abolition of Bonded Labour and Abolition of Child Labour Acts in 1992 and 1991 respectively, in whose drafting and lobbying Asma played the leading role. Our last collaboration was the writ she filed in the SC last year challenging the 50 odd FM radio stations ISPR is running without any licence or monitoring throughout the country. Alas, with her departure, the petition is likely to suffer the same fate as the two million cases pending before the judiciary.

Her abiding legacy, amongst other contributions, was her courageous defence of people whose cases no other lawyer would touch, often without charge if the client was too poor to afford the fees. No victim was turned away for pecuniary reasons, even if Asma had to pay the costs of the case and, if successful in its defence, often followed by Asma paying the rehabilitation costs of the defendant. She was the first successful defence lawyer in a blasphemy case when she won acquittal for Salamat and Rehmat Masih in 1993 from the Lahore High Court. Tragically, the judge who delivered the verdict, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated by a fanatic in 1997 in his law practice chamber on this count after he had retired from the bench. Lawyers and judges have since been extremely wary of taking up blasphemy cases, the exception as always being Asma Jahangir.

Asma’s consistent struggle for democracy, the constitution and the rule of law (practiced more in the breach in Pakistan) often brought her into conflict with the judiciary when she thought the institution was not being just or indulging in over-reach. Her consistency created misunderstandings in some shallow minds. She once said in an interview that even if a Taliban (whom she vehemently opposed) was extrajudicially killed, she would take up the case. Those who accused Asma in recent days of going over to Nawaz Sharif’s camp should keep that in mind. She always stood with the victim of injustice, no matter who or what her own opinion of that person may have been. Her friendship, for example, with the late Benazir Bhutto did not deter her from criticising the latter on issues pertaining to human and other rights.

There has been in the media and generally much lamentation regarding the vacuum Asma Jahangir has indubitably left behind and how no one can fill it. Understandable grief and sentiment aside, this smacks of defeatism. Admittedly, Asma’s are big shoes to fill and even if no one individual may measure up to her contribution, all of us must pay our respect and tribute to Asma’s memory by vowing collectively to pursue her path and legacy and not allow her struggles for justice and rights to lapse. She would have expected nothing less from us.

It has to be admitted of course that the most prominent voice of the voiceless in the country has been rendered silent. Pakistan, all of us, are the poorer for it.

Rashed Rehman, "Asma Jahangir: A fighter against injustice to the last," Business recorder. 2018-02-13.
Keywords: Social science , Law practice chamber , Human rights , Children International , Rehabilitation costs , Pecuniary reasons , Prominent voice , Asma Jahangir , WAF , SAHR