It was Asma Jahangir’s courage, to stand up to the tyrant and injustice that made even her worst enemy, falls in line with many of her decisions. Her fight against the military governments in Pakistan earned her the reputation of being an Indian agent. She was painted Pakistan’s worst enemy. As soon as the news of her death hit the headline, a segment of society, brainwashed since on the security narrative that India is behind every problem Pakistan encounters, spewed venom against her. Then there is the Khatm-e-Nabuwait group for whom the world is now a much better place to live in after her demise. This mixture of military-mullah narrative has poisoned the general debating culture of the country. Where people are only tuned to hear what they think is right, dividing the society into small groups, each with its brand of narrative about what Pakistan should be. It is therefore that the identity crisis of Pakistan has not been resolved even after 70 years. Asma’s fight was cantered on this very dilemma. She struggled to give Pakistan the identity its founding fathers had envisioned. She wanted a Pakistan where democracy—— the rule of law, freedom of speech, protection of the fundamental rights of the people, separation of power and judiciary and due process of law—-reigned. Her every step during the struggle to justice pounded on the errors that could disfigure democratic norms. In the process, she made more enemies than friends in the military circle that had refrained even to condole her death. Sindh is the only provincial government to have taken the courage to declare one day of mourning while requesting the federal government to allow lowering the flag at half-mast. Today she would be buried and the flag of Pakistan, though may not have been lowered, would be proud of its daughter who had fought all her way to keep this flag rise in pride and glory.
It is Pakistan’s tragedy that it has failed to recognise its heroes. It dare not look into the eyes of its critic on the premise that nationalism sans military glorification is nothing but being anti-state. Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and even Fatima Jinnah were declared Indian agents and security threats. The theory is that no one in Pakistan could love this country more than the military establishment. The only formula devised to gauge a Pakistanis love for his/her country is the level of support given to the narrative advanced by Khakis. Beyond that everything is murky and it was in this murkiness that Asma’s affair with democracy began and ended.
Just like everywhere India too has mourned her death. At a time when Pakistan’s relations with itself and her allies, especially the US are shaky, Asma’s voice for peace and harmony would be missed. Unluckily, we do not have many such voices, or maybe we do have, but not the kind that carries the courage to see the raised voice registering an impression and leaving a trail to follow. Her fight had been for the oppressed either at the hands of the powerful landowners or the mighty establishment. She drew daggers with those who had the termite to eliminate her. Though they could not, finish her but there were serious attempts to that effect. She has been incarcerated on many occasions.
A general impression is that Asma never agitated against civilian governments no matter how corrupt. It is a wrong picture of her. She would always criticise governments for their follies. But the intervention to keep the political process weak, to the advantage of the unseen forces, had been so frequent and predictable that her instinct for justice forced her to save the oppressed—-democracy, in this instance. It is rare that governments are given a free hand to function, either they are bogged in court cases, or spanners are thrown in their way with the help of the opposition parties; leaving little space for the government to perform. With intervention governments are sadly thrown into a self-pity mode, giving more reasons to the voters to elect them again. For Asma this quandary was all the more pinching: should she support the government accused of bad governance or the intervening forces taking advantage of the bad governance to further their own power game.
In 1987 Asma co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and became its Secretary. The organisation became the most trusted voice for the statistics of human rights in Pakistan. She formed a law firm for the women with her sister Hina Jillani. Her office did not only give free consultancy to oppressed women but became the hub to protect the freedom of the press. Even her fraternity had considered her defence for cases involving blasphemy and forced disappearances dangerous. But she nevertheless trod the path less travelled not for fame, but for the reason that people around her either did not want to put their profession in danger or want to make hay using the corridors of powers.
Women in Pakistan usually hide behind the general excuse of not getting enough opportunities in spite of the talent to jack their way up to professional acumen. Asma is an answer to such paradoxes. It is perfection and knowing one’s profession like the back of one’s hand that makes an individual respectable. But it was her faith in law and the legal system that had made her Asma Jahangir.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.