As the customary grief and adulation which accompanies the demise of great public intellectuals and human rights warriors such as Asma Jahangir starting pouring in from all sections of the Pakistani, South Asian, and international society, many noteworthy points of deliberation emerged which need to be situated for the right kind of remembrance and immortalisation to take place. First, and foremost, for anyone who has their heart set in the right place regarding the absolutely necessity of the ethical ideals of condemning tyranny and standing up for the rights of least-advantaged groups and individuals, Asma Jahangir’s selfless struggles speak for themselves, setting up a grand legacy of the politics of resistance. Her principled positions, against military dictatorships and the excesses of the military establishment and their proxies, against patriarchs, in an unequal and parochial Pakistan, who subjugate their women cynically employing warped notions of religion and honour, against capitalists who get too lost in their pursuit of accumulating wealth that they forget the dignity and humanness of their labourers who sustain their enterprises, and against the majoritarian excesses and misfired shots of a fledgling Pakistani political and judicial system against religious minorities and underprivileged ethnic groups, were accompanied by an unnerving moral courage, and such copious amounts of benevolence that nothing scared or stopped her.

In her principled style, she stood opposed to Pervez Musharraf’s martial law in 1999 as an attack against the preponderance of civilian actors and democracy when lifestyle liberals, sick of Nawaz Sharif’s myopic attempts to the pass the religious rhetoric of the 15th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan welcomed it, and in what is an understated part of Pakistani political history, even the left-of-centre and social-democratic Benazir Bhutto faltered and supported the promised elections under the martial law regime as a positive sign for the polity, Asma Jahangir stood her ground and risked her life and career under the tyrannical regime, that was looking for a witch-hunt. She was later arrested. When the MQM indulged in street crime and political murders in their mafia-esque 1990s and 2000s under the Musharraf’s tutelage, she was a vocal opponent, but when the military-led Rangers operation dealt with the MQM workers via extra-judicial means post-Musharraf, she fought Altaf Hussain’s legal battle. Whilst being the most vocal opponent of establishment stooges such as Zaid Hamid, who went on Twitter on the night of her death, suggesting mindlessly that she ought not to be granted an Islamic funeral, continuing the military style of vilifying anyone who was opposed to them as anti-Islam and anti-state and obfuscating reality, she fought valiantly for even his release when the Saudi Arabian authorities detained him for months in a stunning display of vouching for his rights as an individual. When Musharraf implemented a misdirected and authoritarian policy line of the Emergency and suspension of judges, Asma Jahangir was at the forefront of the Movement for the Restoration of the Judiciary in 2007, but when the judges themselves, led by a former Chief Justice indulged in cheap populism and ran the courts in deeply personalistic manners, she was the most vocal opponent of the court’s excesses in their judicial activism, constantly and fearlessly suggesting them to rule by the pen, and not via lips.

In what was considered to be an unpopular stance, then, by the Punjabi establishment and the PML (N) and PTI, at that stage, she managed to become the first woman to win the Supreme Court Bar Association Elections. With activists from the Women Action Forum on her side, she resisted Zia’s draconian Hudood Ordinances at the expense of being jailed, beaten up by the police in public, and becoming the first Pakistani to be tried for Tauheen-i-Mazhab (blasphemy) by Zia’s Shura Council as the cynical attempts to scare her into submission were a constant throughout her illustrious life. She began her public life in an equally dramatic fashion: fighting against her father, President of the Awami League’s West Pakistan wing, Malik Ghulam Jilani’s, arrest by the Yahya Khan-led establishment, in court, at the tender age of 17, and successfully winning the case. It is a carefully underreported part of Pakistani history that her father was campaigning for the halting of the army operation in East Pakistan and could often be seen holding placards on The Mall Road, in the hope of an alternative future. From a very young age, and through her father’s living example, she had learnt not to bow down before any pressures in the pursuit of the grander ideals of justice and speaking truth to power. Seeing her father smiling, and not languishing, in faraway jails in Dera Ismail Khan, she suggested later on, taught her that going to jails under oppressive regimes was a matter of pride, and of reclamation of the self-under-siege, and not something to shy away from.

She borrowed a very Lahore-esque wit, maintaining fidelity with the city’s history of an intellectual and cultural resistance against status quo forces. And unlike many contemporary civil society actors, she could speak to the underprivileged classes in a manner and language that they understood. She became the voice for the Iqbal Masihs and Mukhtaran Mais as her deep and intricate understanding of the Pakistan’s legal system and its wayward constitutional history continued to inspire her to find plausible this-worldly solutions for the poorest of the poor, and the weakest of the weaklings. She found ways to inculcate liberal and progressive ideals, often misconstrued to be Western and foreign to the Pakistani circumstance, to speak and operationalise the emancipation of the marginalised, without ridding local actors of their agency or their sense of tradition, and in that, her legacy lives on. And even as the Pakistani government refused the demands to give her a state funeral, right wing bigots threatened to mess up her corpse, and military proxies continued to spread vitriol against her, her legacy will continue to inspire the world as the battle for civilian supremacy, institutional federalism, religious harmony and for the rights of the down trodden masses in Pakistan will continue! And even if we lost the greatest actor in the struggle, she would be looking from the skies encouraging everybody to keep the battle afloat, and not giving up! Rest in power, Asma Jahangir! There was no one like you.


n          The author is a freelance columnist.

Her legacy will continue to inspire the world as the battle for civilian supremacy, institutional federalism, religious harmony and for the rights of the down trodden masses in Pakistan continues.