It is both easy and hard to write about Asma Jahangir’s contribution towards preserving constitutional and democratic rule in Pakistan; hard in the sense that imagining our unjust polity without her is difficult and easy because she made her presence felt across all those parts of the country where human rights were being breached.
For decades, we saw her challenging dictators and extra-judicial exercises, and raising awareness about human rights violations. She was the founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an organisation that the country desperately needed in its formative decades. Whenever the state and its institutions treated citizens as subjugated subjects and denied them access to the judicial system, Asma came to their defence.
To us, she always came across as a ‘fighter activist’ rather than an elitist lawyer or a distant intellectual. She was accessible to all activists and people who needed her. Asma was not just a symbol but the face of resistance against injustice in its all forms. No matter how powerful the oppressors were, our Asma would stand up to them.
Over the years, Pakistan’s exploitative socio-economic order, the powerful establishment and the state’s inaction in key matters created a great deal of work for Asma. These were the factors that made her the restless and angry woman who wanted to bring a positive change. And she had so much to be angry about. Whether it involved tackling crises that surfaced in Karachi, Thar, Dera Bugti or Quetta, addressing the plight of Mukhtaran Mai and bonded labourers of lower Sindh or resisting military coups, Asma was firmly stood by them to bring their issues into the mainstream.
Punjab had increasingly turned more to the right; but the victory of Asma’s comrades in the Lahore Bar Association and Supreme Court Bar Association was the only sign that all was not lost in the onslaught against conservative politics. For people in the smaller provinces of the country, Asma served as an example of what the people of the country can achieve if they put up a joint struggle.
With her demise, Pakistanis have been left orphaned. She inspired many people to follow her constitutional resistance movements. Through her powerful mobilisation and organisational skills, Asma influenced many people like Iqbal Haider, I A Rehman, Afrasiab Khattak, Zohra Yousuf and many other human rights defenders and committed activists of the Women Action Forum (WAF).
Pakistan’s liberal and secular forces have suffered tremendous losses over the years. These struggles have made them realise that the struggle to foster a democratic and constitutional rule is a long-drawn-out battle. The closer we get to it, the farther it goes.
After every dictatorship, we collectively throw away the provisional legal frameworks and constitutional orders that were introduced during military rule. A new form of coercion creeps in and we are pushed back to square one. Asma fought against the polity created by legal arrangements, which negated the Quaid’s vision and the 1940 resolution. She stood like an iron wall against all military takeovers.
Asma Jahangir’s death has robbed us of the sense of unity that only she could bring. The echo of her call would reach all corners of the country. When she spoke on television talk shows, she was a voice of reason amid the clamour that the right wing and the forces of the status quo wanted us to believe. Even the accusations levelled against her failed to undermine the cases she fought and sides she took.
Although she came from Punjab, which largely dominates Pakistani politics, Asma always stood by people from smaller provinces. In what may be her last public speech, she said that:“there cannot be a tolerant Pakistan without Bacha Khan”. Asma fought the cases of all those people who were declared traitors, faced treason charges on political grounds or suffered victimisation.
Given the wave of inequalities and human rights violations that exist in our country, we need more activists like Asma. We don’t know how many people like her we need to show us the right path as the past 70 years of the country’s existence have involved a painful struggle to shift the state’s mandate to back to the people. More leaders and people of conscience have been labelled as traitors in recent times than during British Raj.
As crisis after crisis looms over us, we will miss Asma Jahangir’s presence more because there is always a fear that our basic rights will be taken away by the forces of fascism under different pretexts. Asma would always give us hope to fight back. She would lead the fight and had the ability to create resilience in society. It is partly the loss of this courageous spirit that we mourn with her death.
Asma Jahangir represented a league of intellectuals who never succumbed to power. She was a non-conformist constitutional warrior who has left behind the legacy of a selfless life of struggle to liberate the suffering multitudes.
Armed with this legacy of an untiring commitment to rule of law irrespective of ethnic and political affiliation, we the disunited people must continue to inspire the people of this country to take the first step towards bringing a change. The risks Asma took were worth it as they ensured that the citizens of this country do not have to bow before the forces of darkness and rigidity.