Human Rights leader Asma Jahangir of Pakistan died in Lahore on February 11, 2018, at the age of 66. Those – who knew her personally – felt the loss of a family member… and, those – who knew her activities – felt the loss of a fellow-thinker.
As a young lawyer, Asma created a legal history in Pakistan by appealing to the Supreme Court against the detention of her father under martial law. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, was the President of Awami League of Pakistan. She was 20 years old then. The Supreme Court of Pakistan declared the Martial Law imposed by General Yahya Khan, as illegal. The judgement was included in the Constitution of 1972, but the 1972 Constitution was practically thrown in the dustbin by the two military Chiefs – General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and General Parvez Musharraf – when they usurped the power of the President.
Asma’s Memorial Meeting, held in the Gaddafi Stadium of Lahore, drew thousands of people. All the Bar Associations of Pakistan observed three days’ mourning and remained absent from the courts to pay their homage to the internationally respected Human Rights activist and the only Woman President of the Bar Association of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Asma is best known as the Co-Founder of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. She was its Founder-Secretary for many years and later, its President for six years. She roped Justice Dorab Patel, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to become its first President. Justice Patel was dismissed from the post of Chief Justice of Pak Supreme Court by General Zia, the then President, for his refusal to agree to the whims of the illegitimate President. Apart from fighting for Human Rights in all provinces of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, the Commission’s documentation of Human Rights Violation in each province every year for its accuracy and coverage could be compared with the Annual Report of Amnesty International and Chronicles of Current Events (the English version Samzidad), secretly published in the erstwhile Soviet Union under the guidance of Nuclear Scientist Professor Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov by Amnesty International.
The Annual Report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan revealed that Pakistan was a federal state, divided into various ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural groups with a diverse nature of crime affected Human Rights. Asma personally had to fight the case under Hudood Law and the Law of Blasphemy, ignoring the declaration of fatwas by the religious fanatics against her. Her fights did not remain limited to High Courts and Supreme Court, as she created a network of like-minded people in Pakistan and encouraged the formation of the Women Forum & Women Lawyers’ Association to fight the cases of women even in district courts, the expenses, thus, incurred borne by them. She also helped organise Human Rights groups in each province, bringing them under the umbrella of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Asma joined the Lawyers’ procession in 1983 for restoration of Democracy in Pakistan and was imprisoned by General Zia’s men. Again on September 30, 2007, she was one of the lawyers who had clashed with the police in front of the Supreme Court against accepting nomination of General Musharraf as a candidate for the election of the President. It is due to movements led by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Pak National Assembly passed the Hindu Personal Law, banning kidnapping of minor Hindu girls and their conversion to Islam.
Asma knew very well that the fear psychosis of the Pakistanis against India could be removed by creating an environment of people-to-people contact between Indians and Pakistanis. She was one of them who formed Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace & Development (PIFPD) in Pakistan and a counterpart was created in India. The government of Pakistan is always against friendly contact between like-minded people of both the countries. In India, only the government of Shri H D Deve Gowda opened its borders to 400 Pakistani citizens, who were permitted to travel to Kolkata by train to attend a conference and visit four important Indian cities after the conference. Trade Unionist, like Keramat Ali, took the initiative for the release of Indian fishermen lodged in Pakistani jails and sent them to India. All these changed during the rule of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
It was a credit to Asma that when she was away from Pakistan for an UN assignment as UN Rapporteur for women, none of the women and human rights activities suffered in Pakistan. She was the only woman in Asia who, apart from serving the UN, received a number of international awards, such as Raman Magsaysay Award, Right Lively Award and Martin Enals’ Award for Human Right Defenders. No other Asian woman rose to such a height as Asma Jahangir.
It is unfortunate that the government of India did not send any condolence message to Asma Jahangir’s daughters. The type of work for which Asma Jahangir is famous is not liked by the government of Shri Narendra Modi. Pakistanis, like Asma Jahangir, like different types of Indians. When we attended a Pakistan-India Conference in Lahore in1995, they came to receive Indians at the Lahore Airport with placards, reading: ‘Welcome to Kuldip Nayar’, ‘Welcome to V M Tarkunde’, ‘Welcome to Dr Rajni Kothary’.
Asma’s death is a setback to Human Rights movements in Pakistan and the movements for the like-minded people in India too.
Boundless Ocean of Politics has received this article from Shri Niranjan Haldar, the octogenarian Indian journalist. He is the former Assistant Editor of Kolkata-based Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika, former Professor of Economics at Goenka College of Commerce, Kolkata and former Secretary of Amnesty International.
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