A fearless advocate for human rights in Pakistan, the loss of Asma Jahangir will now make people think twice before speaking out.
The last time I felt such tremendous sense of loss in Islamabad was the day Benazir Bhutto died. The twice elected prime minister was assassinated in a political gathering in 2007. Thirteen years later, the death of Asma Jahangir due to natural causes had an equally dramatic impact. I, like many others in the country, suddenly felt shelter-less and voiceless.
She took risks and said things that many would shudder to say. For many, Asma Jahangir was the one-stop shop for human rights in Pakistan. Jahangir, and her elder sister Hina Jillani, grew up watching their father fight General Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship. Her name was one of the milestones for many of us learning about Pakistan’s politics. Her father Ghulam Jillani had filed a case Miss Asma Jillani versus the Government of the Punjab in 1971 challenging civilian martial law. She was 18-years-old at the time.
Over the years, she not only grew up to become an established lawyer, but also the most prominent face of the struggle for democracy. While many members of the traditional Left in Pakistan objected to her support for Nawaz Sharif, her stance was based on her understanding that people must not allow the weakening of a political government at the hands of non-Parliamentary forces. She was the only one who could loudly criticise the military and point out mistakes being made by the higher judiciary in erasing the line between judicial and legislative powers.
Asma was exceptional because, unlike some, she never changed sides. Her only position was for democracy. She challenged both the generals and judges like no one else could. And despite the fact that she made them uncomfortable, the establishment in Pakistan was scared of her.
No wonder in 2012, Wikileaks revealed a conspiracy by the establishment to kill her. Asma was quick in calling a press conference and drawing a circle of support around her in a manner that pushed back her detractors. As the Pakistani playwright and short story writer Norrulhuda Shah tweeted: “in a country where men have lost their potency, the only tall woman has died”.
Asma Jahangir lent her voice where it was needed, be it the forcibly disappeared, the brutalised bloggers, the disenchanted ethnic groups, members of the religious right wing that were picked up by the state outside the legal framework, or young couples that feared for their lives when making life choices. She would even stand with those whose political views she did not agree with.
The woman was indeed dramatic in her conviction, as she had the strength and capacity to reach out across the divide. I remember a conversation with Shashi Tharoor during his visit to Pakistan, where a forum perceived for its association with the establishment invited him. To my question regarding if he was now comfortable with the hawks in Pakistan, Tharoor’s response was that it was ‘because the doves don’t deliver’.
Incidentally, Asma was part of those that believed that there should be peace between the two traditional rivals. She went and met Bal Thackeray despite his hawkish position, while she lit candles at Wahgah every year. The hawks in Pakistan would use her photo shaking hands with Thackeray to give her a bad name, which she did not deserve. How can you mend fences if you don’t engage the rival in a conversation, especially a thought-rival?
Jahangir, however, went beyond India and Pakistan. She spoke for the Baluch, the Kashmiris, the Tamils and the oppressed in Iran. Hers was a name that the former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa had issues with when it was recommended to investigate violation of human rights by Colombo. Rajapaksa instead named a Pakistani lawyer known for his deep links with the establishment.
There was much that her detractors would find to hate about her and her admirers to love about her, but it is a fact that the South Asian region feels empty without her. Indeed, Pakistan’s loss is unfathomable. Now when anyone raises their voice they will have to think twice, because there is no Asma Jahangir. Nonetheless, the tears from around the region are shed from an understanding that there are now few left, who have the voice to speak out with such conviction of strength. May the region rest in peace after what it has lost.
The author is a research associate at SOAS, University of London South Asia Institute and author of Military Inc. She tweets as @iamthedrifter