Asma’s struggle

Sad news of the sudden death of Asma Jehangir on February 11 not only shocked to core her family, friends and followers in Pakistan but it also hit hard  many people around the world as she was one of the  internationally best  known Pakistanis with a positive image. As a woman of substance and strong personality her words and actions during her life used to evoke strong feelings among both her supporters and detractors. Her death proved to be no different. Social media in particular got almost jammed by the large scale outpouring of feelings reflected in comments. But the strength and scale of the twin feelings of sorrow and solidarity for her during her funeral clearly  demonstrated the imprint that her struggle has left on the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan. As various reports have put it, her funeral was a microcosm of the Pakistan she had  envisioned; democratic plural, inclusive, liberal and humane. Her ideals and her struggle inspired many people. There are various other people in Pakistan who also espouse the same ideals. But it was the type  of determined and courageous struggle for achieving these ideals which distinguishes Asma Jehangir from all others.

As one of her friends tweeted she was more of activism than an idea and that her principles were more real than theoretic. It was because she was forced to start her struggle at the young age of eighteen years to defend her father Malik Ghulam Jilani in courts against the despotic military regime that was hell bent on keeping him in prison for his criticism of martial law. The well known Asma Jeelani case against General Yahya’s martial law bears testimony to this fact. Again it was due to the high profile involvement of her father in the country’s politics that she could watch the unfolding political crises in 1971 in detail that ultimately led to the dismemberment of the country. Her father along with other democrats ( such as Abdul Wali Khan, Ghous Bakhsh Bezinjo and a few others) was opposed to military action against the popularly elected representatives of the people of the then East Pakistan ( Bangladesh now) as that was the sure path towards disintegration of the country, a contention validated by the subsequent chain of events. But sticking to such views in Lahore at that time, was to invite the intense wrath of Punjabi chauvinism. It meant living in the environment of blind  hatred. Asma had many stories to tell about the type of animosity that she and her siblings had to face because of their family background. So the direction of her struggle was swimming against the tide from the word go and it remained so almost  throughout her life. Facing venomous opposition from reactionary forces at quite young age proved to be an important factor in shaping her personality for the future struggle.

Even when she started working for establishing an organised indigenous human rights movement in Pakistan in 1980s it was a time when the country was pushed into deep regression by the reactionary military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. Religious extremism was used to reinforce the already deeply entrenched patriarchy. But when legal and social discrimination against women reached unacceptable levels Pakistani women, particularly in the main urban centres decided to come out to the streets against it and Asma was in the forefront of this struggle. Religious minorities also faced a tough situation when General Zia decided to use the slogan of Islamisation for perpetuating his unconstitutional anti people rule. These were the issues that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had to immediately grapple with just after its formation in 1987. Students unions, trade unions and professional associations were facing bans and repression. Asma was in the mainstream of people’s resistance against the military dictatorship. She was lucky to have some of the best Pakistanis on her side at this initial stage of HRCP. They included journalists I A Rehman, Aziz Siddiqi & Nisar Usmani ; lawyers such as Sabihuddin Ahmad and Tahir Mohammad Khan, woman activists such Anees Haroon, Zohar Yosuf, Alys  Faiz and many others. Active support by Justice (r) Durab Patel gave boost to the movement. But for the military authorities and religious political parties the rise of a young and courageous female lawyer as a star of people’s resistance was totally unacceptable. So they launched vicious propaganda campaigns against her based on lies and fabrications attacking her patriotism and faith. This concoction was recycled again and again by anti democratic forces who were always afraid of her clear and bold stand against the tyranny of military dictatorship.

I had the honour of working with her in the human rights movement. She had no hesitation in challenging exploitation, discrimination and oppression in every nook and corner of Pakistan. HRCP’s campaign against bonded labor high lighted the despicable cruelty of the feudal bondage and hundreds of men, women and children were released from the clutches of feudal lords. Asma had a unique capacity to connect with the wretched of the earth of all regions, speaking different languages and professing different faiths. It was a life time experience to see her galvanising peasant women in Badin and Tharparker ( Sindh) and inspiring female teachers deep inside Momand Agency near Ghalanai ( FATA). Each of her visit to Gilgit Baltistan would creat hope among the oppressed people of the area. Asma courageously exposed state atrocities in Balochistan at critical junctures. I accompanied Asma in her visit to Dera Bugti in August 2006. Our vehicle came under fire just beyond Kashmore as we entered Balochistan on our way to Sui and Dera Bugti. Authorities had hoped that firing on the vehicle would scare Asma away but actually her determination to visit the area became stronger after the incident. The next day we went to Sui and Dera Bugti and had a meeting with Nawab Akbar Bugti who was killed in a military operation soon after our meeting. On our return Asma exposed the reign of terror unleashed by the state against the Baloch population.

Asma understood the relationship between peace and democracy. That’s why she actively participated in peace movements. She led many peace delegations to India and she was instrumental in creating Pakistan-Afghanistan People’s Friendship Association in 2002. She was a trail blazer on the path of struggle for people’s rights. She has left  a rich legacy behind her.


The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs

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