South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

TO receive news that Asma Jahangir was no more was to feel the ground beneath the feet shudder. In her untimely death, the international community has lost a fierce human rights champion. Pakistan stands bereaved of an indomitable democrat and women’s rights crusader, and I have lost a fellow compatriot and a dear friend. 

In my living room in a Mumbai flat is a large painting of Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel. It was gifted to me by Asma years ago. A Pakistani by birth and nationality, but with a humane, secular and international understanding to be able to select India’s most enduring icon of peace and human rights as a gift — that was Asma. It said so much about the person she was — steadfast about her commitment to peace, rights and democracy above human-made distinctions of nations and maps.

She was one of the founder members of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), which has consciously and doggedly worked behind the scenes in both countries to reduce flashpoints and tension as well as encourage people-to-people relationship and dialogue. Her ideas and her devotion to this will be sorely missed. In this, I must say that I have lost my mentor, too.

Asma was instrumental in setting up the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Women Action Forum. Her spirited battle against judiciary and the government — she was, of course, a trained lawyer and called to the Bar — in the last decade-and-a-half earned her many admirers in India and elsewhere. 

Asma was always reluctant to meet people who propagated religion as a means to divide  and polarise society and achieve power. She used to avoid religious clerics with hawkish opinions. She campaigned against killings in the name of honour. The victims — women, minorities or toiling masses — always expected support from Asma and she never disappointed them. She was, in all possible ways, a truly secular person — a difficult proposition in Pakistan.

In India, on one of her trips, I accompanied her to Pune, Mumbai and other cities for various meetings. Accompanying her was Pakistan’s retired Supreme Court Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid. I observed that Asma always remained firm in her opinions and used her impeccable logic and calm personality to convince those who differed with her; she rarely became antagonistic.

 In March 2008, I had an opportunity to accompany her to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s  house in Mumbai. She was meeting him as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. She was blunt and bold in the meeting. She asked Thackeray why he provoked people on the basis of religion; Thackeray  replied that he never provoked but only reacted to others’ provocations. The way she posed that question amazed me. Being a journalist from Mumbai, I was aware how journalists and governments treated Thackeray with kid gloves and avoided blunt questions. I learnt a lot from the meeting.

The photographs of her meeting Thackeray create a furore in Pakistan. But she was clear in her mind that she was only doing her duty.

During that visit, she also met the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi. She asked difficult questions to him too about religious polarisation and minorities. You could say she was brave enough to ask difficult questions to top personalities but the fact is that, as a person, she was usually free of fear.

This was observed when Asma was president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan. She was one of the leaders of lawyers’ movement for the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Choudhury. Asma and her sister Hina Jilani were part of the Women Action Forum (WAF). 

Asma’s father Malik Ghulam Jilani was arrested by Pakistan’s Ayub Khan government in December 1971. From an early age, she had a familiarity with issues, jails and the like; fighting for rights came rather naturally to Asma and Hina — also a dear friend of mine.

I believe the role played by Rani Mukherjee in Yash Chopra’s cross-border love story “Veer Zara”, as lawyer Samiya Siddiqui, was based on Asma. The film was a big hit in India as well as in Pakistan. I remember Asma was in Mumbai after the release of “Veer Zara” for some meetings. She had become a sought-after personality for many in Bollywood, many discussed with her ways to promote sustainable friendship between the two countries.

Then, as always, Asma was her usual self-effacing, but assured person, always full of hope that India and Pakistan could be better neighbours.

By: Jatin Desai (The writer is a journalist and peace activist)


Updated On: February 12, 2018