Words by Ayesha Siddiqa.
The last time I felt such tremendous sense of loss in Islamabad was the day Benazir Bhutto died. The two times elected prime minister was assassinated in a political gathering in 2007. 13 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 the civilian martial law. She was 18 years old then.
Over the years, she not only grew up to become an established lawyer but also the most prominent face of struggle for democracy. While many members of the traditional left in Pakistan objected to her support of Nawaz Sharif, her stance was based on her understanding that people must not allow 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 that she made them uncomfortable, the establishment in Pakistan was scared of her. No wonder in 2012, Wikileaks revealed conspiracy by the establishment to kill her. Asma Jahangir 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 brutalized bloggers, the disenchanted ethnic groups, members of the religious right-wing that were picked up by the state outside the legal frame, or young couple that feared for their lives for making their life choices. She would even stand with those whose political views she did not agree with. Her human rights consciousness was not limited to Pakistan. She had met India’s right wing political leader Bal Thakrey as part of an investigation of rights of religious minorities in India. Indeed, on her death there were many from Iran that remembered her fondly.
“Her only position was for democracy”
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 Shahish 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 ‘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 would light candles on the India-Pakistan border every year and kept the hope for peace alive that hawks on both sides of the border want to eliminate.
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 Rajapakse had issues with when it was recommended to investigate violation of human rights by Colombo. Rajapakse instead named a Pakistani lawyer known for his deep links with the establishment.
There was much that her distractors would find to hate her and her admirers to love her, but it is a fact that the South Asian region feels empty without her. Indeed, Pakistan’s loss is unfathomable. Now that anyone raises their voice they will have to think twice because there is no Asma Jahangir. Nonetheless, the tears are from around the region as there are now few left, who would have the voice to speak out with such conviction of strength. May the region rest in peace after what it lost.
Ayesha Siddiqa is a research associate at SOAS University of London’s South Asia Institute and author of Military Inc. She tweets as @iamthedrifter.