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. Asma gifted it to me years ago. A Pakistani by birth and nationality, but with the 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 since 1994 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) in 1986 and the Women’s Action Forum in 1981. Her spirited battle against judiciary and the government – she was, of course, a trained lawyer and called to the Bar – earned her many admirers in India and elsewhere over the years.
Asma was always reluctant to meet people who propagated religion as a means to divide and polarise society and achieve power. She avoided religious clerics who had 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, when Asma was the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, I had the opportunity to accompany her to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s house in Mumbai. 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. Not Asma. I learnt a lot from the meeting.
The photographs of her meeting Thackeray created a furor in Pakistan and are being used to this day to discredit her. 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 also asked him difficult questions about religious polarisation and minorities. You could say she was brave enough to ask difficult questions to powerful personalities but the fact is that, as a person, she was usually free of fear.
She proved this time and again. She was one of the leaders of the women’s movement against Gen. Zia in the 1980s. She was also one of the leaders of the lawyers’ movement against Gen. Musharraf, calling to reinstate sacked Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Choudhury in 2007. She stood for and won elections as the first woman president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010, despite the propaganda against her.
In December 1971, Asma’s father, also a lawyer, Malik Ghulam Jilani was arrested by Pakistan’s first military regime headed by Ayub Khan. From an early age, she had a familiarity with issues, jails and the like; fighting for rights came 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 self, always full of hope that India and Pakistan could and should be better neighbours.
The writer is a journalist and peace activist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly updated piece originally published in India Post.