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Above: Asma Jahangir/Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia

Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s frontline warrior for human rights passed away last week. Dilip Bobb recalls his encounters with the feisty and fearless lawyer, an advocate for peace between India and Pakistan. 

For any Indian journalist visiting Pakistan back in the 80s and early 90s, there were three names on the must-meet list (outside the requisite government functionaries).  One of course, was the Indian High Commissioner for an evening at his residence which would include the incongruous sound of a record player with the volume on high — to defeat the hidden bugs planted by the ISI in the walls. The second name was Najam Sethi, prominent journalist and frequent visitor to India. His insightful analysis on domestic politics and Indo-Pakistan relations was as invaluable as the introductions to movers and shakers he made on your behalf. The third name was Asma Jahangir, then emerging as a champion for democracy under the jackboot regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.

The first sight of her waiting at the door of her tasteful Lahore home in Gulberg was disappointing. Over the phone, she was charming but forceful. In person, she was this tiny birdlike figure who looked like she couldn’t harm a fly. That diminutive stature and fighting spirit would give her the sobriquet ‘The Little Warrior’. That she was. By some strange coincidence, on both the occasions I met her, she had just come out of jail or been freed from house arrest. I had gone to meet her principally because she was spearheading the Movement for Restoration of Democracy. It was a dangerous journey. General Zia’s imposition of Martial Law in 1977 was still in place—Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency was a picnic by comparison—and Asma had been put in prison in 1983, the same year I met her. When I asked whether it had made her more cautious, she laughed and quoted someone I’ve forgotten but not the words: “You can’t jail an idea and a movement,’’ adding: “It has only made me more determined.’’ In my notebook was something else she had said to another journalist. “Everybody thinks they can bully me because I looked like this little, out-of-shape mummy.’’

On the second occasion I met her, she had switched from smoking beedis to cigarettes and had become Pakistan’s foremost crusader for human rights while using her professional profile—a Supreme Court lawyer—to fight for women. Her law firm—Pakistan’s first all women firm—specialized in divorce, maintenance payments and custodial cases.  In the 80s and even early 90s, women in Pakistan were nowhere near as liberated and credible as they are now. General Zia’s Islamisation had only added to the existing patriarchal social order. Asma, despite her 5 foot frame, stood out for her attitude—she would speak bluntly and loudly, look her male colleagues and critics squarely in the eye and could be caustic in her comments. It was all intended to show she was no less for being a woman, especially in the male dominated bullring that represented the legal community in Pakistan. A courageous heart and a burning social conscience turned her into a celebrity and a constant thorn in the side of successive governments in Islamabad.

Most Indian journalists visiting Pakistan would have Asma on speed dial because of her Indian connection. She was a familiar face in India and received numerous invitations to events and conferences. It also have her critics a handle to brand her as a “traitor’’ and “pro-Indian’’. She gave them added ammunition when a photo appeared of her meeting with the then Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. It led to a furore in Pakistan where she was attacked sharing the same space as one of Pakistan’s most venomous detractors. The fact that she had met Thackeray in her capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion mattered little. Because she was such a prominent critic of governments in Islamabad, India would lay out the red carpet, with the External Affairs Ministry treated her like a VIP guest. She accepted that merely because it made life easier for a visiting Pakistani and gave her insights, as she told me later, into life under a civilian government.

By the time I met her last when she was in India for a conference, she had become an international celebrity, featuring on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Women. Foreign correspondents based in Pakistan or visiting wrote extensively about her rise as the country’s most famous woman after Benazir Bhutto and Noor Jehan. A piece in the Guardian described her thus: “For almost four decades she has towered over Pakistan’s human rights war. She has championed battered wives, rescued teenagers from death row, defended people accused of blasphemy, and sought justice for the victims of honour killings. These battles have won her admirers and enemies in great number.” Author William Dalrymple would describe her as ‘Pakistan’s  most celebrated—as well as most vilified—human-rights lawyer”, adding that she has “spent her professional life fighting for a secular civil society, challenging the mullahs and generals’’. That is my most powerful memory of her: in our conversations at her home and her law office in Lahore, she would lampoon the mullahs who were in ascendancy under Zia, cracking jokes about their obsolete thinking and medieval approach to crime and punishment. She was even fearless about the dreaded ISI, calling them “duffer generals who needed to return to their barracks and stay there”.  What stood out in our conversations was her unwavering commitment to democracy which in Pakistan, translated into an elected civilian government. “That is the big moral advantage India has over Pakistan—a robust democracy and an army that is apolitical.’’

I remember watching an interview with Pakistan news channel Geo TV during my second visit to Pakistan. She was asked why she did not speak out about Kashmir and human rights there and her answer was typical Asma. “I cannot speak of human rights in Kashmir when there are greater violations of human rights in Pakistan. How can I speak solely on Kashmir, and I have on many occasions, when there are so many battered women coming to me for help?”

My great regret is that I had not met her in recent years, when Pakistan actually had a prolonged period of civilian rule although she remained as much a fighter—the Little Warrior—for the rights of the disadvantaged and religious minorities. Her election as President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan was yet another glass ceiling she broke—and there were many in her eventful career. That is the legacy she leaves behind—the doors she has opened and the taboos she has destroyed.  As I picture Asma waving goodbye as I left her home, I still wonder at how that frail, birdlike figure could also be such a giant.

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