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My friend Asma

A little lawyer from Lahore became the greatest defender of human rights in the subcontinent. What a life to celebrate for a long, long time

My friend Asma
— Photos by Rahat Dar

I cannot recall exactly when and how I first met Asma. Did I see her when I was invited to dinner by her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, to meet Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was staying with him? Not sure. But in the early 1980s I have several images of her in my mind. In one image she is standing between me and Aitzaz Ahsan, whose protégé she at that time was supposed to be, by the bedside of Mahmud Ali Kasuri. Mian Kasuri sahib was unwell and wanted to discuss with his young friends how to strengthen the Lahore High Court Bar Association’s challenge to the Zia tyranny.

However, I was soon attracted by Asma’s campaign against the Hudood Ordinances and her defence of its victims, especially the visually impaired Safia Bibi, who had been sentenced to imprisonment and flogging for committing zina. She established herself, in my estimation, as a doughty fighter worthy of our respect. This impression was deepened when she was accused of having provided justification for the addition of the blasphemy provision to the Penal Code. I was among the many defenders of civil liberties who rallied to her defence.

Beginning in the 1990s, Asma won an embarrassingly large number of international awards. She took these awards in her stride. She valued her title of Senior Supreme Court Advocate more.

This was a period of great ferment in Lahore’s political circles. The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD, a name coined by top journalist Nisar Osmani) had been founded in 1981. Ziaul Haq had used the hijacking of a PIA plane to fill the jails with PPP leaders and a large number of leftists, and to proclaim the first Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). He had also embroiled Pakistan in the Afghan conflict. At the same time the world had started looking at Zia’s arbitrary curtailment of the legal protection to citizens. All these developments influenced Asma’s mind and she decided to broaden her concerns and address human rights.

A distinct image in my mind is that Asma is standing in the door of my small room at Mazhar Ali Khan’s brave weekly Viewpoint and I am scribbling something. She says: “Rehman sahib, let us set up a Human Rights Commission“. And I say without lifting my head “All right, let us do that“. For many years she would repeat this scene to chide me for my casual response to her momentous announcement and to remind me that I had been wasting my time writing in small letters something of little value.

Of course, she had been talking to a lot of people, especially after she had established the Malik Ghulam Jilani Foundation to continue her father’s work following his sudden death. The Foundation held a convention in Lahore. It was at this gathering that the decision to set up the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was taken.

The convention had the stamp of Asma’s organisational capacity. Everybody who was doing something for women’s rights, for political prisoners’ release and welfare, or for the liberation of bonded labour was invited (Asma had already played a key role in the case of Darshan Masih in which the Supreme Court started the train of events that led to the abolition of bonded labour).

A distinguished guest had brought some posters and other display material to expose the excesses committed by the Bhutto regime. Asma put her foot down. She refused to allow the convention to be marred by unnecessary controversies. The honourable guest was free to walk out.

HRCP was founded in October 1986 and it came at the right time. Martial Law had been withdrawn, Muhammad Khan Junejo had become prime minister after a party-less poll. Benazir Bhutto had returned. MRD had conducted a movement three years earlier and another was only a year away. With Justice Dorab Patel as its head and a governing body full of eminent fighters for basic rights, Asma as Secretary General launched HRCP on a full-throttle drive to defend the people’s human rights.

The commission had its office in Asma’s law chamber above a shop on Hall Road. For three years it received no donor support and all office-bearers themselves bore their expenses on attending its meetings. The commission started getting financial support in 1990 and it shifted to a flat that Asma had bought for herself in Gulberg.

1998 was a remarkably successful year in Asma’s life. This was the year that Asma gave a dazzling display of her lobbying skills. We were in the midst of a regional human rights conference when we received reports that the National Assembly had passed a bill for the enforcement of the religious code, similar to Ziaul Haq’s 9th amendment that had been passed by the National Assembly but had lapsed due to the Junejo government’s failure to table it in the Senate. Within a few hours Asma persuaded the leaders of all opposition parties to block the measure in the Senate. The last one to fall in line was Akbar Bugti. He was asleep and woke up at midnight and immediately nodded concurrence. The bill was never sent to the Senate. It lapsed.

One other example of Asma Jahangir turning her sole voice into the voice of the majority was the demand for increase in women’s seats in legislatures. A large convention was organised jointly by HRCP and Sustainable Development Policy Institute to discuss the quantum of women’s seats in assemblies. Most organisations present were thinking of 10-12 per cent seats for women. Asma said: “Nothing less than 33 per cent.”

A long debate ensued. She was supported by Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, the then HRCP vice-chair for Punjab, and Aziz Siddiqui, and one or two others. By and by, Asma’s supporters grew and by the end of the convention women’s demand for seats in legislatures had been fixed at 33 per cent.

Beginning in the 1990s, Asma won an embarrassingly large number of international awards, including the King Baudouin Prize for development, which they wished to give to Asma alone but she put HRCP as a co-awardee and gave all the prize money, a substantial amount, to HRCP. She took these awards in her stride and valued only a few, such as the Right to Living Award, said to be an alternative to the Nobel Prize. Four foreign universities gave her honorary doctorates – two Canadian, one Swiss and one American – though she never used the prefix ‘Dr’. She especially valued her title of Senior Supreme Court Advocate. There was an unmistakable glint in her eyes when she told me about this. The little girl who had dared to defend Safia Bibi had arrived among the highest category of the country’s lawyers. She had found a place of distinction among her peers.

The most important thing that happened in 1998 was her nomination as the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. She decided to consult Aziz Siddiqui and me about whether she should accept the job. She talked about her practice, her work at AGHS Legal Aid Cell, her duties to HRCP. Apparently she wanted us to endorse her entry into the UN system and perhaps an assurance from us that HRCP’s work would not suffer. We duly helped her accept the UN offer.

With her work against extra-legal killings Asma took off into the international orbit. Important world leaders – presidents, prime ministers, academics, artists – sought her company and some advice too. She grew up fast. She acquired a deeper understanding of men and matters. She quickly learned to comprehend the problems related to extra-legal killings in various countries and also mastered the art of writing concise reports. She outpaced most of the people who at one stage or another considered themselves as her mentors.

The first UN mandate was renewed after three years and continued till 2004. This was in accordance with the normal practice. A bit unusual was the fact that without any break she was given a second mandate – on Freedom of Religion and Belief – that continued till 2010. This mandate enabled Asma to further refine her thought process and her advocacy skills. She also became more circumspect. The way she carried herself in public changed and she began to care for what she wore. Quite a few things did not change, though. Smoking, for instance. Doctors’ warnings persuaded her to switch over to lighter brands. For some time bidi was the thing. Then back to thin cigarettes.

Also gossip sessions with friends were not given up. The core group comprised friends since childhood – Seema Iftikhar and Nazish Attaullah, followed by Mona Kasuri and Saleema Hashmi. The common factor among them was that all of them, including Asma herself, had themselves made their lives and each one of them had excelled in the area of their choice. Asma would often relate with pride the hard struggles they had to wage before achieving success. She adored her friends and she also admired them.

Her love of having regular meals did not change either. Lunch was usually out of office and she did not care what she ate. But dinners were always elaborate affairs. She liked to cook for guests and especially for her children in foreign lands. She had a special liking for fish and would buy it from a choice shop in Islamabad and Karachi, to be carried home for the family, the bad smell making fellow travellers uncomfortable sometimes. During drives in the interior, especially in Sindh, she would like to stop at the first tikka shop by the roadside. She ate little but enjoyed a fresh tikka to cleanse her palate.

She was a good mother to her children. A good governess helped while the children were small. She gave them full freedom to become whatever they wanted to be and her husband, Tahir Jahangir, played his role quietly. They gave the children opportunities for studying in the best institutions of Canada and the US. If any one of them had a health problem Asma would take the child to any part of the globe where treatment was possible.

Asma loved crowds. Active crowds, and crowds that kept moving forward – Jaloos. She would issue the call whenever the crowd grew to a sizeable number.

We were having a workshop in Mirpurkhas with an unusually large number of correspondents and field workers from all parts of Sindh, around 650 of them. The Commissioner had imposed section 144 but that didn’t deter Asma. She asked me about taking out a procession. My view was that a procession could be carried out if the people who had come to listen to the speeches exceeded 3,000. By afternoon the crowd had swelled to more than 3,000 and Asma’s wish could not be denied. With Iqbal Haider jumping up and down in the frontline, the procession marched along the town’s roads. The administration struck back by picking up senior activist Akhtar Baloch. But Asma made so much noise that he had to be released after ‘first aid’ treatment only.

Beginning with 2010 when she became the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association she led a more hectic life than even a far stronger body could bear. The long line of litigants at her office grew longer. Even the General who had wanted to slap her wished her to defend her. Constant travelling between Lahore and Islamabad, with frequent breaks for flying visits to London, Geneva, Toronto and New York City, catching bits of sleep in cars and on planes, making notes, checking e-mails in short journey breaks, she took too much liberty with her body. She was a sound manager of time but there is a limit to which hours and minutes could be stretched.

Several times I called on her to slow down, because I saw a thin screen of pain on her face, which many thought was a sign of annoyance. Her remark always was, “I am OK”. She literally worked herself to death.

There were quite a few things she left undone. But any mortal will be proud of what she had done. A little lawyer from Lahore had become the greatest defender of human rights in the subcontinent and one of the bravest voices in the world against injustice, falsehood, autocracy, patriarchy, intolerance and humbug.

What a life, my friend Asma, and what a life to celebrate for a long, long time.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

One comment

  • A life well-lived. What a sad sad loss of a legend! We are indebted to her.

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