Ajit Sat-Bhambra recalls a fiery, uncompromising activist whose untimely death has left a gaping hole in the global struggle for human rights
Asma Jahangir was not a personal friend of mine, though on the one occasion I met her, I was struck by the air of warmth she exuded. This is not to say she was not strong and formidable. To live the live she did, speaking out for the oppressed and dispossessed, took enormous courageand strength of character.
Her deathin Lahore on February 11, at the too-young age of 66, has robbed Pakistan – and the world as a whole – of one of its great human rights advocates. For Asma Jahangir, all people deserved to be heard and defended, and none more so than those who too often have no voice. She used her own vigorous voice and considerable intellect to speak out for religious minorities, women andchildren in Pakistan, and to motivate them to defend themselves againstsocial norms that ignored or contravened their best interests.
In Pakistan, her work was celebrated: she was the founder and chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and worked with the Movement to Restore Democracy during the military rule of General Zia ul-Haq, for which she was imprisoned. But her compassion also crossed borders, as witnessed by her roles aspresident of the Supreme Court Bar Association and Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, andher involvement with the United Nations andgroups such as the International Crisis Group and the South Asia Forum for Human Rights. As the third UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, she generated greater worldwide understanding of the plight of religious minorities.
Asma Jahangir was relentless in her crusade to protect and promote human rights, facing imprisonment, violence and death threatsas she spent a lifetime campaigningagainst tyranny and cruelty. Her outspoken views evoked hatred from some – among her enemies was Altaf Hussain, founder and leader of theMuttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which she denounced for its militancy and violence in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh.But she was also admired, even by those she opposed, for her indomitable spirit and unflinching moral stance.
My own experience of this great lady was, sadly, very limited: she attended a post-seminar event hosted by this magazine’s sister organisation, The Democracy Forum, and later joined us, along with her daughter Munizae, for dinner. Asma was charming company (as was her daughter),full of both passion and ideas, and I was amazed that such huge charisma could reside within such a delicate frame.We later exchanged emails about the evening, and again she could not have been more gracious.
My own sadness at learning of her death can be nothing compared to the loss felt by those closest to her, and by Pakistan itself. With the country at a crossroads, beset by political uncertainty and challenges, powerful advocates of democracy and human rights such as Asma Jahangir have never been more important to its future. Many in Pakistan are calling her ‘a moral compass’, and the sense of lost direction that accompanied her death seems almost palpable in the footage of her funeral. But when needs arise, so do those who can meet them. Let us hope, for Pakistan and the world as a whole,that there will be new champions of freedom to step into the very large shoes of the diminutive yet mighty Asma Jahangir.