There is much to celebrate in the life of Rashid Rehman Khan and thus much reason to mourn his passing. But there is an even greater reason to feel sorry for the millions of the Pakistani people who consider themselves alive.
Rashid Rehman was the star activist in by no means a small group of dedicated human rights defenders that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is proud to have gathered under its standard. He had been associated with the HRCP for more than two decades — first as a correspondent, then as coordinator of the Special Task Force at Multan, and finally as Regional Coordinator for the rights of human rights defenders. His jurisdiction covered the districts of Khanewal, Pakpattan, Mailsi, Vehrai, Lodhran, Muzaffargarh, Layya, Rajanpur, D.G. Khan, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Rahim Yar Khan.
In all these districts he was known and respected as a defender of human rights who never said no to any call made on him. Over a vast stretch of land he was the face of human rights. Out of respect for his experience the 15 or so civil society organisations based at Multan had elected him chairman of the Joint Action Committee, a broad alliance of activist groups.
He built up his reputation by bringing to his work a passion for justice and a courage that all along made many fear for his life. Whenever a person died in custody, Rashid would take up his case. If a woman’s face was burnt with acid, Rashid would rush to her bedside.
The landlords who had strangled a young girl to death for “honour” had to reckon with his resoluteness in pursuing the matter. He trekked the most backward area of D.G. Khan, the Provincially Administered Tribal Area, to document the indescribable misery of a people forgotten and abandoned by their keepers. And he went to that part of Rahim Yar Khan where the low-caste Hindus count their days without any rights — except for voting for the ruling landlord. He did not wait to be asked for his services. He was the first to take up Mukhtaran Mai case and it was he who fought off Sherry Rahman’s persecutors up to the high court level. We, at the HRCP secretariat, had often to curb his enthusiasm for taking up cudgels on behalf of the meek and the voiceless.
As a farmer he had a special interest in the welfare of peasants and tenants. He single-handedly held two HRCP peasant conventions in Multan and was till his death the focal person for a broad-based movement for land reforms, proper land utilisation policies, and tenants’ rights.
After spending considerable time on cases of land grabbing in southern Punjab he produced a small book on the subject that researchers will find useful.
In a way Rashid was a creature of the human rights movement. In his childhood he yielded honours in studies to his elder brother, Arshad Rehman, and tried to a make his presence felt as an impetuous boy.
He surprised everybody by taking his graduation and law degrees without much noise but under his black coat he remained an angry man prepared to punish anyone who crossed his path. That is, till he started loving the victims of human rights abuse.
I remember the day almost 24 years (or more) ago when Asma Jahangir addressed the lawyers at Multan and invited them to join and support HRCP. Her address was followed by a brief silence. Then Rashid got up to pour out scepticism about the genuineness of human rights knights. I was therefore somewhat surprised when he offered not only to join HRCP but also to work for it. Within a short period his transformation began. His contacts with people in distress mellowed him.
He learnt the art of listening to tales of woe and putting balm on lacerated hearts. But he could not overcome his habit of telling the wrong-doers what they were. And often in as loud a voice as he could manage.
Rashid was a wholly self-made man and as he grew with the human rights movement he learnt to live within himself. By and by his personal problems receded into the background. A couple of years ago his sister returned to her Karachi home after spending some days with her mother. When she opened the door to her house she found her husband lying dead. When I asked Rashid about it, he only said: “I have brought Lubna and her kids; they will live with us.” Period.
When he was enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme Court, he came bubbling with excitement and declared: “In our third generation I have made it (to the apex court).” While congratulating him I blurted out: “But Multan is unlikely to let you go.” I couldn’t have meant the way the soil of Multan has taken him in its bosom.
Rashid was in his mid-fifties when he was cut down. He might have lived for another 10-20 years and in those years he might have brought some more happiness to his family and relief to victims of human rights abuse. They are the real losers. They will miss him for long.
As for Rashid, he died with his boots on, working in the small office of the HRCP Task Force. Minutes before he was shot at he had drawn up the first draft of the review petition against the dismissal of his petition for quashment of the case against Hafeez Junaid. He went away in a blaze of heroism.
Since he was dealing with a sensitive case I asked him a week before his death as to how he felt about the matter. He repeated what he had often said earlier, “If I do not plead this case, who else will?” and added: “I won’t let my forefathers’ reputation be sullied.”
He loved life but he loved justice even more. He did not fail anyone, everybody who mattered failed him. What matters more now is the sight of a society that seems to have lost all sense of shame or responsibility. It does not have the courage to look into the mirror on the wall. What is the situation now?
• The journalists in Multan dare not write about the murder.
• The judges in the Lahore High Court are apparently avoiding hearing Aasia Bibi’s appeal.
• The Multan police want the people to believe they do not know who the mischief-makers are.
• There is no authority in the country that can stem the wave of intolerance that is going to erase all remnants of reason and civilisation.
Let all those hurt by murder in the HRCP office stop mourning Rashid’s loss and gird up their loins to save the next ones marked for annihilation.