Asma the fearless

Published February 12, 2018

THE shock at the sudden loss is palpable, but so is the intense pride that she lived among us.

Asma Jahangir was a citizen that all of Pakistan could be proud of and whom most can only hope to emulate.

Principled and courageous, Asma’s willingness and determination to confront evil, defend the vulnerable, and insist on Pakistan living up to the ideals of its democratic, constitutional and secular foundations made her truly iconic.

A woman who lived the majority of her adult life in the public eye, Asma eschewed self-promotion for a steadfast and remarkable focus on the issues that ought to be of concern to every right-thinking and sensible citizen.

Asma was a formidable lawyer and a person of remarkable intellect, but always spoke in a universal language of the rights of the vulnerable and accountability of the powerful.

Her eloquent yet forceful defence of victims and the vulnerable everywhere will be greatly missed.

While Asma Jahangir tirelessly travelled the country and the globe to promote humans rights and other admirable causes, it is her lifelong struggle against dictatorship and authoritarianism that is perhaps defining.

Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, bravely denounced military atrocities in what was then East Pakistan, and before long, Asma was fighting the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq in the streets.

Jailed by Gen Zia and placed under house arrest by another military dictator Pervez Musharraf, she never ceased to speak out against the harms of dictatorship and authoritarianism.

While her criticisms would have surely stung, most authoritarians and praetorians appeared to be afraid of Asma.

They needed to be.

Asma’s principled positions made her a formidable opponent. In recent years, the depth of those principles has been on display when it comes to the MQM.

Long detested by Altaf Hussain for her vociferous denunciations of MQM militancy and violence in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh, Asma was also emphatic in her criticism of vicious state action against the party and vigorously defended the right of voters to elect their chosen representatives unimpeded.

Losing an iconic champion of human rights, a lion of democracy and the rule of law would be difficult for any society.

For Pakistan, the loss of Asma Jahangir has come at yet another brittle historical moment, with uncertainty plaguing the democratic project in the country.

Democracy may find a path to continuity, but the challenges to the democratic project, both from anti-democratic forces and from within the political class, are significant.

The institutions of democracy are weak and the already attenuated systems for protecting fundamental rights are under further attack.

Till her last days, Asma Jahangir fought the good fight. Her work is now over, but Pakistan’s is not as darkness continues to sweep across the country.

May new champions of democracy, rights and human goodness arise — and soon.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2018

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