On Asma Jahangir’s death, the former Balochistan chief minister, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, tweeted: “Balochistan is forever in your debt.”
His remarks echoed the broader sentiments of the people of Balochistan who widely treated the iconic human rights defender as their champion and dependable spokesperson at the national level.
Besides her tremendous work in all areas of human rights, one of Asma’s most outstanding contributions was her persistent effort to encourage all sides in the Balochistan conflict to de-escalate tensions, provide space for confidence-building measures and find a peaceful resolution.
This engagement earned her the status of a nonpartisan investigator and a uniquely qualified negotiator.
The Baloch people admired her for courageously calling a spade a spade while people elsewhere in Pakistan trusted her as a credible source who tried her best to accurately describe the situation by risking her own life by often traveling to some dangerous parts of the province.
Speaking up to power on Balochistan has always required enormous courage and has come with official reprisal. She put herself forward; spoke the truth by confronting powerful elements in the government who often disputed her position.
When tensions between the military regime under General Musharraf and the Baloch nationalists escalated, triggering a standoff between the chief of the Bugti tribe, Nawab Akbar Bugti, and the army, Asma led a fact-finding mission of the Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) to Balochistan in 2005-06.
The fact that government entities and disgruntled opposition parties agreed to talk to her during an extremely charged situation reflected the overwhelming informal authority and trust she enjoyed.
Editorial: Asma the fearless
The mission met with aggrieved stakeholders, spoke to senior government and military officers and called upon “all parties engaged in the conflict to give up violence, and open dialogue on the issues of the province.”
HRCP’s Human Rights Violations: Conflict in Balochistan report included shocking revelations about cases of missing persons, torture, and other prevalent grievances of the people of Balochistan.
The report talked about the development of the Gwadar Port, the controversy surrounding it, and demands of the local population seeking inclusion and representation in the mega projects.
Asma kept on visiting Balochistan from time to time, continuing to listen to the perspectives of the local people, and also producing neutral and professionally researched reports about the causes and implications of the unrest in Balochistan.
In 2009, she spent another week in Balochistan speaking to all stakeholders, ranging from the Baloch nationalists to senior government officials.
She seemed upset and agitated over the unchanged situation and continued human rights violations in the province despite the installation of a new democratic government led by the Pakistan People’s Party.
“It is still the military that calls the shots in Balochistan,” she had said at a press conference in Quetta. “The decision-making is firmly in the hands of elements that were in command before February 2008. The provincial government is dysfunctional in critical areas.”
She also noted that enforced disappearances continued under the PPP government as well.
“If Balochistan is not demilitarised and confidence building measures are not taken,” she warned, “the country may dearly regret the consequences.”
She was apparently upset with and critical of the military’s handling of Balochistan. It is not as if other politicians and journalists did not know what was going on there; it just required Asma’s level of courage to publicly call out the powerful that misuse their official authority.
In one widely circulated clip from a show on a private news channel, she berated the military leadership for its authoritarian policy in Balochistan.
Putting things in perspective, she explained that the people of Balochistan had stood up for their rights because Islamabad treated the region as a colony, extracted its mineral resources without sharing the benefits with the local people, and, on top of that, illegally picked up Baloch activists and tortured them in official custody.
“Why should the Baloch feel obligated to stay with us when we don’t treat them as equal citizens and keep referring to them as anti-national and traitors?” she had questioned during the show.
Asma regretted that we learned no lessons from the East Pakistan debacle and were repeating the old mistakes in Balochistan when military force is being used to address a political crisis.
She pointed out that in Balochistan, the establishment was busy pitting one tribe against the other, taking away the province’s resources and then employing violence against the local people to silence them.
“After all, Balochistan is not our colony,” she reminded us. “We must treat them with respect.”
When she visited Balochistan again in 2013 on yet another HRCP mission and produced the report Balochistan: Giving the People a Chance, she was further perturbed over the status quo.
She noted that not much had changed in spite of devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th Amendment.
This time the inspector general of the Frontier Corps, seemingly upset with her public stance on Balochistan, did not meet with the HRCP delegation despite repeated requests.
Asma reminded that the government had entirely disregarded HRCP’s earlier recommendations meant to provide guidelines to all parties to end the conflict.
She cited the issue of disappearances as one of the significant factors that fueled resentment in Balochistan and also singled out different state actors for acting beyond their constitutional mandate while operating in the country’s largest province.
Obituary: Pakistan’s bravest citizen is no more
With Asma’s death, Balochistan has lost a true friend, a regular visitor and a vocal defender of people’s rights.
Her departure takes away a national icon who cared for the democratic rights of the smaller provinces.
She served as an interlocutor between the rest of the country and those living in the periphery and complaining about their constitutional rights not being sufficiently protected.
Although Asma did not live to see a permanent peaceful solution to the ongoing Balochistan conflict, she left an impeccable legacy that teaches us about the power of compassion, travel and dialogue while dealing with underrepresented communities.