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A living legacy

February 19, 2018

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IN 1666, the Great Fire of London devastated that city for four days, destroying two thirds of the metropolis in a massive conflagration. There was anger, fear and despair, and many wondered if the city would ever rise again from the literal ashes it had been reduced to.

But it did, and a great deal of the credit for this goes to Sir Christopher Wren, who drew up the plans for rebuilding London, essentially transforming the city from a warren of thatched huts and cobblestone series into the first draft of the modern metropolis it is today.

Along with dozens of churches, Wren also rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral where he himself was laid to rest. His tomb is a simple, Spartan affair where Wren lies resting under a slab of black marble. Above, a latin inscription reads: “si monumentum requiris, circumspice”.

There are meaningful ways of honouring the dead.

Translated this reads, ‘if you seek his monument, look around you’. Look around and see the cathedral he build, the cathedral he designed. It is a legacy that does not require a ticker tape parade or an annual holiday. It is a legacy of vision given form, of dedication and devotion.

It is that same dedication and devotion that we saw at the funeral of the late, great Asma Jahangir. It wasn’t a state funeral, of course, but that was fitting for a woman who was never the advocate for the state, who never desired such honours and would have likely scoffed at them. Had the state honoured her it would only have honoured itself. But that is of little import, because if she stood for anyone she stood for the people — and it was the people who laid her to rest, who said their farewells, who buried a giant in a small grave.

They came in all their shades and colours, people who would never otherwise stand in the same ranks: Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Hindu, rich and poor, from society elite to the forgotten tenants of the Okara farms. From those who knew her well to those who only knew of her; these were all of those whose lives she had touched, transformed and inspired.

It’s difficult to add to the countless heartfelt tributes that have poured in from all corners. It seems pointless to relate personal stories about her when so many, far more meaningful tales have already been related so the only question that I shall ask is this: how do we honour such a legacy?

The usual approach, one that is being advocated in this case as well, is to change place names to honour her. Given that her funeral prayers took place in Gaddafi Stadium, the first demand was to rename this landmark ‘Asma Jahangir stadium’. Certainly there’s no harm in this, or in naming roads, schools and more after her. As years pass and memory fades, perhaps some child will ask why this place bears her name and we will relate the story of her life and struggle. Perhaps.

Or perhaps there are more meaningful ways to not just remember her but to actually carry forth her life’s mission. There is, in my opinion, an intrinsic problem with simply changing names, a cosmetic measure at best, because it runs the risk of the person’s legacy instead being subverted or even disgraced.

Take this for example: there have been calls to rename Abdul Wali Khan University, where Mashal Khan was brutally murdered by a mob of his college mates, to honour the slain student.

Let’s say that happens and yet those who killed him, or cheered as he lay dying, continue to study there? What if — as is likely — the university administration that abetted this crime remains in place? What if in a renamed university the mindset that killed Mashal continues to flourish? That would indeed be the greatest dishonour possible.

One would not like to see the same happen with Asma Jahangir’s name so any honour cannot simply stop there: There is a proposal to rename the law department of Punjab university after her, but that would only be truly meaningful if the cases she fought would be studied there — if a fellowship was created in her name or a scholarship programme put in place allowing deserving students without means to follow in her footsteps.

Let there be free legal aid centres that carry on her work, even if they do not bear her name. The hardest part of carrying on her legacy falls to us, though, in our limited personal capacities. It falls to us to speak truth to power where and when we can, even knowing that we could never match her raw courage — one that bordered on madness.

She was the true giant of our times, towering over the moral pygmies that infest us. And while we know that we can never stand so tall, perhaps we can stand on her shoulders.

The writer is a journalist.
Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2018