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KARACHI: To mark the one month passing of Asma Jahangir, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the civil society came together to celebrate her life and achievements at a local hotel on Sunday.

The keynote speaker at the event was veteran journalist I.A. Rehman who spoke about human rights and democracy and its trajectory in the political history of Pakistan.

The state has not provided its citizens the right to health, the right to social security, the right to work which are all fundamental rights, he said. Human rights are indivisible and universal and so is democracy. We cannot say to achieve one we must first achieve the other. The struggle for both must continue side by side and unfortunately continue to greatly suffer in the country.

HRCP, civil society come together to celebrate veteran activist’s life, achievements

Speaking about Asma, Mr Rehman said that she was very aware of her womanhood and realised the necessity of her political and civil rights.

“To address these, she knew that the country needed democracy as democracy too is a basic human right.”

With regards to polarisation in society, Mr Rehman said that the main reason was the government which did not hold dialogue with the people and as a result there was increasing intolerance in society.

Asma, he said worked hard to lessen this gap and changed the narrative of Pakistan which was dominated by extremism and terrorism.

“Asma had achieved a unique status in society and as a result she could speak to anybody. A representative of the UNHCR was once kidnapped in Balochistan, and the government failed to ensure his release. Asma was approached by the organisation and she spoke the so-called insurgents, nationalists whatever you call them and that man was released. She was a good bridge to Balochistan. It is sad that the state did not take advantage of Asma.”

Posters adorned the walls of the hall when only a fraction of her achievements were highlighted — from challenging the legal validity of her father’s detention under Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship, which she won, to images of her being attacked and arrested when she protested against Zia regime’s proposed law of evidence that reduced the testimony of women to half.

Co-founder of the HRCP in 1986, Asma also served as its first secretary general. She was later elected its chairperson and then chairperson emeritus.

Journalist Mazhar Abbas reiterated how the loss of Asma is a loss of a voice of dissent.

“Since the past four weeks we feel the lacking of a strong voice against the dangerous game being played in the political landscape of the country,” he said.

One of the things Mr Abbas highlighted was the ongoing struggle to influence the Senate’s stance and narrative by the establishment.

“The only who spoke the most about Balochistan is being removed only to be replaced by someone who though is connected to Balochistan but is not connected to the narrative of Balochistan.”

He gave more examples of why the voice of Asma was needed by the country more so now than ever before.

“There was a time when political parties like the PPP were cautious of their stance as they were afraid that Asma Jahangir would give a statement.

“The judges today have become like a political party and there is nobody to call them out the way Asma could.

“The narrative of the PPP, which was known for its democratic struggle unmatched to other political parties, today is taking a certain stance which started with the change of the Balochistan government and came to an end at the Senate chairmanship.

“Even the civil society is not as strong as before because Asma was the civil society.”

The journalism community, he said, was also suffering because of the absence of Asma as she gave their struggle a practical shape.

“It is easy for people to stand against martial law. It becomes harder when on face value there is democracy but the people are not democratic. The struggle for freedom of expression by Asma was unmatched and journalism is suffering from the absence of Asma’s powerful voice.”

HRCP representative Asad Butt spoke about the role Asma played with regards to enforced disappearances in Sindh.

“Sindh has officially 73 people missing, with more unofficial numbers because most people do not report their missing family members out of fear. Asma fought for the rights of these people. She also fought for bonded labourers, workers, and was against religious intolerance and challenged the landlords too.”

Baloch social worker Wahid Baloch, who was among the missing, was also present to show his support to Asma’s legacy.

Other speakers at the event spoke about Asma’s struggle for the rights of religious minorities, among several other aspects of her life. There was poetry read out in her honour as well as a performance by Sheema Kirmani.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018