It is now more than a year since Asma Jahangir left us. As August 14-15 approaches, one cannot but recall her, for she was someone who worked tirelessly for human rights as well as better and smoother, peaceful Indo-Pakistan relations. People like her (characterised as an icon and a crusader) and the work they do retain their relevance for not just days but months and years to come – and so, remembering and paying a tribute to her too remains relevant even now. All the more so, for activist-intellectuals like her are a source of unending inspiration for others.
Such, indeed, is the impact Asma Jahangir left, both in life and death that one was stunned into disbelief at her farewell. As former member of the Planning Commission of India, Dr. Syeda Saiyidain Hameed said in her remembrance in a gathering in Delhi just a couple of days after Asma’s departure, one had to move into the space of willing suspension of disbelief for the fact of her passing away to sink in. One of the causes of her lasting impact, for sure, is the way she spoke Truth to Power – fearlessly, without any ifs and buts, in her characteristically straightforward, frank, honest manner, irrespective of who that Power was.
The Power of an ‘Absent Presence’
She is gone, we know. And yet she is still with us. Her work not just in the sphere of human rights but also for peaceful relations between India and Pakistan is something that will not allow us to forget her so very easily – or soon. Her presence will always be felt in the coming years of her absence far more than when she was with us in physical form.
There could be no greater proof of the power of her absent presence than her funeral, for she broke what seemed like insurmountable barriers not just in life but even in death. Her funeral on February 13, 2018 was unprecedented, with women joining men, against all accepted, deep-set traditional norms. There have been more accounts than one, written by females, of this phenomenal last farewell. As Rabia Mehmood described the scene in ‘Al Jazeera’, the women “not only stood alongside men, we actually stood in front of them. Also, there were hardly any frowns directed at women who chose not to cover their heads.” (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/asma-jahangir-bidding-farewell-feminist-icon-180215083623183.html). Zahra Hayat, recounting her experience, ended on this note – “It was beautiful, so fitting….. how could the woman who charged alone, quite literally, into all male bar rooms, courtrooms, into all sorts of hyper male spaces, countenance that women who came to say farewell to her, their hero, be shunted out to the back? Such beautiful subversion, in death as in life.” And Rimmel Mohydin, in her graphic description in ‘The Dawn’, of moving in to the Gaddafi Stadium from the gates almost right up to where Asma lay, relates how the women gradually but surely gained for themselves a space they traditionally are not even allowed to enter (https://www.dawn.com/news/1389379). “I suddenly realized”, she says, “this was the first time I had offered a prayer that was led by a male Imam….. Men and women praying together, shoulder to shoulder, was Asma’s last subversive act.”
Meaning thereby, that it had been a series of subversive acts, down the years, of this brave woman that led to, and culminated in, this final one. The phrase, “last subversive act”, indeed, points to the long, hard, relentless multiple struggles that Asma Jahangir waged with a society deeply entrenched in a patriarchal mindset further buttressed and strengthened by endemic dictatorial regimes only intermittently giving way to democratically elected governments. More than this, she fought for human rights, especially women’s, the minorities’ and those of the underprivileged and the marginalised, in a society of powerful feudal tendencies.
Understanding the Significance of Institutions and Organisations
But it needs to be underlined that she was able to have such an impact not because she was the gutsy, charismatic individual she was, not just because she had the unadulterated courage to speak Truth to Power, but because she also understood the significance of organisations, institutions and institutional frameworks. She was well aware that without collective wisdom and a collective fight, it would not be possible to stand a chance of defying those with power and influence. In a long conversation with writer and publisher Ritu Menon in May 2001, this is what she said of the value of institutions: “I find institutions very important, because in complicated situations if you don’t bounce ideas off one other, if you don’t have access to the collective wisdom around you, you won’t be able to see things as clearly. It was group work which shaped my mind, shaped me as a human being, rounded off a lot of my rough edges.” Thus it was that she had the sagacity, back in the 1980s, to be a part of the setting up of the Women’s Action Forum and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (akin to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in India), defying the Zia regime not just on the streets but also working at the macro level in terms of opposing unjust laws at the level of policy and human rights’ initiatives. This included the Hudood Ordinances that, as Declan Walsh of ‘The New York Times’ puts it, “among other grotesqueries, denied justice to rape victims” and discriminated severely against women.
South Asia and Indo-Pakistan Peace Initiatives
Asma’s view of human rights encompassed not just her native country but the whole of South Asia – and especially India. Among her initiatives in this sphere are to be counted SAHR (South Asians for Human Rights), formed around 2002 and the PIPFPD (Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy) formed in 1994, of which she was one of the founder-members. The impact she had in India in this regard was palpably visible in the act of more than a hundred people gathering in Delhi on February 15 – just two days after her funeral – to remember her and celebrate her life. Within a span of a 100 hours since her passing away, a compilation of tributes in her memory was brought out. At the gathering, apart from her concerns for human rights, her constant endeavour for peace between India and Pakistan was sharply brought into focus by those who had closely worked with or come in contact with her in India. Her initiative, at the height of Kargil, of bringing to Delhi 72 women in two buses under the banner of WIPSA (Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia) was recalled as was her role in cooling tempers in back-door diplomacy post the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
One of the causes of her deep personal involvement with the processes and efforts for people-to-people contact and peaceful relations between India and Pakistan becomes crystal clear as one reads her account of her visits to Amritsar with her parents before 1965 when the border seemed to be of no consequence at all so far as people-to-people contact was concerned. She recalls in her conversation with Ritu Menon, a tad nostalgically – “My mother used to travel very often to Amritsar. We had a Volkswagen, she used to put the kids in the boot, and her friends and she would set off to watch films in Amritsar! We would stay two nights at Dalmia ji’s house, watch films, do some shopping and go back. So for us going to Amritsar was like a long weekend holiday.” It was only after the 1965 war that things became what they did, coming to a situation when getting a visa for Pakistan or India is one of the toughest things to achieve on this earth. One can feel the poignancy of the situation for Asma now, in what Dr. Syeda Hameed recounts in her tribute – when she met Asma last in November 2017, and asked her to come to India on her multiple-entry visa, she responded by saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about all of us here on this side of the border. Ab dil nahiin chaahta.” Many others had been denied visas for family weddings, personal bereavements and for Jashn-e-Rekhta – how, then, could she be in the spirit to come as a special privilege on account of her multiple-entry visa when others could not?
Having been a part of a Peace March to Pakistan (in 2005) and witnessed first-hand the warmth of the people there, having heard the stories of families yearning for visas to visit relatives and yet been unable to do so for years, one can realize what Asma Jahangir meant. It is, indeed, sad that people-to-people contact is not encouraged as a means to normalize relations between the two nations. Allowing people to meet would help them understand each other, be more in sync with each other, and remove misconceptions about each other – and that perhaps is what doesn’t suit those in power.
Pugnacious tenacity and a legacy that will live on
Anything about Asma Jahangir has to wind its way towards a conclusion on a note that recalls her pugnacious tenacity – and her lasting legacy. One can’t but recall the irony inherent in what Ammar Sheikh says at the very outset of his obituary in ‘The Express Tribune’ – “Dictators couldn’t break her. Terrorists couldn’t scare her. In the end, it was her own heart that took her.” And one realizes what deep faith Asma Jahangir had in genuine fighters for human rights when she says, “you will not find one person who has been in the old civil rights movement who has been co-opted…. because convictions don’t simply come from reading a book, they come by living it, by suffering through it, and the more you suffer, the more convinced you get.”
The fact that Asma Jahangir had the courage to call a spade a spade, confronting injustice whatever hue it came in, is indeed a quality to be found in very few, especially in the times we live in. She had the guts to call the army generals in Pakistan “duffers” on public television and the courage of conviction to ask straight questions of Bal Thackeray right to his face when she met him at his house in March 2008 as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, an encounter recalled in an article by peace activist Jatin Desai who was right there when this happened. This quality of being bold, forthright, frank and honest in opinions is a quality only the truly brave and the fearless have.
If one recalls well, it was Shabnam Hashmi who had said in that gathering to pay tributes to Asma in Delhi on February 15, 2018 that she had left us at a time when we in India could learn a lot from her experience of how to live with, handle and confront a regime with authoritarian tendencies – a prospect that is apparently looming large in our country.
The legacy of Asma Jahangir would surely live on. Indeed, she herself lives on in all those she has inspired to work for peace, justice, friendship and mutual understanding (just as she herself was inspired by “older people who have struggled all their lives, spent years in jails, living modestly…. our role models.”). Her funeral in Lahore proved this with regard to women’s rights to equality and justice, and the ‘Friends of Asma’ meeting in Delhi after her demise to remember and celebrate her life was proof of this in terms of her cherished goal of peace and friendship between the two nations. And what greater proof that she lives on and inspires fighters for justice than that just a few days after she left us, in a university in my city of Rohtak, girls sitting on a dharna for around seven hours right through the cold night up to around 1.30 AM, were able to win their demands about change of timings for entry into their hostels and other allied rights – it seemed that as they fought for their rightful demands, the very spirit of Asma had entered their physical forms and goaded them to push relentlessly for what was their right!
As peace activists gather at Wagah Border on August 14-15 this year, endeavouring to carry forward the legacy of another advocate of peace in South Asia, especially between India and Pakistan, one would surely feel the ‘absent presence’ not just of Kuldip Nayar who, since the turn of this century, year after year, on August 14-15, led peace activists to light candles at the Wagah-Attari Border but also of ASMA JAHANGIR who was no less an advocate of peace between the two countries.
Having never met Asma Jahangir, one still feels close to her, for one cherishes the legacy she has left us and the values she embodies.
Ramnik Mohan Formerly an Associate Professor, the author is an occasional freelance writer and translator based in Rohtak and actively engaged with issues of socio-cultural concern.