The passing away of Mr I A Rehman who was also fondly referred as Rehman Saheb, founder of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a truly people’s Commission on Human Rights is a big loss for the human rights movement in South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular. His was a voice that stood with its head high and with full conviction against the tyrannical regimes who violated people’s rights.

The work of the human rights defenders will always be measured in terms of the societies and repressive regimes they face. Both Asma Jahangir and I A Rehman became legend during their life time for persistently fighting the rights of the people in Pakistan at a time when brutal and oppressive Zia ul-Haq regime started Islamisation of Pakistan giving free hand to extra state actors rabidly seeking imposition of blasphemy laws and intimidating the minorities and the marginalised.

I A Rehman was originally a journalist who headed a Marxist leaning newspaper once upon a time and a strong votary of India-Pakistan peace and friendship. It was in 1970s that he persistently spoke against the brutalities of the Pakistani army in East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. He was an intellectual who flourished in the company of legendary Faiz Ahmed Faiz and other such luminaries. Rehman Saheb mentored a large number of human rights defenders particularly those in the media and social action. His was the voice of conscience and hence spoke with great courage and conviction.

Though he was known as a fiercely independent writer and journalist his work became more challenging in the 1980s when the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq started rapid Islamisation campaign in Pakistan by changing the constitution and introducing the Sharia laws. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan ( a non governmental organisation) came into existence during Zia’s regime when the government started harassing and intimidating the opposition leaders, human rights activists, freethinkers, writers and journalists who spoke truth to the power. Zia’s regime brought some of the most regressive laws in Pakistan which were aimed at targeting the minorities and which were used by the Islamic fundamentalists with the blessings of the state apparatus. Thus, Ahmadis and Christians who are actually Dalits in Pakistan, became the biggest victim of the tyrannical Zia regime. The Hudood laws, Blasphemy laws were misused by the regime massively. It was the time when most of the writers, activists and political opponents were jailed by the Marshal law regime of Zia-ul-Haq.

I A Rehman was widely respected person in the Human Rights circles as well as that of the civil liberties in South Asia. Unfortunately, given the nature of successive regimes and governments in our countries particularly in India and Pakistan, it has been difficult for the peace activists to work when the majoritarianism masquerade as nationalism or vice versa. Peace activists or Human Rights defender become the main villain and therefore easy target of the media and ‘intelligence’ agencies.

I had no opportunity to meet him and many like him but I followed his writings, read his reports, reviewed some of the reports published by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. While a personally knowing some can be an asset, many of the legends we never met but known to us through their writings and extraordinary work. It was extremely difficult circumstances that the human rights defenders in Pakistan worked and I must salute to their courage and conviction. Most of them have been mentored by Rehman Saheb.

Pakistan’s #blasphemy laws are a tool to harass and intimidate the minorities. A young university student Mashal Khan was lynched several years back. There are many other cases of blasphemy which HRCP fought. Writing in Dawn, he said : This is the crux of the problem. Unless murder is treated as murder, and terrorism as terrorism, regardless of the holy robes sported by the vigilante brigade, the threat of a doomsday scenario hinted at by the Supreme Court will persist”.

India’s #cowprotectionlaws or anti conversion laws or beef campaign resonate to Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws as all these laws intend to intimidate and humiliate the minorities in our respective countries. It is people like IA Rehman who provide hopes to people even in these difficult time when state and extra state actors have joined hand to suppress people’s voices and deny them human rights. Though Rehman Saheb died at the age of 90 yet the Human Rights and Civil Liberty movement in Pakistan and South Asia will not remain the same. We hope those who are inspired by his vision and action will continue to devote their time and energy for the betterment of our societies. People can fight tyrannical regimes and dictators but when society become brutal and celebrate lynching and murders then we must realise that it has become sick and need powerful voices of sanity and vision such as I A Rehman. That way, we have lost a legend who could speak truth to power.

Our salute to #IARehman

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist


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