Asma Jehangir, Indian Airforce

Asma Jehangir

The name of Asma Jehangir, human rights activist, commands respect, admiration and affection in the Indian sub-continent- comprising India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. She has fought numerous cases against the Pakistan government to uphold the rights of minorities like Christians and Hindus.

She once saved a Christian boy of 12, sentenced to death for blasphemy from being hanged; she has saved women charged with adultery from being stoned to death; she leads agitations against public flogging, executions and chopping off of limbs ordained by hooded ordinances promulgated during the regime of President Zia-ul Haq. Mullah elements hate her guts.

Murderous attempts to kill her and her family were made. She has had to send her children abroad for safety. She has been beaten up and jailed. Nevertheless for the vast majority of Pakistanis Asma Jehangir has become the voice of sanity in an atmosphere fouled by religious bigotry. She has been loaded with honours which include Sitara-i-lmtiaz, Martin Ennals and the Magsaysay Award for defence of human rights.

Asma Jehangir was born in Lahore to Malik Ghulam Jilani who was then a civil servant. When Field Marshall Ayub Khan seized the reigns of power in Pakistan, numerous politicians were 'ebdoed' including Mumtaz Daultana. Not caring much for the political 'etiquette' of the day, Jilani threw a dinner party in honour of Daultana. This act of defiance carried huge repercussions for Jilani and he subsequently resigned from the civil service because he found it morally unacceptable to work under a martial law set-up. This was the beginning of almost constant harassment for Jilani and his family: their land-leases were cancelled - which had become the family's sole source of income at that point - and an attempt was made on Jilani's life. His imprisonment followed soon after.

His incarceration became his daughter Asma's first tryst with the judicial establishment of the country eventually culminating in a lifetime's involvement with the law and the rights of the victimised. Asma Jehangir went on to make legal history when her case - wherein she challenged the legality of martial law - went all the way to the Supreme Court. Asma Jilani vs the State became a landmark case in the annals of Pakistan's judicial history.

In Dec 1997, Asma talked about her philosophy on life, her early years, the function of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the state of the nation:

"First of all, I think there is a kind of misconception that I have devoted my whole life to human rights work. I think I have other things and other people whom I value in my life, that I spend my time on. I have my friends and my family, and I really don't look upon it as a mission that I am devoting my life to. I look upon it as a part of life. I am often surprised that this is not a part of other people's life. Because you come upon injustices all the time, so I have really never thought of it as il have made up my mind and this is what I going to do, this is my mission or something like that.' It has never occurred to me in that fashion.

"My upbringing was in a household that was politically very aware and we were part of the struggle my father went through; so that kind of training, that kind of an awareness and sensitivity was always there. Our upbringing definitely did sensitise us to people because at a very early age, it exposed to me injustices that most people of my generation and my class were protected at that time.

"The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) basically started because some of us were individually working just for political rights - at that time there was no mention of human rights - and we found that some of the things we did collectively, like the release of Jam Saqi, did have an effect so we felt that if we were to sit together, with one voice, we would be less vulnerable and we would have more effect. And then we went on to think it should not be confined to political rights, it should also include all other rights, such as the rights of women, of minorities and children.

"I must say that the 10 years I have worked with the people of HRCP, whether they are council members or ordinary members, I have never felt so satisfied in my life. These are all people who are totally committed to the cause. HRCP wasn't an NGO that was made because one had to make an NGO. It was a movement. I like it because I find no lack of commitment in people there. There are disagreements but there are no disagreements on principles. Plus, these are people with political experience who have had some struggle behind them and are, therefore, more generous about people making mistakes. Since the forming of the HRCP, the human rights situation has not changed except perhaps that, now, there is a voice and perhaps now that voice is institutionalised."

"I find, that after these past 50 years, people are in a deep depression and we really have to address these issues. There was no spontaneous reaction from the people, no celebrations or festivities or anything of the kind. It is quite clear that the country is in a deep depression; and although we often feel that things can not get any worse than this, I feel, things can get much worse than this in the next few years. It could I get really bad.

"But, eventually things will have to get better. However, the way they will improve is not going to be because of the government or the elite leadership, or the political leadership, or the institutions of our country, most of which have actually crumbled. It will be the people of the country themselves who will bring about the change in society because they have had to struggle to fend for themselves at every level."

For many years Asma Jehangir held out India's secularism as a model for Pakistan and pleaded for amicable relations between the two countries. Elements hostile to India promptly dubbed her as an Indian agent. Asma Jeghangir was in Delhi in 1998. It was her first visit to India after the BJP government took over. In the couple of days she spent here she met a lot of people including government officials at parties in private homes. She expressed her anguish in no uncertain terms. "The atmosphere in India has changed,'' she said bitterly. ''The language people use is no longer secular; it is loaded with intolerance of other peoples' views and chauvinistic arrogance. It is no longer that India I admired and held out as a model to Pakistanis.''

Ms Asma Jehangir meets President Narayanan in Delhi, May 2000.

In May 2000, Asma Jehangir led a Pakistani women peace delegation to India. Families of the Prisoners of War and Chairman All India Anti-terrorist Front(AIATF), M.S. Bitta, met the Chairperson and other members of delegation. At the meeting, he also submitted a memorandum. The memorandum thanked Asma Jehangir for getting Indian prisoner, Roop Lal released. Names and details of all the 54 Prisoners of Wars were also handed over to the delegation. Also a request was made to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission to intervene in the matter and work for securing their release.