View From Abroad: Remembering Asma Jahangir in London

A FEW rare people transcend borders as they touch lives with their message of hope and courage. Such a person was the late, much-missed, Asma Jahangir whose life was celebrated at a recent event in London.

Organised by Bloomsbury Pakistan at the London School of Economics, it brought together the Indian Nobel laureate, Dr Amartya Sen, and Pakistan’s untiring crusader for human rights, I. A. Rehman, in a conversation on Asma’s life and work.

Before the main event, we heard about the launch of the Asma Jahangir Foundation from her journalist daughter Munizae. In her brief talk, she pointed out that Pakhtun students protesting against the military’s human rights violations were being charged with sedition, but no effective voice was being raised in their defence. Similarly, women, minorities and other vulnerable groups in Pakistan had lost their strongest defender when Asma suddenly left us last February.

Munizae also reminded us of the role played by her mother’s small law firm, AGHS, in drafting laws to end discrimination against minorities, and in taking on some 430 gratis cases to defend them.

Once established, the Foundation would provide access to justice through free legal representation for vulnerable and marginalised groups, and advocate the promotion of human rights in Pakistan and South Asia. Among other aims and objectives, it would also promote democratic values and peace initiatives in South Asian countries through advocacy and exchanges of people.

Moderated by Amber Darr, a Pakistani barrister, the conversation with Rehman and Sen flowed fluently, and was punctuated by amusing flashes of wit from both men. Describing her qualities, her friend and colleague, Rehman, said she had begun her resistance to injustice from an early age. She was thrown in jail with other women activists by Zia, and had been put under house arrest.

After successfully defending Salamat Masih, an innocent Christian boy accused of blasphemy at the Lahore High Court, she was attacked by enraged zealots who stoned her car. Armed intruders broke into her house. She was hit by police batons. But none of this deterred her from battling injustice and challenging the state. As Munizae had put it earlier, “she always got up to fight”.

Rehman recalled that Asma’s first reaction to news of a human rights violation was always a call for a demonstration: jaloos was her default position. She was easily the bravest person I have ever known, man or woman.

Despite the difference between Asma’s activism and Sen’s academic and intellectual pursuits, he pointed to the similarities in their goals. Both wanted a more equal and just society based on the rule of law. When asked about the possibility of a peaceful South Asia, he thought it would happen one day, but not for some time.

During the discussion, a portrait of Asma was projected on a large screen with a quotation from her: “Eventually, things will have to get better.” Obviously, you cannot rally support for a cause without offering hope.

And yet, current trends point in the opposite direction, not just in Pakistan and the region, but the world over. There is growing concern about countries that have regular elections, but are increasingly authoritarian. Liberal values that have tolerance and the rule of law at their core are shrinking. According to the Democracy Index published regularly by The Economist Intelligence Unit, 89 democracies regressed in democratic norms, and only 27 progressed.

The ongoing pressure on the media in Pakistan, accompanied by recurring attacks on political activists by both extremist groups and organs of the deep state, has many parallels in other countries. Turkey has jailed or sacked some 200,000 people accused of being members of the Gulenists, the group accused of attempting a botched coup against Erdogan. Scores of journalists are in jail on trumped up charges. Venezuela and Nicaragua have cracked down viciously on the opposition.

While the factors that lead to the retreat of democratic values differ from country to country, the desire of autocrats to hang on to power to protect their grip and their wealth is something they generally share. The first casualty is usually a free media; next comes an independent judiciary; and finally, a crackdown on the opposition. To keep other players onside, free rein is given to corruption so they have a stake in the emerging autocracy that, while maintaining a democratic façade, has effectively discarded the rule of law.

The Economist describes the decline of democracy thus: “First, a crisis occurs and voters back a charismatic leader who promises to save them. Second, the leader finds enemies. His aim, in the words of H.L. Mencken, a 20th century American wit, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed … by an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’. Third, he nibbles all the institutions that might get in his way. Finally, he changes the rules to make it harder for voters to dislodge him. During the first three stages, his country is still a democracy. At some point in the final stage, it ceases to be one…”

There was a time after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War nearly three decades ago that a number of countries emerged from autocratic rule and held elections. There was a sense of euphoria over this transformation, with the hope that democracy would lead to greater peace and prosperity. But somehow, most emerging economies failed to translate these gains into a better life for their people, creating a sense of disillusionment and growing support for military rule.

Asma would have disagreed, arguing that the worst form of democracy is better than the best kind of dictatorship. But she was a romantic who wanted to change the world. Pakistan and South Asia are poorer for her departure.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2018