Asma अब भी जिंदा है! (Ab bhi Zinda hai!) Asma is still Alive!

A personal tribute on International Womens Day …. if we in Pakistan can fight our dictators, you should be able to fight your politicians!


In October 2013 I had the privilege of hearing and greeting in person an individual so many of us admire.  A decade later what remains fresh in my mind is her wonderful personality, those bright sparkling eyes with a glint of impishness in them, her strength and charm. Asma Jahangir, as the flier about her talk stated, was an “Internationally renowned human rights lawyer and the president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan”. She delivered the inaugural   ‘Mahomedali Habib Distinguished Lecture’ in Berkeley. 

I went early to convey to her the respect and admiration of so many of us, in Bombay and in the US, especially those who were not able to attend. I am glad I did so before the lecture as she was surrounded by a throng of people after it. A hall filled with expectant supporters, with many crowding the adjoining corridor, greeted her with a long standing ovation when she came to the podium. I took notes and summarised her talk to write an account of it for friends here and in the subcontinent.

She grinned and said she was very appreciative of the applause and doubted she would get it in Pakistan! She said she would never leave Pakistan, she loved it passionately and was also passionately angry with it. “You can only get angry with your own” she remarked. She scoffed at the idea that ‘human rights’ is a Western concept, and said that the US uses it as both a carrot and a stick as it deems necessary.

To repression in Pakistan there has been resistance. No dictatorship has lasted more than decade, unlike in the Arab world where they were saddled with them for many, many years. She enumerated the problems facing Pakistan:

Self denial: of encouraging jihadis, all events attributed to RAW (the Indian equivalent of the CIA) or Israel, the myth that Osama bin Laden was never in Pakistan and so on. History that is taught is full of lies and encourages hatred of neighbouring countries. The myth of the Ummah helping each and every Muslim. “Tell that to the laborer in Saudi Arabia” she declared.  The myth that military dictatorships are honest etc.

Terrorism: Middle East money keeps the ‘Jihad‘ alive. The US began the phenomenon of ‘disappearances’ with Guantanamo, and  the Pakistani military  followed with Baluchis getting ‘disappeared’. Terrorists  are allowed to act with impunity. The military uses jihadi elements to ‘promote national security’. Peace activists  are denounced as ‘traitors’                       

Economic Stagnation: Increasing poverty a result of the policies of US and Pakistani leaders. Rampant unemployment, the very poor are hurting a lot, and the middle class is being wiped out.

Pakistan becomes ‘secluded’ further aggravating these problems.

Education MUST make people aware of the ugliness of life around them, of the actual situation not a fictional one.

She said the question of whether peace should precede justice or vice versa was the wrong one, both must go hand in hand.

 She was against drone attacks, remarking that there was no legal framework under which they take place. Politicians denounce drone attacks. They must also denounce, with a scream if need be, the killings of the Taliban.

A major problem was unaccountable/unrepresentative government. Even elected governments do not feel obliged to be accountable.

She had some words of praise for the recent civilian governments: notwithstanding all their faults.  They have devolved power to the provinces. Also opposition politicians are not imprisoned.  But sycophancy is a HUGE problem. She recounted incidents when ministers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government were present at a meeting she attended.  One Minister asked her to speak to the President and Prime Minister. She retorted: “why don’t you do so, you are a cabinet minister?” They do not feel comfortable bringing anything critical to their leaders” she added.

She described how Zia ul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ had encouraged smuggling, torture and equated criticism with treason. Article 62 of the Constitution Zia promulgated states that only a Muslim who fasts, prays, goes on Hajj and so on can be elected. No other constitution in the world has similar requirements. He also enacted the law on blasphemy.

Prior to that from 1947 to 1986 there were only two cases of blasphemy; now  (2013) they have multiplied in droves. Religions don’t have rights, people have rights, she asserted.

She pointed out that Pakistan has ‘separate electorates’; only Hindus can vote for Hindus, Muslims for Muslims, Christians for Christians. Thus a Hindu candidate would have to travel all across Pakistan to reach his voters. This is very expensive and difficult to do, hence the government selects the Hindus who are then elected and of course are not independent in their opinions.

There were no easy solutions for Pakistan, there were however several bright spots, the resistance that led to dictatorial regimes being overthrown, that though Islamists are pampered by the ruling elites, they get very few votes whenever elections are held.

There was a need to strengthen institutions and make them accountable. The military MUST be under civilian control. The direct military to military relationship the US had with Pakistan undermines civilian authority. This imperialist policy distorts Pakistan’s polity.

In the Introduction that preceded the talk and the Q and A that followed one learnt more about this incredibly courageous woman with a wry sense of humour. In 1981, a small group of women led by her opposed the notorious ‘hudood ordinance’. This was an anti-women ordinance since its application resulted in women being convicted of adultery/fornication if they reported a case of rape, as their report was treated as a confession. Furthermore, in addition to other problems created by these laws, their judicial application also made it easier to get away with crimes against women such as honour killings and general degradation and humiliation of women in society. 

Asma was beaten and jailed for her dissent, indeed she has been imprisoned several times.  She attributed her activism to her father who too was jailed for seven years and who was deeply concerned about fundamental rights, constitutional norms etc.

She has been the target of quite a few assassination attempts including one by the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), a fact confirmed by the documents recently revealed by Edward Snowden. She had called the military ‘duffers’ on national TV. Asked why she had done so, she said, “well they are duffers, they have failed in every policy they have pursued, economic, foreign affairs, security, and if they think they can stop what I fight for by killing me they won’t. Another indication that they are duffers!” 

She warned that Pakistan’s post-Afghanistan US policy must be thought through and the military role reduced. She advised getting along with neighbours, though there are problems with Afghanistan and India these had to be sorted out. The military has not changed its anti-India stance or its discounting of civilian leadership.

To a questioner who asked her what she had to say about Indian democracy and its problems, she replied: Indian democracy is old and aging!  “But”, she continued “I respect it, India is such a large country and it remains secular and democratic. As far as the problems are concerned, if we in Pakistan can fight our dictators, you should be able to fight your politicians!” 

 Remember she said this in 2013, a decade later India’s secular polity is so much weaker hence it is very  important to remember and act on her advice:

…. if we in Pakistan can fight our dictators, you should be able to fight your politicians!

And the slogan raised in protests in India against the CAA (Citizens Amendment Act) referring to Gandhiji fits her for sure:

Asma  अब भी जिंदा है! (Ab bhi Zinda hai!) Asma is still Alive!

Happy International Women’s Day and be inspired to ACT as you Celebrate the Memory and Achievements of Asma Jahangir!!!!

And Asma’s Spirit Lives On for sure….

As if by some miracle, Asma ‘conveyed’ her spirit in this 25 minutes interview recorded on March 6, 2023 and I strongly recommend that you take the time to view it. It features Chizu Hamada , (No Nukes Action Committee), and Carol Hisasue (Mothers for Peace in San Louis Obispo). The two women speak with passion, honesty, knowledge, insight and wit.

They discuss the Fukushima Catastrophe which continues 12 Years after the meltdowns. The melted nuclear rods have still not been removed…. The government plans to dump 1.3 million tons of tritium laced water into the Pacific has met with opposition from within and outside Japan….

Chizu Hamada and Carol Hisasue are living proof that Asma’s spirit is alive. They are truly the global citizens our species sorely needs… And whether in Japan or Pakistan,

John Donne’s words apply: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls……

(This was written on the night March 7, 2023as it will be the March 8 in much of the world!)


Remembering Asma Jahangir : A Legacy to Cherish

Asma Jahangir: Leaving her track on many stars and planets

Asma Jahangir: In death, as in life



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