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Asma’s legacy

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IT is exactly a year ago that one of the bravest daughters of Pakistan, Asma Jahangir, passed away suddenly and quietly.

A redoubtable defender of human rights and democratic values, champion of the downtrodden, and fierce opponent of repressive forces, she was, true to form, fighting the good fight to the end. Even today, indeed especially today, her voice is needed more than ever.

One may be sure that the ongoing campaign to silence rights activists, muzzle the media, and promote a narrow nationalism, would not have intimidated Asma one whit.

After all, she had been schooled in the politics of resistance very early; as a young woman she took on Gen Yahya Khan’s martial law regime in order to have her activist father released from prison. She was a thorn in the side of the next military dictator too, fighting on the streets and in the courts his myriad misogynistic edicts and violations of people’s rights, violations that characterise the ascendancy of anti-democratic forces.

Civilian governments were not insulated from her uncompromising sense of justice either. When the previous PML-N government criticised Bangladesh for executing two opposition politicians after “flawed trials”, she promptly called out its double standards given its silence on the unfair trials in which Pakistan’s own citizens were being sentenced to death — a reference, in part, to military courts.

Asma’s courage and indomitable will aside, it was her sense of justice that must continue to inspire all those who seek a more equitable society.

Individual freedoms, she believed, must be protected at all costs. She was undeterred by labels of being a traitor to her religion and her country, the usual emotive tropes so beloved of bigots and hyper-nationalists. When the National Assembly, to its enduring shame, listened in silence while the then prime minister’s son-in-law launched into vile invective against a persecuted religious minority, it was Asma who denounced him for his hate speech.

It was also Asma who represented MQM supremo Altaf Hussain after the Lahore High Court banned the media from covering the party’s activities. In so doing, she was defending a basic tenet of democracy — freedom of speech — that everyone, including the MQM, is entitled to no matter what their politics.

On that principle she would not compromise, even while faced with angry denunciations from a section of her own fraternity. Asma spoke truth to power, and we must continue her legacy.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2019

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