THOUGH small in stature, Asma Jahangir stood tall against the usurpers and bigots who were her biggest nemesis. They were scared of her. Her relentless fight for justice and for the rights of the people made those in power uneasy. Her fearlessness made them shudder. Her quest for regional peace earned her the wrath of the warmongers.
She was the conscience of a nation that has produced few icons whom the people can look towards for inspiration. In her death the country may have lost its bravest soul and a fearless street fighter, but her legacy lives on. The principles Asma stood for and the causes she championed are very much alive.
Therefore, it is not surprising that while her passing is being mourned across the region and religious divide, there are also some who have not spared her even in death. The kind of filth spewed against her in the social media reflects a sickening mindset of powerful interest groups who were challenged by Asma. They ran a concerted campaign against her when she was alive, but this campaign has become even more vicious after her death. They are afraid of the legacy of struggle she has left behind. She was among the few Pakistanis who also won international acclaim for her struggle for human rights.
Asma’s courage has been recognised here and abroad, notwithstanding the vitriol spewed by regressive forces.
Indeed, religion and patriotism are two major weapons in their arsenal that they use in their venomous propaganda campaign against her. There is certainly nothing new about this. They know they can’t attack her for her struggle for democracy and justice. Hence these issues come in handy. The adage that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ fits well in this case.
There is no mystery about who is spearheading this social media campaign. What is, however, more disconcerting is how young minds are being polluted in the name of nationalism and patriotism by some elements. Among them are also members of mainstream political parties. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the narrow notion of national security and nationalism can be branded ‘unpatriotic’ by the so-called defenders of our ideological boundaries.
Indeed, Asma relentlessly fought against every military regime and struggled for democracy and civilian supremacy. That certainly did not please the so-called patriotic elements. Her campaign against forced disappearances and her criticism of security agencies’ role have also been used to question her patriotism. Nothing could be more ridiculous than that.
In fact, her struggle gave hope to the alienated people of Balochistan of getting justice and civil liberties. On her death, Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister of Balochistan, tweeted: “Balochistan is forever in your debt.” The remarks also represented the sentiments of the Baloch population towards her for raising a voice for their rights at the national level. She became a symbol of the national unity that our so-called patriots and nationalist chauvinists have never been able to fathom.
And it was not just Balochistan; Asma was there to support any struggle for democratic and civil rights. Her last speech was at the Pakhtun long march in Islamabad. Organised by a group of Pakhtun students and young activists, the protests triggered by the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a staged police encounter in Karachi last month became a forum for the demonstration of grievances of the population affected by the conflict in the tribal areas.
Hundreds of people are known to have become victims of enforced disappearances. Such a policy cannot help win the hearts and minds of the people who have suffered massive destruction and displacement from their homes. Those assembled in Islamabad were not militants; they were victims of war in their areas. They were not sure whether the state has really changed its policy of ‘good Taliban/bad Taliban’.
That concern is witnessed in many other parts. Asma shared their concerns and anger over indiscriminate action against the Pakhtuns in other parts of the country. Like many other progressive public figures, Asma had been a strong critic of the disastrous state policy of using militancy as a tool of foreign policy that cost Pakistan massively, both in terms of human lives and the economy.
Asma’s campaign for normalisation of relations with India had also become a major issue for the nationalist brigade. They also used this to question her patriotism. An old newspaper picture of her with India’s extremist Hindu leader Bal Thackeray resurfaced on social media, though she had met him in her capacity as the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion investigating violence against Muslims in India. What these zealots have forgotten is that Asma also raised her voice against Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir.
She had long been targeted by the extremist Islamist groups for her unrelenting campaign for women rights and the misuse of the blasphemy laws. This is also being used against her in the latest social media campaign. She was never intimidated by the extremist onslaught despite the serious threat to her life. She never left the country; that demonstrates her courage and fearlessness.
As she said in an interview that whatever she did she never deviated from her core principles; she never sought glory or ever tried to benefit from adversity. Her courage has certainly been recognised by the people here and by the international community, notwithstanding the vitriol spewed by the forces of regression that are not willing to let go of their obscurantist worldview. These are the same people who glorify murder in the name of faith. The way Mashal Khan’s murderers were lionised is a horrific manifestation of the rising religious extremism against which Asma stood up.
These are the same elements that have been running a concerted campaign against Malala, another international icon of courage. The young Nobel Prize winner has been accused of being a Western agent. They don’t want to see how these two brave women raised Pakistan’s image. As one American writer has pointed out, Pakistanis often complain about the bad image of their country being projected in the international media, but they refuse to see what they are doing to those who present the dynamic face of their country. These are the people who are afraid of Asma’s legacy.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2018