Celebrating Asma Jahangir

Hafiz Saeed, chief of the banned terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) recently addressed a seminar organised by the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA). The LeT may have resurfaced under the garb of a ‘charity’ organisation – the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) – but it is no secret that this terrorist network has carried out several attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Saeed is one of the most wanted men in India, yet he has been acquitted by a Pakistani court due to ‘lack of evidence’. So, when a man of Saeed’s dubious credentials is allowed, nay invited, to address a gathering of our legal fraternity, it shakes one’s faith in our justice system.

But all is not lost yet. There is still a silver lining. Despite the dominance of right-wing groups in our legal fraternity, we still have many liberal, progressive and secular stalwarts amongst the lawyers’ community. Asma Jahangir is one such name.

It was a historic day when Asma Jahangir became the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) after a closely contested election on October 27, 2010. This was not an ordinary contest. In the past the SCBA elections were fought between various factions of the lawyers’ community who were divided on the basis of ethnicity, biradari system, political ideologies, etc. This year’s elections were different. A dirty smear campaign was started by Asma Jahangir’s opponents to malign her character and question her patriotism. Never had such low tactics been deployed as in this election. By putting up her candidature in the SCBA elections, Asma had put at stake her prestige and struggle of the last four decades. There were allegations that Ms Jahangir was the PPP government’s candidate even though there was no truth to such reports. These rumours were circulated to lower her chances of winning, mainly due to a strong anti-PPP lobby within the ranks of the lawyers’ community.

The recent SCBA election was held in the backdrop of the tussle between the executive and the judiciary, which reached its peak on the implementation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) verdict, 18th Amendment case, and other issues. The delay in the restoration of the judiciary by the PPP-led coalition government soured relations between the judiciary and the incumbent executive. After the restoration, the Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan was on a high moral ground and had great public support. He had a clear mission, which he pursued without any obstacles due to the space provided under a democratic set-up. When the restored judiciary began to hear petitions against the government, it created uncertainty about the future of the democratic set-up. Constitutional and legal experts expressed their disagreement over some of the perceived excesses of the Supreme Court (SC). Asma Jahangir was one of those legal stalwarts who raised her voice against judicial activism and warned of an impending judicial dictatorship if things were not sorted out. Unfortunately, a section of the media launched a counter-campaign against those who were discussing various judgements in a fair and balanced manner. The former president of the SCBA, Qazi Anwar, and his team became one-sided and it looked as if the SCBA was an instrument of the judiciary in its fight against the executive. It was in this backdrop that Asma’s candidature was portrayed as representing the PPP government. All the secular lawyers campaigned for Asma because they wanted to reform the judicial system instead of allowing it to be hijacked by reactionary forces.

We saw how a discussion on the Objectives Resolution created such a hue and cry in the apex court while a point pertaining to parliament’s power to amend laws was challenged by a senior judge who said that “western parliaments declared homosexuality and same sex marriages lawful. Can we contract such marriage? The powers of our parliament are not limitless”. With all due respect to his lordship, in a country like Pakistan, no government would dare to legalise same sex marriage even when exercising its ‘limitless’ powers. When a government cannot even repeal laws that deserve to be thrown out of our statute books such as the draconian Hudood Ordinance, Blasphemy Law or the Second Amendment pertaining to the Ahmedis, how can we even expect it to do something as radical as legalising homosexuality? As for our bar associations, most of them have a conservative worldview. Thus, Asma’s victory was a cause for celebration since it was not just unprecedented but a victory for all those who want to see Pakistan transform into a progressive state. We must also acknowledge the fact that Asma Jahangir put her life in danger by contesting the SCBA elections. A pamphlet titled ‘Asma Jahangir: Adalat-e-Uzma ke khilaaf targeted missile’ (Asma Jahangir: a targeted missile against the Supreme Court) was published by the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Lawyers Forum and circulated days before the SCBA elections were to take place. The pamphlet was downright vicious and inflammatory. This was a ploy by Asma’s opponents to discredit her. Her opponents were so sure of winning that they had actually called a Seerat Conference at the Lahore High Court a day after the elections to celebrate their victory. What is alarming though, is that at the said conference, which included speakers like former ISI chief General Hamid Gul, Jamaat-e-Islami chief Munawar Hasan, a fatwa (decree) against Asma was going to be announced. When Asma won the elections, the conference was cancelled. Had Asma lost and the conference been held as planned, her life would have been in grave danger.

Asma Jahangir’s only ‘sin’ is that she has been a vociferous campaigner for secularism, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, peace and democracy, apart from having radical views on civil-military relations. She has been a critic of all military dictators but at the same time she has never shied away from pointing out the mistakes committed by democratic governments, including that of Benazir Bhutto’s two tenures despite the fact that BB was a close friend of hers. Ms Jahangir has always taken a principled stand and not been afraid of any threats that come her way. It is indeed our misfortune that a woman who has been honoured internationally on many a forum for her outstanding work in raising human rights issues is treated with disdain by some people in her own country. It is time to make amends. It is time to celebrate Asma Jahangir not just as an individual but as a movement – a movement for a secular, democratic, progressive Pakistan.

(Originally published here)


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