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Asma Jehangir passes away

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‘An indomitable will’ – why Asma Jahangir was Pakistan’s social conscience

The formidable human rights lawyer and activist died on Sunday having spent her life fighting against religious extremism and for the rights of women and oppressed minorities

‘A legal watchdog and a political fighter’ ... Asma Jahangir.
‘A legal watchdog and a political fighter’ … Asma Jahangir. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

She stood a smidgen over 5ft and had fine, delicate bones. But the bird-like frame contained a courageous heart, an indomitable will and an unflagging social conscience. The death of Asma Jahangir, the Pakistani activist, lawyer and human rights campaigner who passed away on Sunday after suffering a cardiac arrest at her home in Lahore, has left a nation reeling with a profound sense of loss.

Looking through social media I am not surprised by the number of tributes to her, but by the fact that they come from her detractors as well as her supporters. The conservatives who branded her a traitor until last week are now acknowledging her courage. Whether that is out of political expediency or genuine feeling I cannot say. But for the besieged liberal community and the religious minorities of Pakistan, she was indispensable. When plainclothes security men barrelled into my sister’s home one night in 1999, dragging away my journalist brother-in-law at gunpoint, the first person she called was Asma. That’s how it was. If you wanted someone in your corner, you called Asma. And she would respond at once.

When I heard the news of her death, my first thought, regrettably, was for myself: “Who will have our backs now?” I was not the only one. A legal watchdog and a political fighter, Jahangir patrolled the rights of secular liberals, religious minorities, the politically disenfranchised, wronged women, abused children; she even fought for the constitutional rights of the very same religious extremists and hard-right nationalists who would have had her silenced.

Jahangir was six years old when her politician father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, opposed Ayub Khan’s martial law in 1958. In 1971, when her father was arrested by another military dictator, Yahya Khan, the teenage girl filed a petition for his release in the Lahore high court: Asma Jilani v the government of the Punjab.

“Courts were not new to me,” she joked with her customary levity. “Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Multan. He remained in jail in Bannu. But we were not allowed to go see him there. We always saw him in courts. So for me, the courts were a place where you dressed up to see your father. It had a very nice feeling to it.”

The Lahore high court dismissed her petition. Undaunted, Jahangir appealed to the supreme court. In 1972, after Khan’s dictatorship had ended, the court decided it had been illegal and declared him a usurper. Jahangir had won her first case.

She began her legal career as a family lawyer. In 1980, along with her sister Hina Jilani and two friends, she set up a firm specialising in divorce, maintenance payments and custodial cases. It was her work with women that brought her to politics. She realised early on that while it was important to fight for oppressed individuals, what was needed was institutional reform and societal change. So when Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s third military dictator, amended the constitution to discriminate against women and religious minorities under the guise of an Islamising agenda, Jahangir publicly challenged his ordinance, questioning its moral underpinnings. He was a brutal dictator with a taste for public floggings who responded by slapping a blasphemy case against her, yet she did not shy away from the fight. Many years later, she wrote: “We may fight terrorism through brute force, but the terror that is unleashed in the name of religion can only be challenged through moral courage.”

Jahangir addresses a 2009 rally in Lahore, protesting against the public flogging of a veiled woman.
Jahangir addresses a 2009 rally in Lahore, protesting against the public flogging of a veiled woman. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

She was never lacking in that moral courage. Or in the energy required to pursue the goals she set herself. The list of her accomplishments goes on and on. A founder member of Women’s Action Forum and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; a long-serving UN special rapporteur on human rights; the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. She opened the first legal aid centre and refuge for battered women in Pakistan. She took on cases that nobody else would touch. She fought for poor Christians accused of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death, but which also put their defenders at risk of assassination at the hands of religious fanatics. In representing bonded labourers, she fought against institutionalised slavery, and in speaking for girls who wanted to marry of their own choice, took on centuries of misogynistic custom, earning the wrath of mullahs, urbane senators and tribal leaders alike.

What rattled her nationalist detractors the most was her consistent critique of human rights abuses in Pakistan. They labelled her a traitor and accused her of being an Indian spy or an American agent. Why couldn’t she highlight similar abuses in other countries? Why must she spread negative propaganda against Pakistan? The fact was that she did call out human rights abuses wherever she found them. She alerted the world to the plight of the Rohingyas, the Palestinians and the Kashmiris, but she was most exercised by atrocities at home. As she said in one interview: “I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris, but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is battered to death.”

Jahangir fought on many fronts, but perhaps her greatest ire was reserved for religious extremists and military dictators. She lampooned mullahs mercilessly, mocking their frizzy beards and fuzzy thinking. When other activists called out the ISI, Pakistan’s feared intelligence service, they did so cautiously, referring to it as “the deep state”, “the establishment” or “the powers that be”, knowing what every schoolchild in Pakistan knows: forced disappearances are a fact of life. But Jahangir alone had the courage to go on live television and say: “These duffers, these duffer generals … need to return to their barracks and stay there.” Her commitment to democracy was unwavering. She knew that however corrupt, venal or inefficient civilian leaders might be, they were always preferable to military dictators. “However flawed democracy is,” she told the New Yorker, “it is still the only answer.”

But while others in her place might have lain low for a while or quietly left the country for a spot of “family time”, Jahangir’s response was to go on the front foot. In 2012, she publicly accused intelligence and security agencies of trying to kill her and in so doing turned the spotlight on them. If there was one thing that made her anxious, it was the safety of her three children, whom she eventually sent abroad. But for herself, there was no question of going anywhere. She stayed in Lahore right till the very end, fighting the good fight.

No country for Afrazul

No country for Afrazul

Today Rajsamand is no faraway place. And the Shambhulals know they can get away with murder

Written by Syeda Hameed | Updated: December 12, 2017 11:06 am

rajasthan hacking, afrazul khan, Rajasthan hate crime, Rajsamand, Shambhulal, Indian express columnsShambhulal Regar, and (inset) Mohammed Afrazul.

As a member of the (erstwhile) Planning Commission, I looked after Rajasthan for 10 years as one of my three allocated states. After wandering all over the country, I wrote a book recording my experiences. The book was titled ‘Beautiful Country: Stories from Another India’. The India I saw was truly beautiful but mostly unseen because it was off the beaten circuit of media and tourism. I wrote about one such spot, Rajsamand, which is best known for the splendid Kumbhalgarh Fort surrounded by the longest wall second only to the wall of China. I stood looking at the wildlife sanctuary surrounding the Fort. I drove around the lovely Rajsamand Lake. A nearby village, Khelwara, seemed to me ideal for village-tourism where visitors would experience the lifestyle of Mewar. My Rajasthan chapter began with hope because I saw this state soar, leaving behind its BIMARU tag.

Today Rajsamand has got a new tag. It will go down in the history of world horrors as the spot where a man was hacked to death and burnt for his grievous sin of being Muslim.

Afrazul Khan was a migrant labourer from Malda district of West Bengal who for three decades was engaged in seasonal work in Rajasthan. The man who hacked and burnt him was Shambhulal Regar, described by Anand Shrivastava, IG Udaipur range, as someone with a “fairly successful marble trading business”. The very first reports show no previous connection between the two. The video, which by now has been watched across the world, shows Shambhulal taking him behind his bike as if to show him the job to be done. Afrazul Islam was carrying his tools, one of which was an axe. This became, in a matter of minutes, a weapon with he was hacked to death before being set on fire.

This incident was captured on camera. Then came the words. In videos shot after the murder, the murderer shouted into the camera: Love jihad, Babri Masjid, Hindu girls, Padmavati. He screamed revenge against “these people” who have polluted his land. He, Shambhulal, will dispense justice by hacking and burning a 48 year-old migrant labourer a lesson for the entire “quom”. Afrazul will pay for the sins of his people. This heinous act, which many are scared to watch, is not only witnessed but filmed by Regar’s 14 year-old nephew and uploaded for the world.

In college I had read a poem of W.B. Yeats called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Its opening line has been haunting me since yesterday. “This is no country for old men”, Yeats wrote before sailing away to saner lands. I tell myself in the same vein, this is no country for Muslims. But while there are many Rajsamands, there is no Byzantium.

This is no country for Afrazul’s wife Gulbahar, for his daughters Joshanara, Rejina and Habiba. Indeed, this is no country for the 200 plus migrant labourers from Malda who work here. Messages hailing the killer are doing the rounds. One says “Love jihadiyon savdhaan, jaag utha hai Shambhulal Jai Shri Ram”.

On the day Afrazul’s killing was reported, the media was filled with reports of hate crimes against Muslims. The Vadodara corporator and BJP candidate for Dabhoi Assembly, Shailesh Mehta, is reported to have said that the “dadhi-topi” population of Dabhoi must be reduced because “there should be no population of Dubai” in Dabhoi. What is being suggested in this campaign speech? Shambhulals are getting the official nod to continue their mission of hacking Afrazuls. Hysterical families from Saiyadpur in Malda are phoning, urging their breadwinners to leave these killing fields of Rajsamand.

These hate-Muslims-kill-Muslims incidents are reported almost daily. Leaders express “sympathy” and dole out cash but give the goons open license to kill so long as it is dadhi-topi they target. The police generally responds to the powerful.

Women and men of courage stand up to agitate. In this case, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch and 30 Rajasthan organisations have come forward to express their anguish. Activists from Delhi and other states are shouting ‘Muslim Lives Matter’.

This tragedy, too, will quickly fade from public memory in the cacophony of election results. Police will sink back into its habitual inertia, tick it off as another “dadhi-topi” case of “these people”. A few activists, journalists and lawyers will struggle to keep the issue alive. But the fabric of the nation, which began fraying with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, has been torn to shreds after a quarter century. A complicit state has looked the other way and the incendiary rhetoric has become legitimised.

The question before the hate merchants is: What to do with us Muslims? This huge population of dadhi-topi? All of us cannot be hacked and burnt or be ethnic-cleansed. But we can be beaten into submission, therefore hate crimes are allowed free run. Shambhulals know they can get away. Those who announce prizes for severed heads of dissenters are valorised, jallads are garlanded, killers are given perpetual license to kill.

As I write this piece, I think of my visit to Rajsamand and my dream of making it part of a tourist circuit. I think of my animated talks with district officials in the evenings after walking tours across the wonder spots of Rajsamand.

For Rajasthan, I had written a hopeful epigraph in my book — in the words of Allama Iqbal: “Tu shaheen hai, parvaaz hai kaam tera/ Tere saamne aasmaan aur bhi hain (You are a falcon your mission is to soar/ There are many skies you must scale yet)”.

All that seems very far away in 2017 when the bones of Afrazul Khan have been placed in a kafan in Malda — a gift of hatred from Rajsamand.

Today, Muslims and all those who stand with them need to recall Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Ya khauf se darguzrein ya jaan se guzar jaaein/ Marna hai ya jeena hai ek baat theher jaaye”. Either we banish fear or we die/ Decide once for all, will it be death or life.

The writer is a former member, Planning Commision


From The Indian Express
We the people

Babri demolition, 1992, involves us all. It was an attack on idea and promise enshrined in India’s Constitution.

Babri Masjid demolition, Babri masjid case, Prakash karat,“I was part of the political leadership that could see that concerted attempts were being made to pose a challenge to the “secular consensus” by the BJP.”

From the vantage point of the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, I can only marvel at the gargantuan shift in the fundamentals of the nation. Beginning from somewhere in the middle 1980s, I have seen the striking change in political developments significantly altering the spirit and the structures on which Indian nationalism had been founded. The political conjuncture of the years, 1989-92, constitutes a moment of rupture in contemporary Indian history. At one end, it saw the complete collapse of the “consensus” which was considered to be enshrined in secularism, socialism and a plural democratic polity.

And on the other end, we saw the triumphant rise of a Hindu right which has culminated as the most dominant force in the political discourse of present-day India. Beginning in the late 1980s, Indian politics has seen the sudden rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ascendance of a Hindu nationalist ideology. Moving from two to 85 parliamentary seats between 1984 and 1989, the Hindu right-wing party was catapulted onto the national political map, where it remained as the ruling party at the national level until May 2004. In a majority since 2014, it has posed the most comprehensive challenge to the secular-socialist fabric in India’s post-Independence history.

I was part of the political leadership that could see that concerted attempts were being made to pose a challenge to the “secular consensus” by the BJP and its ideological affiliates from the Sangh Parivar. I distinctly remember that in the National Integration Council meeting held days before the unfortunate demolition, L.K. Advaniji had assured the members that nothing shall happen to the mosque. In view of the massive communal-sectarian mobilisation all over north and western India, some of us had no reason to believe his words. In fact, we urged the Central government to send the army to Ayodhya-Faizabad. However, the then Central government apparently went by the assurance of BJP veterans and thus a 400 year-old mosque was demolished 25 years ago in 1992.

This event also initiated a new phase of sectarian violence and the targeting of the minorities, especially Muslims, in several cities across India. As the then chief minister of Bihar, I knew my priorities, and the combined strength of the people, administration and political will made sure that no episode of violence was reported in the state. However, the demolition constituted the first event that unequivocally conveyed that it was not simply an onslaught on a mosque but on the very idea of the rule of law upheld by a republican constitution.

In order to have a comprehensive understanding of why the Sangh Parivar and its outfits decided to go for mass mobilisation in the name of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, we need to look at August 1990 as the watershed moment for the backward and vulnerable sections of Indian society. The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990, providing for affirmative action for OBCs and the violent battles fought around the same, aimed at permanently altering the narrative of Indian politics. We could see the consolidation around this event, and a wide range of political parties articulating the concerns of Dalits and backward castes emerged as significant players in Indian politics. The assertion of backward classes rattled the Sangh Parivar which took inspiration from the exclusivist Manuvadi paradigm of M.S. Golwalkar conveyed through his book Bunch of Thoughts.

They knew at the core of their hearts that the subaltern consolidation across India in the wake of the Mandal commission’s implementation shall provide them with no space in the political arena. Thus, orchestrated campaigns like the shila pujan were a desperate attempt to counter the challenge posed by the awakening of the poor and the downtrodden. The mobilisation had nothing to do with Lord Ram, the Maryada Purushottam, but was meant to thwart the consolidation of the backward classes post-Mandal and stay relevant in politics by mixing faith with politics. They were partially successful when, following the destruction of the Babri mosque (1992), the Bombay riots (1993) and the establishment of a BJP-led coalition government (1998) soon followed.

However, India in 2017, after two decades and-a-half appears significantly changed from the India of 1992. During the ‘90s, we saw that the majoritarian mobilisation stood in strong contrast to the democratic churning of diverse, erstwhile marginalised groups on the political map. It was also observed that extremist forces, despite their capacity to wreck the social equilibrium on emotive issues, remained peripheral to India’s basic socio-political fabric firmly grounded on a well-entrenched pluralistic ethos. Though the 1992 Babri masjid demolition was illustrative of attempts to divide Indians on a singular identity, that is, religion, the political forces that spearheaded the campaign for Hindu consolidation remained peripheral in India, which was reflected in the loss of the BJP in the 2004 general elections and the subsequent victory of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2009.

What is most worrying about present-day India is that there is a marked shift in the political discourse, where there is not only greater acceptability of the idea of a “majoritarian homogenous cultural nationhood” but also the relegation of minorities and other vulnerable groups to the status of “non-citizens”. The brazen forms of majoritarian violence being unleashed on the people and communities on the margins through mob lynchings, cow vigilantism and religious assertions by the majority, are reflective of the transition India has undergone from the 1990s to the post-2014 political landscape.

This transition is also reflected in the political discourse. The entire discussion over the demolition of the Babri masjid has been repositioned as merely a dispute between two communities and a title suit over the land where the Babri masjid once stood. As somebody who has lived through these turbulent phases of history, I believe we must not hyphenate the Babri masjid demolition with Muslims alone. It was an attack on the very idea of “We the people”, the opening lines of our Preamble.

We are standing at a juncture in Indian democracy that might head towards the severe erosion of its pluralist character if we do not re-build a consensus all over again — that differences in opinion, faith, values, beliefs, and attitudes have to be accommodated and appreciated rather than suppressed. Twenty-five years later, the demolished medieval mosque seeks an answer from all of us: Will the India of Bapu’s dreams remain, or will it succumb to pressures from the ideology that assassinated him?

The writer is national president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and former chief minister of Bihar.


Ambedkar’s search for liberty, equality and fraternity

The house on Primrose Hill
Ananya Vajpeyi OCTOBER 13, 2017


The search for freedom can take many forms that need not be overtly ‘political’. | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou
Underlying Ambedkar’s crusade to annihilate caste was a fundamental desire for freedom

On October 14, 1956, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism during a massive public ceremony held in Nagpur, at a place thereafter named Deeksha Bhoomi. He took Buddhist vows in order to reject his Hindu birth at the very bottom of the caste order, and because, as he declared: “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” More than 400,000 people, most of them born Dalit, underwent the conversion, along with him, on that historic day 61 years ago.

The blue plaque
In the London borough of Camden, on Primrose Hill, No. 10 King Henry’s Street is a townhouse that bears a round blue plaque, announcing its historical significance: “Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian crusader for social justice, lived here 1921-22”. On an evening in late September as I stood on the sidewalk looking at the building – bought by the government of Maharashtra in 2015, but yet to be opened to the public as a museum – I thought about what that house represented.

Ambedkar lived there as a boarder during his final years as a graduate student. He was over 30, married since he was 17, with a young wife and a small son back home in Bombay. He and his wife had lost two children in infancy. He had resigned his position as the Military Secretary to the Maharaja of Baroda, breaking a bond of 10 years of service in exchange for a scholarship to study abroad from 1913 to 1917. This displeased both the Baroda Maharaja as well as other powerful persons in Bombay, but Ambedkar was determined to complete his studies overseas, even at his own expense.

From 1918 to 1920 he taught political economy at Sydenham College, and saved money to return to England. He was now racing to complete a doctorate at the London School of Economics — his second PhD after the one he got at Columbia University in New York — as well as a law degree at Gray’s Inn, London, before he ran out of time and funds.

According to his biographer Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar lived a frugal, penurious life in those years, braving hunger, poverty and loneliness to gain extraordinary educational qualifications. He read voraciously from morning to night at the British Museum Library, the India Office Library and the University of London Library. He was forced to borrow money from his Parsi friend Naval Bhathena. After he had earned his American and British degrees, he proceeded to Bonn, in Germany, to study even further. Only when he had exhausted his savings in 1923 did he head back to India, where his double career in law and politics began in earnest.

The thought of the hardship that Ambedkar withstood to equip himself with impressive academic titles brought me back to the very same house again the next morning. It struck me that the house memorialises not just another passage in Ambedkar’s early life, but rather, his profound desire for freedom. He wanted freedom from caste, from humiliation, from racism, from colonialism — from every kind of discrimination whether in India, America or England, that he had experienced throughout his life.

Knowledge sets you free
“Sa vidya ya vimuktaye,” runs an ancient Sanskrit verse fragment that Indian schools and universities sometimes use as their motto – “whatever liberates, that is knowledge”. I have always understood Ambedkar’s revolt against caste as a quest for equality and justice. I perceived his drive to become more educated than his privileged, upper caste, nationalist elite contemporaries as an effort to overcome the stigma of his ‘untouchable’ birth. But for the first time I saw that underlying his crusade to annihilate caste, including through hard-won personal achievements, was a fundamental desire for freedom.

The search for freedom can take many forms that need not be overtly ‘political’. In a piece in The New York Times on September 15, the Arab writer Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee at Guantánamo, describes how prisoners longed to catch a glimpse of the sea all around them, that they were debarred from seeing. Adayfi’s essay is moving in how it conveys the human longing for freedom, which seems to run even deeper than our cultural identities and political circumstances, to be hardwired into our very souls.

After years of denying prisoners the sight of the sea, camp authorities took down the barriers for fear of a hurricane approaching Cuba. For a few precious days, there was an eruption of art, poetry and creative expression among the inmates. On seeing the reactions of his fellow prisoners, many of them Afghans who had never seen the sea, Adayfi understood that “the sea means freedom no one can control or own, freedom for everyone. Each of us found a way to escape to the sea.”

Freedom song
Closer home, the Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan, hounded by right-wing critics for writing about his own Gounder community, has penned a number of poems. Some of these are addressed to the local deity, Madhorubagan (Ardhanaarishwara, a half-male, half-female fusion of Shiva and Parvati). Others are themed on the five elements (pancha-bhuta) as also the landscapes, flora and fauna of his native Kongu Nadu, a part of the broader Tamil region. His use of the dialect of this area heightens the authentic flavour of his poetry. The palm tree (Palmyra or Toddy Palm, panai maram in Tamil) is for him emblematic of home and roots.

In a decision revealing a keen and canny aesthetic imagination, Murugan has gifted his poems to the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who has been tuning and releasing them of late. The singer gives a voice to his writer friend who has had to endure censorship and intimidation to the extent of committing “authorial suicide” for a period of time.

Together they protest the repeated attack on the freedom of expression — the deadly threat that took the life of Gauri Lankesh. Krishna’s gesture of solidarity beautifully breaks the silence, amplifying Murugan’s call for free speech and his assertion of the right to dissent in a democracy.

In the course of an on-going engagement with Krishna’s music and ideas, I have been following Murugan’s poetry in translation. His viruttams (shlokas in Tamil) express anguish to his beloved deity Madhorubagan, asking for protection and acceptance. His kirtanas to the elements celebrate the very land and language that have inspired and nurtured him. He takes comfort in nature and verse as he experiences alienation and injustice from his fellow caste-members and their bellicose backers in the Hindu Right.

One of Murugan’s most vivid compositions is a kirtana to the wind, “Kaatru”. Krishna has set this to the winged raga Nalinakaanti, conveying the swift, airborne quality of the subject. The poem is about the unbridled force of the wind, that can never be tamed or controlled, that goes where it pleases, touches whom it likes, wipes away boundaries and divisions, tears down walls and obstructions, and sweeps across the earth unimpeded. Murugan’s words, carried aloft on Krishna’s tune, make the wind a metaphor for the freedom that is denied to him as a writer in an illiberal dispensation.

The wind is nothing other than life’s breath – without breath, as without freedom, there is only death. “You are a being of untold freedom,” writes Murugan, sings Krishna. The yearning of the censored and banned artist Perumal Murugan – of every person whose freedom is snatched away, regardless of her story or situation – flows perfectly in Krishna’s voice, imbued with his special note of compassion. You can hear the unmistakable timbre of empathy that Krishna brings to bear on art and politics alike.

Like knowledge for Ambedkar, like the sea for Adayfi, like the wind for Murugan, the longing for freedom is synonymous with our very existence as feeling, thinking human beings. We must seek that freedom, and to survive, we must find it, whatever the impediments in our path. To deny us freedom is to deny us life. At the house on Primrose Hill, I could see through the window a banner hanging inside. It carried Ambedkar’s declaration explaining why he chose Buddhism over Hinduism: “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” Freedom is first on his list.

Ananya Vajpeyi is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University
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