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A rebel hero’s dazzled fans

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Gone are the days when a Majrooh Sultanpuri would pen a song in Mumbai that would become the battle cry against the martial law of Gen Ayub.

By: Jawed Naqvi

SOME individuals are instantly mesmeric. Asma Jahangir was one such. She was a fiery rebel and a deeply caring comrade, an outstanding lawyer and a raconteur with impish humour. She hugged the dispossessed with spontaneous empathy. She fought relentlessly against a variety of usurpers of democracy, mullahs and generals being her staple quarries.

She dreamt of uniting the people of South Asia into a comity of mutually caring nations where perennial, manmade inequalities could be terminated to everyone’s advantage, where gender and sexual rights would be accorded primacy with other elusive rights that people have been struggling to gain since time immemorial. She was against war always. She was a votary of peace at all times.

In a nutshell, given the adverse times she lived in, Asma Jahangir was a perpetual risk to herself while being an answer to the prayers of her dazzled admirers. This anomalous equation in some ways depicted her quandary in fighting unending injustices and metastasising chaos. Asma Jahangir was a towering hero without a movement to support, a living proof that individual charisma alone could not drive social change.

The compounded reality check is there for all to see. Asma’s admirers are legion, but they stand outnumbered (and outgunned) by their detractors. People turned out at her funeral in massive numbers, and they constitute the cream of Pakistan’s freedom-loving multitude, which is a blessing.

But let’s not be too self-congratulatory, and maybe admit openly that as effusive funerals go the right wing she fought with sleeves rolled up maintains a clear edge manifold over the liberal echelons. This is not how it used to be, only how it has become.

Could Asma’s team of selfless advocates compare head to head with the lawyers that turned out, say, to cheer and greet the right-wing zealot of an icon called Mumtaz Qadri?

Likewise, across the border in India, Prashant Bhu­shan and Vrinda Grover are among the brave law­yers fighting for precisely the causes that Asma stood for. Yet, like her, they too stand outnumbered by the lurch to the right. It is difficult to say who is faring better against similar odds stacked on both sides, but the reasons for their plight appear to be the same.

Sitting in Delhi, the view across the border looks eerily familiar. In her fight against the patriarchal mullahs and the military simultaneously, Asma was forced (for tactical reasons if not worse) to defend one of the two desperate choices on offer. The PPP had on its hands the bloody plight of the Ahmadis, whereas the PML-N has been tethered to an obscurantist mass base, with a leader who modelled himself as amirul momineen, a sobriquet stolen from the mediaeval Afghan Taliban. In India, the picture looks similarly dismal.

Gone are the days when a Majrooh Sultanpuri would pen a song in Mumbai that would become the battle cry against the martial law of Gen Ayub. The collapse and the dissipation of the left movement in Pakistan ended an era of hope for their comrades in India too. Still, when Z.A. Bhutto was to be hanged, there was an Indira Gandhi, backed by the leftists in India who urged Gen Zia to spare his life. That was something prime minister Morarji Desai had refused to do. (For which Zia rewarded him with Nishan-i-Pakistan.)

Things had only worsened for both countries by the time Asma Jahangir took the stage. In recent days, when the right-wing Indian government claimed to have carried out a military raid across the LoC, there was not a voice from any section of the political spectrum to speak up against poking a nuclear-armed neighbour in the eye. They mocked and teased Prime Minister Modi instead for allegedly exaggerating the claim of hot pursuit. There was a time when the Indian left, if no one else, would take a clear stand against such actions, even if these occasions were few and far between. Today, that considered counsel seems to have given way to tinctured nationalism even among the comrades. Often, the left’s position on Pakistan is difficult to distinguish from the nationalist MPs in the parliament’s two houses. I wonder how Asma Jahangir took it.

The result is that on the one hand there is a government that whips up anti-Pakistan hysteria at will — and there are sinister rumours about more worrisome action on the borders before the 2019 polls. On the other, there is the familiar Congress response to jingoism, one of being unabashedly diffident about questioning the nation’s militarist chorus. The love of the army may be on the wane in Pakistan, but it has risen rapidly in India.

To Pakistan’s credit, with persistent nudging from Asma Jahangir and her followers, both the main parties have very nearly abandoned their stance of anti-India posturing. In India, despite overt camaraderie with Asma and lip service to her cause, the left has been remiss in confronting jingoism. As for the leader of the main opposition party, he is not averse to gloating about how his grandmother broke Pakistan into two. (Though the claim has never got his party a single extra vote.)

Asma Jahangir stood for universal nuclear disarmament as one of her leading causes, but just around the time she died, the nuclear Doomsday Clock had moved closer to an alarming two minutes to midnight. The notional global clock packages an entire range of risks that life on earth faces, including environmental depredations and an instinct for mass suicide underscored by cavalier nuclear-armed nations.

Though the current threat to human life derives from the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, other serious challenges complete the picture. These include the ever cocked-up Middle East trigger and the never-ending India-Pakistan stand-off that threatens to spiral out of control any day. Asma’s mourners must pick up the cudgels and resume the fight as the best tribute to her.

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