Asma Jahangir is Pakistan’s best-known lawyer, pro-democracy campaigner, human rights activist, fierce critic of military regimes and the Ulema-jihadi groups. She was recently appointed to the United Nations’ three-member fact-finding mission on Palestine, and has served as UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom and Faith. She was president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and most recently took up the case of the country’s former ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani over the ‘Memogate’ scandal.
For her work and her views, Jahangir has been threatened with “dire consequences” many times. An attempt was made on her life two months back. She remains unfazed and sworn to the ideals of democracy and justice. “India and Pakistan must sign a no-war pact,” she said, speaking to Smruti Koppikar, during a brief visit to Mumbai on Monday.
Q: Let’s start with the recent migration of Hindu families from Pakistan. How do you explain it?
A: Well, at the government level, there’s no persecution of Hindus at all. There are reports, in fact, that Hindus in Balochistan are treated very well. It’s after the break-up of the tribal system and the intervention of different extremist groups that there’s a lot of bloodshed. The Hindus in Balochistan are victims of the general lawlessness that prevails and migration that’s happening from there. But I have to admit that minorities are easy targets; they are kidnapped for ransom and violence.
In Sindh though, the situation is slightly different; they have been terrified and so have some other Hindus living in Pakistan where young Hindu women have converted to get married. It’s difficult to say how many of these conversions were by force and how many voluntary. When girls are brought to the courts, the girls say they have converted on their own, which may or may not be true. And, some do convert on their own. The way I see it, it’s a sociological development: young Hindu men have moved, and are moving out, of that society for work or better life, and the girls have no option but to convert and marry Muslim men. Where things have become a real problem is where feudal lords operate, and the Hindu minority probably rightly suspect that they engineer all this, entice women into marriage and convert them. It’s in these parts that one hears of girls being kidnapped or enticed away from their families.
Q: The impression here it is that Hindus are persecuted and aren’t safe in Pakistan. The drastically reduced percentage of Hindus in the country’s population bears it out.
A: Frankly, when a country is going through turmoil like we are, the first people to leave are the smaller communities. Let’s say Pakistan as a State is a very difficult State for religious minorities. And this disease is not contained in Pakistan alone; it’s contagious and is now prevalent in many parts of the world. Look at what’s happening to Muslims in Myanmar. We are aware of the situation of many sections of Muslims in India. So, there is intolerance around, all around. The difference is that in say Myanmar, it’s part of the State policy to persecute Muslim minorities. In Pakistan, it used to be the State but is no longer now, it’s now the non-state actors as in India. The State policy is not of persecution of minorities but there are legislations from Zia-ul-Haq’s time that are very discriminatory.
Q: Are there issues with personal law?
A: Yes. Unfortunately, like Muslims in India who want their personal law, Hindus in Pakistan too want their personal law to prevail. There are some changes now but it affects issues of marriage and custody and so on. I would say that Hindu women in Pakistan have less rights than Hindu women in India as far as personal law goes, just as Muslim women in India have less rights than Muslim women in Pakistan. It’s strange but there it is.
Q: But isn’t it true that pluralistic and liberal space has been shrinking in Pakistan?
A: We ourselves feel that, we can see that the space for liberals is shrinking. And, it’s evident in different ways. Recent judgments from the courts start with religious sermons or quotations rather than lines from the Constitution. But that space in India is shrinking as well, isn’t it? When I travelled across India as UN Special Rapporteur I was shocked to see what had happened to minorities, the polarization, the clearing of film scripts by politically powerful people and so on.
Q: Pakistan’s handling of the 26/11 terror attack case suggests it doesn’t want to get to the core of the issue. You would appreciate this has appalled many Indians, particularly in Mumbai, who see their own government still in dialogue with Pakistan establishment that refuses to take action.
A: I think the Government of India understands that Pakistan is going through a change, and that old habits don’t die so quickly. The options were to abandon Pakistan completely or go to war over the issue. Neither would have helped sort out the issue. Instead, the Government of India has used all the diplomacy at their hands to make Pakistan act, which is the best. Also, in Pakistan, people like Nawaz Sharif said early on that that boy (Ajmal Kasab) was from Pakistan and so on. It helped. You see, things are moving there but not at the pace that some Indians want, but they don’t know Paksitan then. People in India are perhaps not aware of the extreme oppression and the forms of violence we suffer; action on this case has to be seen in that context too.
Q: Even so, it’s dismaying to see 26/11 masterminds like Hafiz Saeed move freely and continue to address anti-India rallies. Why doesn’t your government take action?
A: Let me just say there’s a climate of fear in Pakistan.
Q: Fear of reprisals?
A: Yes, fear of reprisals and things going out of hand completely. Look at the amount of bloodshed we have had with the bombings and suicide bombings. The government of Pakistan also has to handle it with very delicate hands.
Q: What you are saying is that if Saeed and others like him are brought to book, there will be repercussions that the government may not be able to handle.
A: I will say just as much as I have said about him. There are opinions in the government but there’s a climate of fear and there are serious repercussions they foresee. But I hope that victims of 26/11 get justice.
Q: What’s your view on Siachen issue or the Siachen deadlock?
A: If we were neither Pakistani nor Indian, and saw this issue as an independent outsider, we would say there’s something wrong in the way these countries are behaving. It’s all okay to say that India is in an advantageous position and shouldn’t give way but to argue only that would be to look at the Siachen issue only from the security point of view and ignore the human angle completely. There are soldiers there, our brave young able-bodied men living – and dying – in inhuman conditions. Do we really want that to continue? I think Siachen is part of the mindset both in India and Pakistan which needs to change, we must see it differently and we must plead to a no-war pact.
Q: That might go against public opinion in both countries.
A: Well, the public opinion in Pakistan on this issue has changed, I can tell you that. After all, people don’t want to fight, and fight all the time. Lives become difficult.
Q: Given the controversial background, what made you take up Husain Haqqani’s case in the Supreme Court?
A: Well, I didn’t choose to represent him, I represent a brief. As a lawyer, it’s a very interesting case. There are issues involved here: is it a fundamental right of the public to go about verifying a rumour, is that indeed freedom of information that the court should take up a rumour and argue it’s public right to know if the rumour is correct or not, and form commissions to dig into it? So this was a Constitutional question that I was contesting. And secondly, should the Supreme Court go into the civil-military relationship on questions of foreign policy. These are two basic questions I am addressing, because otherwise we are stretching fundamental right too far.
Q: You have had, shall we say, a running battle with the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, in Pakistan.
A: The reason is I am critical of their functioning. I am critical of the Supreme Court’s security-mindedness instead of upholding the rule of law. Judicial pronouncements in recent times tend to cross the red line and that’s not right. We need a strong judiciary, not a powerful one. There should be a difference in the way politicians and judges conduct themselves; it’s dismaying to see SC judges building a constituency for themselves, especially among lawyers; there’s open interference in the Bar Association; there’s division on lines of pro-judiciary versus pro-democracy; we don’t see dissenting judgments at all; at least two or three cases a month are taken up suo moto. This is a coarse form of politics. It’s not even what you’d expect from politicians.
Q: But then, the judiciary or a part of it is seen as the harbinger of democracy, isn’t it?
A: The judiciary in Pakistan was always subservient to the military rule, but after the lawyers’ struggle there was some hope that it would be more independent. We are in a transition to democracy and the backbone of it is an independent judicial institution. But when judiciary keeps check on the executive, it becomes political. It’s important that the judiciary be non-partisan.
Q: You have been visiting India since the 70s. Tell us a bit about the differences you see.
A: I can visibly see an old India and a new India. The old India was hospitable and magnanimous; the new India is richer but has less time and patience for people. Your civil society is so large and diverse, there are so many movements that go on parallel; our civil society is smaller but effective. I used to tell my friend (late) Rani Jethmalani, Indians don’t know the value of democracy and democratic culture perhaps because you all have had it all along… And, in India, people at least pay their taxes, which is not something I can say for Pakistan.
Q: You have faced threats to life, an attempt was made recently. How has it affected you and your work?
A: There are moments when the threats do intimidate. Whether deliberate or not, there are moments of self-censorship which then one pulls back from. It has meant a constant cajoling of oneself to say and do what’s right. My average day and work is more or less the same, but there are changes: I used to travel a lot and to remote places which I can’t do now, I would hop into any car and go for rallies which I don’t and I miss it, I have stopped going out for weddings and socializing, I avoid congested places, I don’t take routes where I have stop for directions and so on. My priority is my work and I travel for that.
But when the threat increases, one has to strategise and move ahead. Survival is something that Pakistanis have learned over the years. That said, I am a bit fatalistic about it.