Asma Jahangir on her early life:“I went to school here [in Lahore] and then college – Kinnaird College [in Lahore] – and then I took my law here. I am completely indigenous. I was born in a household where my father was in politics and he was always in the opposition. And so I have seen him go in and out of jail. He was one of the few West Pakistanis who were from the Awami League – [which had most if its support in what was then East Pakistan].
So one has seen that whole aspect of what is treason and what is a traitor as compared with people’s basic rights. During the [Bangladesh] war and before that he was in jail for many years. During Ayub Khan’s time he was in jail for many years.
When I was a teenager I used to look after a number of things when he was in jail – my mother couldn’t do everything and we didn’t have a political party to fall back on really here. It was at the end of Ayub Khan’s period that I got really motivated. I began as a campaigner when I organised a procession of women during Ayub Khan’s time - that was my first public exposure as such. And then when my father went to jail during Yahya Khan’s period and then he was released and the first day Mr Bhutto came to power he arrested him again. I had just turned eighteen at that time and I filed a petition against his arrest which became a very celebrated case in India and Pakistan. It changed constitutional history because it was the first case that said that a military intervention is unconstitutional. The case started in 1970 but the judgement was in 1972. They declared Yahya Khan’s government illegal and consequently the martial law orders under which my father was arrested were also illegal. So they released him. This made me very interested in law because I was very much involved in that case as a petitioner. And the lawyers were very kind to me. I was all of eighteen but they used tell me what the arguments were. By this time my father was under house arrest and I had to go back and tell him what happened. And if I didn’t answer his questions properly he would get very frustrated because he wanted to know the arguments. So I really had to talk to the lawyers before I came home. It made me very interested. Plus, even before that, my father used to be in jails outside of Lahore and he never wanted us to come and meet him there for some odd reason. So every time he was called to court in Lahore was when we children used to see him. So for me the courts became a place where you met your father. I made up my mind to be a lawyer. At that time I thought it was a haven for justice. Where the rule of law was upheld. It was only after I became a lawyer that I realised how it was upheld.”
AG: “But it hasn’t diminished your idealism?”
Asma Jahangir:“Absolutely it has diminished my idealism to the extent that that was not idealism – I was misinformed. I don’t think there is any such thing as the rule of law that is being upheld by the courts of Pakistan. I have no misconception about that at all. But I still think and I’m a firm believer that these are institutions that are made with our money and we have to keep knocking. Every knock must be a knock at their conscience. And we must keep knocking and keep knocking until their conscience responds… I am not an idealist at all. I am a very practical person. You need [to choose] the right case. You need the right bench. You need the right timing. You [should have] groomed public opinion before [taking the case]. An activist must never be an idealist. They must be very practical and they must strategise each part of their actions. Particularly in the courts. Because once you get a judgment from the Supreme Court, it takes perhaps half a generation to get it overturned.”
Asma Jahangir On death threats: “I should make clear that I enjoy what I do and death threats are a part of the work. It’s not something you don’t foresee.”
AG: “And you had a death threat today?”
Asma Jahangir: “I’m told that the government has put out a circular about three people whose lives are in danger and I’m one of them. I’ve had attacks on [my person]; I’ve had people coming into my mother’s house to kill me, and they’ve taken my brother and his family hostage. I’ve had a man arrested from the courtroom with a gun; I’ve had my car broken by a mob [while defending a Christian] in a blasphemy case; I’ve had other death threats – like slogans written on buses, saying ‘kill her, we are your maut (death) Asma Jahangir’.”
AG: “Doesn’t it frighten you?”
Asma Jahangir: “To be very honest when my mother’s house was attacked and my brother and his wife and my nephew were taken hostage it really did frighten me. I met those who came to kill me subsequently in the police station and the kind of venom they had against me…”
AG: “What was this based on?”
Asma Jahangir: “They actually believed that I was some kind of demon. They believed that by defending a case of blasphemy I was encouraging blasphemy against the Holy Prophet. That I stood against all decent norms. That I was a kind of devil incarnated that wd wreck the whole social fabric of Pakistan.”
AG: “What was it like to meet them?”
Asma Jahangir: “It was strange. First of all they had a very different impression of [what I was like], even visually. And slowly and gradually as the ice was broken [it became clear] that this perception had been given to them by some mullahs, preaching in the mosque, by two or three lawyers, by one newspaper. They said that when one [particular] militant group met they would vow to kill me. [They thought] I wanted women to become behaya [licentious] and once this happened they would have no control over their sisters and mothers. [But after the meeting] they got bail and turned up at my office with some sweetmeats and wanted me to have them. I couldn’t because here were men who wanted not only to kill me, but to kill my sister and my children as well. And [that they should] want me to have sweets after they got bail was, I think, a bit crude on their part… A few months ago I was in court and this young man comes up to me and complains to me, you are a human rights person but our case is not getting anywhere and can’t you do anything about it. And suddenly I saw that this was one of the men who came to kill me. And he was complaining to me about his own trial where I was the complainant. I was quite taken aback and I said to him casually, in Punjabi, na le chot to na le chattar: ja apna case aap kar [go and fight your own case].”