Amartya Sen on Asma Jahangir

Amartya Sen in The Wire:

Asma-Jahangir-Chetan-Bhatt-Amartya-Sen-2017-1024x683It is hard to find a measure of Asma Jahangir’s greatness. She was a brilliant intellectual, a superb humanist, a great political leader, an epitome of kindness, a personification of indomitable courage. Asma was all these things – and much more. Professionally she excelled as a magnificent lawyer – who did more than anyone else I can think of to defend and save helpless people from the unjust wrath of authoritarians and tyrants. As one of the most distinguished human rights lawyers in the world, Asma used her legal knowledge to protect the vulnerable and unimaginably strengthen people’s rights.

As it happens, Asma Jahangir’s first legal victory came before she became a trained lawyer. She won a great legal victory in freeing her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, the parliamentarian and critic of the military, who had been unjustly incarcerated by the government. At the time of her victory at the Supreme Court (in a case celebrated as Miss Asma Jilani vs the Government of Punjab), Asma was barely 20 years old. Later, with professional legal training and far-reaching vision, combined with her exceptional intelligence, Asma became the leading defender of human rights in Pakistan, in the company of other great human rights activists like I.A. Rehman and Dorab Patel. It is extraordinary to see how much the Pakistan Human Rights Commission has achieved in the cause of justice, without even having the firm legal – and constitutional – status that, say, the Indian or the South African Human Rights Commission can comfortably rely on (those commissions have a much easier job than the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, which – despite that legal handicap – has achieved no less, particularly through powerfully mobilising public opinion and involvement).

I personally think that in understanding Asma’s success, it is important not only to appreciate the strength of her skilled arguments, her trained reasoning and her deep-rooted courage, but also the tremendous warmth of her personality including her radiating friendliness. She generated enthusiasm across the world, but particularly on the two sides of the sub-continental divide. Asma was loved in Pakistan, but no less in India, and whenever she gave a talk in India, the room – whatever its size – was always overfull.

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