Building Peoples’ Movements in South Asia: Role of Asma Jahangir by Dr. Nimalka Fernando

(Speech delivered at the memorial event organized by South Asians for Human Rights in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 17 August 2018)

I would like to first thank South Asians for Human Rights for inviting me to make this welcome speech as we gather today to remember, honour and hold hands in sadness as we remember one of our beloved friends Asma. On behalf of SAHR I wish to extend a warm welcome to all of you joining us salute her.. her activism and life that has left challenges more than a beloved memory.

It is difficult to believe that Asma is not with us. Not her in this room as all our friends active in various struggles in South Asia and in Sri Lanka is present. She was just elected to serve once again as a bureau member of SAHR in 2017. She was here in Sri Lanka very regularly during the 2016 -2017 actively providing us leadership. So how can we forget you Asma.

I had just passed out as a lawyer when a major general strike was called by left oriented trade unions for a salary increase in July 1980. This was the immediate post 1978 that has shaken most of us with the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This was also a period of emerging women’s liberation activism in the region. The UN had declared a decade for women post Nairobi in 1979. In his inspirational manner my late guru Neelan had brought us together to discuss about challenges facing South Asia as the region was grappling with emerging militarism threatening democracy. A period where we had to face `bread or Democracy or Roti/Rice or Democracy’. The forces of market economy demanding a strong political hand in governance that poses real threats to strong movement we enjoyed. I t was at such a meeting when I first met Asma in Colombo at the ICES premises. We used to listen with interest to her experience related to the Women’s Action Committee in Pakistan. She and her friends were in the forefront of a struggle against General Zia then. This journey never ended. We met again to work together in the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.  Hina and Asma were a great support for me professionally as well as personally. They were a family to us. I am sure Radhika you will remember how Asma came and got us to check-out from a Hotel in Lahore as she felt we were in an insecure surrounding. Protecting us like a mother hen. She was also one of my great critiques. She will not take any nonsense from me…Those of us who know her is aware  what I am talking about!

Asma was active in promoting a South Asian dream for democracy and human rights. Despite their heavy engagement with the international movements including the UN both sisters were grounded in the struggles inside their own country and South Asia. I can not think of any regional forum be it for the promotion of women’s human rights, human rights in general or a South Asian Union of people (a dream we South Asian activists have for our region an unceasing flame inside our hearts and minds)that lead us to convene People’s SAARC that did not have their engagement and leadership.

She was particularly involved in the peace movement to bring India and Pakistan together. The little madam was a busy body for peace. I am sure not many politicians and state authorities like this passionate engagement of her for peace between these two giants in the region. It is this commitment for peaceful South Asia that lead her to join others like Radhika, late I.K Gujral,Kamla Hossein to build this very forum SAHR that is meeting to pay this tribute to her. Recognizing this need a five-member committee comprising Mr. I.K. Gujral, former Prime Minister of India, Dr. Kamal Hossain from Bangladesh, Dr. Devendra Raj Panday from Nepal, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy from Sri Lanka and Mrs. Asma Jahangir from Pakistan organised a convention to discuss the possibility of a South Asian regional human rights organization. Delegates were drawn from recognized human rights organizations and included jurists, academics, public figures, trade unionists and media persons. The convention was held at the Neemrana Fort, Rajasthan, India on July 21-22, 2000. After extensive discussions the convention adopted the  Neemrana Declaration and decided to set up an organization called South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)

In 2000 dear Sister and Comrade together with others declared

  • our belief in the inalienable human rights and dignity of every individual in our region.
  • Recognised  the grave human rights situation in South Asia, with its terrible legacy of persistent poverty, deprivation, illiteracy, inequality, caste and social hierarchy, discrimination against women and exploitation of children, itself further aggravated by authoritarian, militarist and sectarian tendencies amidst violence and state repression; that still continues
  • your concern at the encroachment on human rights through unequal globalisation and pursuit of elitist domestic policies which harm the interests of the working people and their right to survival, security and a life with dignity;
  • Acknowledged that human rights violations in one country often spill over into the other countries in the region and potentially generate bilateral/regional tensions and hostility, thus threatening peace.

18 years have passed since then. Has things changed much for us? May be more movements and resistance have emerged. Our solidarity for each other is spilling over. In the spirit you held my hand in 2012 in Geneva as we were facing risk as human rights defenders in Sri Lanka fighting against impunity and authoritarianism we all pledge to keep the flame alive which was kindled in Neemrana.

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