Interview with Asma Jahangir

Asma Jahangir marching against the first invasion of Iraq, 1991
Asma at a Women Action Forum protest, 1983









So I met up with the famous human rights activist and asked her a few questions at her campaign office. She took me campaigning with her to various offices on Fane Road including climbing up four stories of broken stairs and avoiding the pot holes on Fane Road. Here are a few questions I asked her about her election campaign for the office of the President, Supreme Court Bar Association. This is an election where political leanings and group politics cannot be ignored. Asma Jahangir’s campaign has been called partisan and she has also been described by certain sections of lawyers and media as ‘pro-Zardari’. On the other hand, her opponent has been called pro-judiciary and anti-democracy (In The Friday Times, 15th October, 2010).

Why is contesting this election important? What is your motivation?
This is important because the bar has to be independent. The pressure that the lawyers are subservient to judges is a veiled threat to the lawyers and has affected the integrity and honesty of the legal system. My aim is to work towards ensuring the dignity of the bar and its independence.

Where does the support of the leaders of the 2007 Lawyers Movement lie?
I have their support, except for Hamid Khan.

What about Aitzaz Ahsan?
He has remained neutral, but he will probably vote for me.

Will the support from lawyers belonging to the PPP be a large part of your success?
Though I have the support of many of these lawyers, it cannot alone help me win the election. The votes from PPP supporting lawyers will probably be near 100 to 200 out of 2200 votes. The issue of the PPP supporting me has been given too much attention, in fact not all pro-PPP lawyers will be voting for me. I am supported also by lawyers who belong to the Awami National Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, PML-N and other parties who have said they will vote for me. I do not have a specific group that is behind me but individuals who support my stance.

What will be the challenges after if you become President of the SCBA?
Firstly, the issue that needs to be addressed is that there has to be an independent voice of the bar so as to bridge the division between the institutions of the state. Secondly, the system is not well-understood and there needs to be a move towards constructively commenting on the judicial pronouncements. Lawyers need to debate laws and precedents to perform well and should be able to voice their concerns as long as they exercise their legal expertise. They should have a pro-active role in this system.

Is the voting on party lines and even on biradari allegiances a risk to a free and fair election?

Again a lot of lawyers are very political and it is natural that they are. I believe that the bar lawyers know what they are voting for and those who support me have supported me on merit and principle. Also, no one can be a government candidate and win. As far as voting based on castes is concerned, it is a minor consideration too.

What do you feel about the opposing candidates?
Every opponent is a challenge. I can only speak for myself, as I have said I am not being supported by any specific group. I cannot really say anything about the campaigns of my opponents. They are worthy and strong candidates I’m sure.

How has the recent bar versus bench standoff affected your campaign?
I don’t think there have been any serious effects on my campaign. Though we all condemn the actions the lawyers took, but only I took up the filing FIRs under anti-terrorist laws against lawyers was an extreme measure. What happened the next day after the initial protest was unacceptable. I am not an opportunist and do what I think is right; though my principled stance could have had an adverse impact on my campaign

What is your opinion on the activism of the lawyers?
I feel that strikes should not take place if the grievance is minor. There are many ways to protest against tyranny other than violent strikes. The distancing between the bar and the bench is precisely what we want. It is frightening for lawyers when a judge comes to their bar and says that “you are our foot soldiers and must fight for our cause.” The judges need to have two qualities, integrity and capability, and that’s that. They are not laymen like politicians who have to work according to what their constituency wants. Judges are experts who have to make autonomous legal decisions and are selected for their integrity.

The rule of law is not something that pops in and then pops out of the system. People have in the past usually become part of a system and forgotten about the rule of law and lived happily under dictatorships. Only later do they recognise the reality of unconstitutional rule and protest against it. My struggle has always been against oppression. It will continue.


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