Asma Jahangir: A lifetime of courage worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize Print E-mail

  Sunday September 3, 2006

Asma Jehangir

With Malice towards one and All : By Khushwant Singh

If there was a public opinion poll conducted in the sub-continent, comprising Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, about the most deserving person for the Nobel Peace Prize, I have no doubt in my mind that Asma Jehangir of Lahore would emerge as the outright winner. And for good reason. She is a Muslim living in a mullah-military-male-dominated country in a stifling atmosphere of suspicion where hatred of India thrives, where Draconian laws are used to stamp out heresy and punish blasphemy with death. She has been speaking out against all these for many years; attempts have been made to silence her but she continues to do so regardless of consequences.

Pakistan, India and Bangladesh face similar problems: the upsurge of religious fanaticism (kattarpan) which often turns to violence against people of other faiths. Pakistan and Bangladesh are Islamic States on either side of India, ostensibly secular and largely Hindu. If the Pakistani Mullahs had their way, they would put the likes of Asma Jehangir in a burqa, order her to shut her mouth, spend her time in a kitchen cooking meals for her husband and children, or stitch clothes for them. But, she refuses to wear a burqa, leads demonstrations against repressive measures and takes up cases of men and women persecuted by the government. She is often condemned as being an Indian agent. She continues to speak out as her conscience tells her.

Bangladesh is going the same way as Pakistan. Take a look at Hiranmay Karlekar’s Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan  (Sage). You will understand how serious the menace of religious bigotry has become. It has not thrown up a leader to fight it, a woman like Taslima Nasreen who has a fatwa of death hanging over her head had to flee to Europe and is currently seeking asylum in Kolkata. I hope our government will extend her visa indefinitely.

Both Pakistan and Bangladesh find it convenient to let extremist elements to turn to India for their ill-conceived jihads (holy wars) and get the martyrdom they seek. In its turn Hindu bigots preach hate against Muslim bigotry: both thrive on mutual hatred. Our secular roots carefully nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Badruddin Tayabji, Netaji Subhas Bose, Maulana Azad and others are being destroyed by Hindu fundoos too numerous to enumerate.

They also preach hatred against Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, we do have a free press and quite a few outspoken men and women willing to risk their lives to fight them: Kuldip Nayar, Mahesh Bhatt, Raji Narsimhan, Teesta Setalvad and a few others. Their efforts have borne fruit. The forces of religious fundamentalism are in retreat.

Religions have been a powerful force for the betterment of society when they were first established. Gradually they became forces of backwardness and divisiveness because of their preaching superiority over other religions. We are witnessing this phenomenon in all the three countries.

In many ways Asma Jehangir’s life has been like that of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma who has been under home arrest for many years. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace some years ago. Asma has been roughed up by the police, put under house-arrest and jailed. She had to send her children abroad for safety but continues to raise her voice against oppression and injustice. Can you think of anyone more deserving of the accolade than her?