Who are the minority rights defenders?
Minority groups have been in a dire situation for a long time in Pakistan. They continue to suffer from an extreme lack of representation. The little voice that minority communities have is often drowned out by the majority and so fails to be heard. It is crucial, in this context, for our minorities to have external support so that their problems can be validated, heard and finally solved.
The struggle for minority rights in Pakistan would not have progressed to where it is today without the individual and collective contributions of minority defenders throughout the years.
Those Who Died Defending Minority Rights
Asma Jehangir (1952-2018)
Asma Jahangir was a Pakistani Human Rights lawyer, a social activist and a pioneer of human rights in Pakistan. She co-founded both the AGHS Legal Aid Center (a private legal firm specializing in women’s rights and gender related violence) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (a federal institution rights advocacy group). Her career, which spanned over three decades, was dedicated to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and resisting the oppressive regime of Zia Ul Haq.
Jahangir’s work has led to many landmark judgments in Pakistan. While sometimes seen as controversial in her own country, Asma’s contributions were highly respected internationally. She won many awards including the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 1995 after successfully defending the blasphemy case against Rehmat and Salamat Masih. In 2010 she was elected as the first female president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan.
She continued to work for her cause, despite the constant threats to her life, until her sudden death in 2018.
Jogendra Nath Mandal (1904-1968)
Jogendranath Mandal, a leader of the dalits, the lowest caste grouping in India, was one of the founding fathers of Pakistan. He was elected the temporary Chairman at the inaugural meeting of the Constituents Assembly and presided over the historic August 11th ceremony. He would later also go on to be Pakistan’s first Law and Labor minister and the second minister of Commonwealth and Kashmir Affairs.
Despite all his efforts in support of the Pakistan cause, he was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in India. Even after his return to India, he didn’t give up his association with Pakistan as he dedicated himself toward the rehabilitation of refugees from across the border. In what can only be called a tragedy, he was never fully accepted in the new Indian Republic either.
Mandal’s political career never took off and he died in 1968.
John Joseph was Pakistan’s first native Bishop when he was ordained in Faisalabad in 1984. He came to be known as an activist during this time, as Zia Ul Haq was pursuing the policy of Islamization of the country and gave shape to its current blasphemy laws. Bishop John Joseph became a strong opponent against these laws and dedicated his life to advocating for reform.
On 6th May 1998, he ultimately sacrificed his life during a blasphemy case ruling against a Pakistani Christian.
He shot himself in protest against the unfair verdict of the Ayub Masih case. Though Ayub Masih would later go on to be acquitted, the law that he fought is still enforced more than twenty years later and continues to wrongly incriminate hundreds of people a year.
Rashid Rehman was a lawyer and a coordinator with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Rehman was a known activist, who dedicated his life to the people of South Punjab.
He is most known for taking on the case of Junaid Hafeez, a faculty member at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, who was accused of spreading blasphemous content. Due to his involvement, Rehman began to receive many death threats for his decision to continue to represent Hafeez. Despite both his and the HRCP’s complaints regarding these death threats, they were not taken seriously by government bodies.
Rehman’s fight for justice turned out to be suicide mission. He was shot dead, in his own office by unknown assailants, just a month after registering an official complaint and a day before filing a petition with the Lahore High Court Multan Bench. While Hafeez is still incarcerated, his advocate’s killers roam freely.
Salman Taseer was a businessman and a veteran politician with the Pakistan People’s Party since his student days in the sixties. He was elected as the Governor of Punjab in 2010, a position in which he emerged as a strong critic of the blasphemy law. He openly supported Asia Bibi who had recently been imprisoned on blasphemy charges.
This strong stance eventually led to his assassination on January 4, 2011, when his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, shot him 27 times at close range during broad daylight in an upscale market of Islamabad.
Shahbaz Bhatti was a Christian minority rights defender who became the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, when the independent ministry was created in 2008. In his tenure in the ministry, he made several efforts to bring about interfaith harmony from proposals to ban hate speech to the reservation of four senate seats for minorities.
Bhatti was committed to reforming the blasphemy laws of the country as early as 1985 when he founded the Christian Liberation Front. He was also the founder of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance in 2002.
He was killed in February 2011 only a few weeks after the murder of Salman Taseer, another outspoken critic of the blasphemy law.
Those Who Continue to Defend Minority Rights
Arafat Mazhar is the director of a non-profit organization, Engage Pakistan, that seeks to reform the blasphemy laws of the country. The organization recently published a 350 page peer reviewed paper, “The Untold Truth of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law,” as part of an effort to create awareness and dialogue regarding one of Pakistan’s most draconian laws.
Aside from Engage, he is also a founder of Shehri Pakistan, an online platform for civic education in Urdu and a co-founder of Soch videos, an online investigative journalism company. He is also the founder of Puffball Studios, a Lahore based Animation, Design and Music Studio.
Jibran Nasir is a lawyer, politician and civil rights activist. He actively uses his social media platforms to create awareness about the rights of the minorities in Pakistan and other social issues in Pakistan. Recently he took on the case of Arzoo Masih who was allegedly kidnapped as part of a forced conversion and marriage. He has also founded two non profit organizations: Pakistan for All and Never Forget Pakistan. His work has been recognized by The Independent and Foreign Policy who noted him amongst three Pakistanis making a considerable effort to counter sectarian violence in the country.
Apart from being a veteran journalist, I.A. Rehman is also one of the oldest rights activists in the country. He was the editor-in-chief of the Pakistan Times by 1989 but left by 1993 under pressure for his criticism of the government. Since then Rehman has been involved in peace efforts with various local and international organizations. He established the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy which seeks to foster peace between the two countries through dialogue.
Rehman has also served as the secretary general of the HRCP and has been part of the founding efforts of many such international associations. He was the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Peace award in 2004. IA Rehman continues to contribute to the cause through columns in DAWN, the most prominent English newspaper of the country.
Peter Jacob is the current Executive Director at Centre of Social Justice in Lahore. Over his three decade long career, Jacob has worked as a freelance journalist, a researcher and a trainer apart from his main focus on human rights. HRCP, Amnesty International, Hotline Asia, and Forum Asia are some of the prominent local and international organizations Jacob has been associated with since 1988.
Hina Jilani is an advocate at the Supreme Court and currently also the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an organization which she also helped co-found. She has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s struggle for equal rights since starting her law practice in 1979 and co-founding the AGHS, Pakistan’s first all female legal firm, in 1980. Her commitment to working for the country’s marginalized and oppressed has gained her international recognition not only in the form of awards and accolades but also through positions in many international non-profit organizations.
Despite an assassination attempt and countless threats on her life, Jilani continues to work in Pakistan as an activist for the oppressed. She is also the sister of the late Asma Jahangir, a co-founder of HRCP: the two totgether can be considered a bulwark against the many systemic discrimination faced by the marginalized.
Saif ul Malook
Saif ul Malook is a lawyer who has dedicated his life to defending the rights of minorities. He is responsible for the acquittal of Asia Bibi who was wrongly and maliciously charged with blasphemy when a dispute broke out between her and her Muslim coworkers. This was an unprecedented case not just because Asia Bibi was acquitted after spending nine years in prison but also because it became the first blasphemy case to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Malook received many death threats while working on this case. While he had to leave the country for a brief amount of time after the final verdict, he has since returned to Pakistan to continue his struggle of getting justice for the wrongly accused who are otherwise left to rot in the gallows.
Saif ul Malook
Veerji Kohli is a human and minority activist from the Thar region of Sindh. In 1992, after spending 4 years as a bonded laborer, he dedicated his life to the fight against bonded labor and the fight for the liberation of his people. Since then, he has freed thousands of bonded laborers in the region.
Kohli, apart from being an advocate with the Sindh High Court and the chairperson of the Berano Union Council of Tharparkar, is also currently a Special Assistant to the Chief Minister of Sindh on Human Rights. He is also remembered for defending Kasturi Kohli in a gang rape case in Sindh in 2010.
Paul Bhatti – Punjab
Paul Bhatti is the brother and benefactor of the late Christian activist and Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti. Since his brothers assassination, Paul has taken some of the responsibilities of uplifting minority communities as the chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance and the minister of National Harmony and Minorities Affairs.
He is also the chairman of the Shahbaz Bhatti Memorial Trust which he founded in Pakistan in 2011. Bhatti’s efforts with this trust have resulted in many projects in upper Punjab that have focused on creating interfaith dialogue via community centers and empowerment through capacity building and legislative aid.
Haroon Sarab Diyal – KPK
Haroon Sarab Diyal is a minority rights activist from Peshawar. He is also the chairman of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement. Haroon is very vocal about the issues of minority rights in the country.
Haroon is known to speak for Hindus and other non Muslim minority groups both in Pakistan and internationally. He was most recently part of the Youth for Interfaith Harmony workshop organized in Peshawar by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. He is also a member of the National Lobbying Delegation for minorities whose efforts helped pass Hindu Marriage Laws of 2016-18.
Surendar Valasai – Sindh
Surendar Valasai is a Dalit journalist and recently also a current MPA (Member of Provincial Assembly) from the Tharparkar region of Sindh.
He formed the Scheduled Caste Federation of Pakistan to raise awareness regarding caste discrimination in Pakistan. He highlights the importance of recognizing that Pakistan, though it does not legally subscribe to the caste system, allows the caste practices that are ingrained in its culture.
He is also the current spokesperson for the Bilawal House.
Romana Bashir – Punjab
Romana Bashir is a women’s and minority rights defender. She started working to promote interfaith unity at the grassroots level in 1997. Since then she has also worked for groups such as the Christian Study Centre and the Peace and Development Foundation Rawalpindi
In 2012, she was appointed as a consultant for the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims by Pope Benedict XVI and became the first Pakistani woman to be appointed to such a position.
Jalila Haider – Balochistan
Jalila Haider is a human rights activist from the Hazara Community in Quetta. She is known to be the first woman lawyer from the minority community and is an outspoken advocate against persecution of the Hazaras.
In 2018, she participated in a hunger strike that demanded a visit from Pakistan’s Chief of Army
Staff after four separate attacks targeted their community in April 2018. After talks with the COAS, the targeted killings were termed as ethnic cleansing of the community.
Haider is also the founder of We The Humans – Pakistan, an organization which aims to empower the local community in Balochistan. Her efforts have resulted in her being named as one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2019 as well as being selected as an International Woman of Courage by the US Department of State in March 2020.