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Pakistan’s Towering Human Rights Defender

Published 20 Apr, 2021 12:15pm
Remembering Ibn Abdur Rehman: September 1, 1930 – April 12, 2021

Dunya to chalti rahe gi,” he said… It had been a difficult few weeks and Rehman sahib had called me to his office. He fished a packet of biscuits from behind a tottering stack of books and papers and would not let me speak until I had swallowed three. “I can’t switch off,” I finally admitted, guiltily aware that I was taking the liberty of whinging to a man who had spent 70 years as a human rights defender and lost friends and family in the line of duty. Every afternoon that week, he took to stopping me in the hallway to ask what exactly I had eaten for lunch and chiding me if I admitted that I had “forgotten” to do so.

It is not enough to say that he was a mentor and a teacher. When I started working at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), I would print out each press release or fact-finding report for him, knock diffidently at his door, wait for his gravelly “aiye aiye,” and then hold my breath as he replaced a word here, changed the syntax there and added a line or two with the seamless precision of a surgeon. “Your words should never be pinpricks,” he said, “they should be bold cuts.” He would know.

It was Rehman sahib who coined the phrase ‘the dirtiest elections’ in the run-up to the 2018 polls – much to the surprise of his colleagues at the press conference we were holding in Islamabad. He was not generally given to stinging superlatives. I was, however, delighted and promptly pressed ‘tweet’. Indeed, he was eminently tweetable, although I could not quite persuade him to take to Twitter himself.

His quiet energy was boundless. He thought nothing of rising at dawn to make what was then a six-hour journey to Multan to speak to activists from southern Punjab and return the same day. It was one of many road trips I took with him and there was something almost incongruous about stopping at midnight at McDonald’s in Sahiwal, with all its forced yellow cheerfulness after a conversation in the car about his first visit to Moscow. When I finally reached home, I discovered that he quietly had a crate of mangoes put in my car.

Indeed, he thrived on travel. Only Rehman sahib, on hearing that all flights to Karachi had been cancelled, could have matter-of-factly said he would drive down to deliver the Razia Bhatti Memorial Lecture.

Traveling to Balochistan put a special spring in his step. His quiet delight at being there was palpable and infectious. On one occasion, waiting to collect our luggage at Quetta airport, looking down I saw a deep cut on his ankle that was bleeding profusely; he, in his excitement at being back in Quetta, hadn’t even noticed. We rushed him off to the emergency room, by which time he was in considerable pain, masked as it was by his trademark stoicism. Of course, he flatly refused to stay at the hotel to recover and, within an hour, was at the press club for an engagement. As word spread that Rehman sahib was in town, friends and admirers arrived in a steady stream: political workers, trade union leaders, journalists, academics, lawyers, students. As a friend puts it, Rehman sahib was one of the few people whom everyone claimed as their own: he was an honorary Baloch, an honorary Sindhi, an honorary Pashtun. He was common ground.

In the evenings, while in Quetta, we would all gather in Rehman sahib’s hotel room and listen to conversations about history, politics and literature, punctuated by Rehman sahib’s wry humour. I found these gatherings intimidating at first, but realised that, if you were quiet for too long, he would draw you out, especially if you were among his younger listeners. He wanted to know what you thought; why and what you read and felt. In a toxic world of WhatsApp uncle-isms, Rehman sahib engaged with you as though you were his equal.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, I suspect he chafed more than anyone else at the curbs imposed on travel. My colleague Muhammad Ilyas (who protected and marshalled access to Rehman sahib at HRCP not unlike a lugubrious mother lion), jokingly told him that this was the longest he had gone without seeing the inside of an airport.

I wonder if he ever realised that, to his younger colleagues at HRCP, Rehman sahib was little short of a demi-god. I suspect not. He would probably have been tickled at the idea. He had a prodigious memory not only for facts, laws, poetry – but also for the personal lives of his colleagues.

To fresh recruits, we took to repeating what he told a friend on her first day at HRCP: “Your contract may give you a fixed job description, but you need to be prepared to do whatever is required of you.” He groomed people almost without their being conscious of it because he knew their potential long before they did.

If Asma Jahangir was HRCP’s beating heart, Rehman sahib was its head – unflappable, bringing order to chaos, giving counsel to anyone who needed it. His was the last word, not merely because he was an HRCP elder, but because he could see every cog and wheel turning. As we sat remembering him on HRCP’s sunny terrace the day he passed away, a friend recalled that Rehman sahib always knew what should be done. And if he did not know what should be done, he always knew what should not be done.

When he passed away, a young colleague tweeted a tremendously touching thread on what his loss had meant to her. It brought home once again that everyone has a Rehman sahib story, a Rehman sahib quip, no matter for how long or little had they known him. There was always enough to go around.

Dunya to chalti rahe gi, Rehman Sahib. It will just be ever so slightly harder.

Maheen Pracha works in research and communications at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.