My article for The News on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 – in which I forgot to mention the resolution Iqbal Haider tried to get the Senate to pass against the cold-blooded murder of young Saima Sarwar in the office of Hina Jillani at the behest of her own parents, simply because she wanted a divorce from her abusive husband. Some senators from FATA physically attacked him for it (See my article ‘There is no ‘honour’ in killing).
The protests outside Karachi Press Club will be all the poorer without Senator Syed Iqbal Haider’s energising presence. Activists promoting any good cause could count on him to be there — whether it was justice for Mukhtaran Mai, protest against Shia killings, or a call for peace between India and Pakistan.
Essentially, he was always there to support any assertion of human rights. And he could be relied upon to inject energy into a gathering if asked to address it. If not, he would stand in silent support, with none of the airs and graces one might expect from someone who had held such exalted positions in government — Senator, Federal Law Minister, Attorney General of Pakistan.
The TV cameras would inevitably find him and focus on him as he made a passionate speech, the pitch and temp rising as he blasted extremists, terrorists, mischief makers, incompetent bureaucrats, corrupt politicians and army generals. He boldly and openly spoke out against anyone contributing to make life hell for ordinary people.
A graduate of the Punjab University Law College, he had been closely associated with the late Benazir Bhutto, and was active in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against the military dictator Ziaul Haq, a cause for which he was arrested several times. He had also borne his share of police baton charges and tear gas.
He was a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP, which he later served as co-Chairperson) and of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD). In 2005, he resigned from the PPP to concentrate on human rights activism.
“We mourn the loss of Mr Iqbal Haider, our dear friend from Pakistan. His contribution to the cause of Indo/ Pak peace process was enormous!” tweeted the film producer Mahesh Bhatt on hearing the news.
In November 2007, Iqbal Haider was among those present at the HRCP office in Lahore where activists gathered to formulate a response to Gen Musharraf’s ‘Emergency’. When the police raided the building and started rounding up activists, Iqbal Haider put up a spirited resistance, spryly skipping around the security walas trying to grab him and confiscate his cell phone, which he loudly refused to give up. The memory remains in many minds as a moment of high drama and also a source of much mirth.
The cell phone was eventually wrested from him and the arrested activists were carted off (literally, in the case of Salima Hashmi who calmly continued writing her notes, forcing the police to heave up the chair she was sitting on and carry it to the police mobile, at which point she got off and hopped into the van of her own accord). At the sub-jail, a house in Model Town, Iqbal Haider gleefully produced another cell phone to keep up his channel of communication with the outside world.
The detained activists made light of the situation, and much of the home-cooked feasts that were delivered to them, for the two days they were there. Still, it must have been difficult for those like Iqbal Haider who were on medication.
His commitment to peace between India and Pakistan was absolute and he spoke out boldly for it. At a demonstration outside the Karachi Press Club to condemn the Mumbai attacks of Nov 26, 2008, he pointed out the timing of these attacks, following President Asif Ali Zardari’s address to the Hindustan Times Conclave, at which he had stated that Pakistan would follow a no-first use nuclear policy. The attack four days later was no coincidence, suggested Iqbal Haider, as those involved had moved earlier than originally planned in order to teach the elected civilian government a lesson.
In fact, he was due to visit Mumbai for the fourth anniversary of the terror attacks, and as well as to attend a function in honour of Kuldip Nayar on November 28.
The Constitutional Petition (No.48/2010) he filed and pursued pro bono in July 2010 before the Supreme Court on behalf of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and PILER led to the Court ordering all cases of imprisoned fishermen to be heard expeditiously, preferably within a period of six weeks. The Court also ruled that all prisoners held under the Foreigners Act should be released and repatriated forthwith, if they had completed their sentences.
As a result, some 442 Indian fishermen were released and repatriated in one go, starting the process of a large number of Indian prisoners being released from Pakistan and vice versa.
Iqbal Haider was among the joint India-Pakistan delegation including Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid and Karamat Ali, as well as Kuldip Nayar, Mahesh Bhatt and Jatin Desai, who met with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and then home minister P. Chidambaram in New Delhi, in September. The meeting led to India releasing some 50 Pakistani fishermen as a reciprocal gesture.
In September 2011, despite his ill health, Jatin Desai recalls how Iqbal Haider travelled a gruelling 700 km by road to meet the fisherfolk of Gujarat, Daman and Diu in India, along with Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid and trade unionist Karamat Ali. It was their consistent efforts that led to the release of another large batch of Indian fishermen (179) from Malir Jail, Karachi, in January 2012.
“In his passing away, the fishing community of Gujarat and Diu (India) has lost a true friend and a saviour,” said the Porbandar Boat Owners’ Association and fishermen of Gujarat and Diu in a statement shared by Jatin Desai.
His friends worried for his safety and his health. Just six months ago, he had accepted the position of President, the Forum for Secular Pakistan (FSP), formed in response to the growing religion extremism in the country.
Iqbal Haider was a firm believer in secular values, a secular state and secular education, and the right of each person to profess their own religious beliefs, a fundamental right which is also enshrined as Article 20 in the Constitution.
For all the seriousness of the causes he supported, Iqbal Haider was a fun-loving person and a gentleman who went by the unlikely nickname ‘Groovy’. He was hospitalised just last month after feeling unwell and seemed to have recovered but was re-admitted last week with breathing difficulties and heart problems. When he sent an SMS out to friends telling them he was in the CCU in a Karachi hospital, no one expected that he would breathe his last there just two days later, on the morning of Nov 11.
As Lahore-based lawyer and environmentalist Rafay Alam’s tweeted: “RIP Senator Iqbal Haider. Your Groove will be missed.”
Yes, we will miss you Iqbal Haider, in all the struggles you were engaged with. I imagine you smiling upon us as these struggles continue, given impetus not only by your memory but your decades of consistent hard work and passion.