Many years ago, I.A. Rehman said to my young, overconfident, and impatient self, “This [struggle for human rights] is a marathon, not a sprint.” Rehman’s long, victorious marathon came to an end on April 12. Three generations of Pakistani human rights activists, journalists, trade unionists, women rights advocates, farmers, religious minorities, and millions of ordinary Pakistanis have been left orphaned. Rehman, or “Rehman Sahib” as he was almost universally known, started working as a journalist and human rights activist in the early 1950s and published his last regular newspaper column four days before his death.
He opposed and actively resisted four military dictatorships and in return was imprisoned, fired from jobs, threatened, and banned. He was one of the first and loudest voices to oppose Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws. His resolve to help victims of these laws was not dampened even when his nephew, the lawyer Rashid Rehman, was assassinated in 2014 for representing a university professor charged under the blasphemy law. Even at nearly 90 years old, Rehman would join protest camps for victims of enforced disappearances, walk with landless peasants, and stand on the frontline holding placards for the Aurat (Women’s) March.
In 1990, Rehman joined the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as a director and later secretary-general and for the next 25 years his leadership and vision helped turn it into Pakistan’s largest and most effective human rights organization. In 1994 Human Rights Watch honored him for his human rights activism. For more than six decades he remained the flagbearer for free expression in Pakistan.
His long battle with tyranny, oppression and injustice did not make him bitter or cynical. He retained his sense of humor, calm, and an informed sense of optimism. Pakistan and the world will miss Rehman for his unwavering belief in freedom of expression, rule of law, equality, and above all for his decency and courage.
In 2018, when Rehman’s protégé and friend Asma Jahangir, who herself was an icon for human rights, passed away, he said to me in Urdu, “yeh Janay ka waqt nahien thaa” (“It was not time yet”). For Pakistan’s human rights movement, no time for the departure of Rehman and Asma would have been the right time. The ultimate tribute to Rehman Sahib’s legacy is to take his struggle forward.