With the demise of Iqbal Haider, Pakistan has lost a leading liberal voice, a committed champion of human rights and the supremacy of law, a valiant defender of democracy, and, above all, an extremely caring person who was always true to his heart. His ideologically-driven active political career spanning over four decades, based on strong convictions and solid principles, is a testament to his consistent struggle for the cause of humanity.
Haider wanted to liberate Pakistan from the shackles of religious bigots. He was a staunch opponent of General Ziaul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ and a foremost critic of the consequent Talibanisation of society. One of his last deeds before leaving us was to unite his liberal friends in Karachi to establish the Forum for Secular Pakistan, as an institutional response to the growing threat from religious extremism. Reclaiming Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s secular legacy was a cause he always professed and worked for.
Iqbal Haider worked tirelessly for the rights of the unprivileged and supremacy of law in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was founded in his office and he remained its co-chairperson and secretary general until recently. As a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, he contested many challenging cases, defending the fundamental rights of bonded labour, victims of honour killing and missing persons. During and after General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s regime, he led the civil society movement to restore the higher judiciary and steadfastly supported the stance of the Supreme Court in high profile cases concerning political corruption, violence in Karachi and the rights of the Baloch people.
Haider’s fight for democracy was no less significant. He entered national politics in the 1970s through the leftist Qaumi Mahaz-e-Azadi party of Meraj Muhammad Khan and has always been identified with that wing of politics ever since. The 1980s also saw him joining the Pakistan Peoples Party and serving in various leadership positions, mostly provincial, until becoming a party senator in 1991. In 1993, he served in the second government of premier Benazir Bhutto, first as law minister, then as human rights minister and finally, as attorney general. He never cared about any position of power and had an ability as a parliamentarian to reach across the aisles for accommodating arch political rivals.
Haider was by nature anti-war and pro-peace. He believed in national liberation movements but opposed any recourse to violence for the purpose. He was an outspoken critic of the jihad in Kashmir. In recent years, besides assuming the HRCP responsibility, he proactively participated in the activities of Aman Ki Asha, the joint India-Pakistan media-civil society initiative for closer people-to-people links between the two countries. He campaigned for a nuclear-free South Asia. He called for open borders and greater trade between India and Pakistan. For that, he and other peace activists also received the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice in 2010.
Haider was a diehard humanist. Those who knew him long enough knew what a good soul he was — simple, down-to-earth, with no pretentions. There was hardly ever a gap between his words and deeds or between his public position and personal life. In a society where corruption is rampant, he had a long stint in politics, remained senator for over a decade and held powerful ministerial portfolios such as law — and yet, there is not a single charge of corruption against him. It was a great privilege to know him personally. Like most of his friendships, it was a common cause that brought us together back in the mid-1990s, when I reported some gruesome stories of child and woman rights violations in the media. As law minister, he took swift action against the culprits and in support of the victims in each case.
It is hard to accept the tragedy of losing a person who was so full of life and passion. He has left us all too early but with lots of lasting memories. The noble lessons of his upright life and all the heroic struggles it entailed are worth emulating for all those who want to make a difference in recreating Pakistan’s destiny towards a better future.