April 12, 2022

By Xari Jalil


A year has gone by, and the gaping void left behind by the late veteran human rights activist, Mr I.A Rehman, is as vacuous today as then. To fill the shoes of a man, who struggled for human rights including freedom of expression along with several other causes – is no easy task.

Ibn Abdur Rehman, who belonged to a family of landowners, was born in 1930 in Haryana, British India.

After Partition, his father settled and had a law practice in Multan. I.A Rehman came to Lahore later, and enrolled first in Islamia college and then Government College from where he did his MSc Physics. During his student days he found a job in the Food Department on the basis of his FSc from Aligarh.

Meanwhile, he also started writing, and finally landed a job at the Pakistan Times between 1951-52.

For Mr Rehman, life started out with journalism first. He was the editor at Pakistan Times and is often remembered as one of the bravest ones for standing up against any form of censorship. Struggling against the status quo or speaking out for basic rights was part of him. Even then he joined the Journalist Trade Union and associated with labour leaders, but never let any of that tinge his impartiality as a journalist.

Veteran journalist Rashed Rehman says that he was one of the bravest editors, and was of the same mettle as Mazhar Ali Khan, Ahmed Ali and Faiz Ahmed, when it came to standing up for freedom of expression.

“Though there were various ups and downs in Pakistan’s political scenario, Mr Rehman’s principles never changed, because he belonged to that honourable generation who did not shirk from their beliefs – a generation which is becoming more and more short-lived in our collective memories,” says Rashed Rehman. “He was committed, principled, and soldiered on no matter what. Asma Jahangir could not have found anyone better than I.A Rehman when it came to setting up the HRCP. If one begins to count his achievements there will be an endless number of them. But after everything he achieved, Rehman Sb remained endearing and respectful even to the younger generation. He never accosted anyone.”

By Mr I.A Rehman’s own admission, he began engaging with human rights activism after 1985 when he and the late Asma Jahangir both organised a convention in Lahore, during which a decision was made which would later lead to the establishment of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). I.A Rehman became the organisation’s former honorary spokesperson and secretary-general. Among other platforms, Mr Rehman has also formed the Pak-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, along with Dr Mubashir Hasan.


Hina Jillani, Chairperson of the HRCP today, remembers him a giant in the field of activism and says that his activism transcended geographical boundaries and that he infused a quiet energy into efforts advocating peace and pluralism in South Asia. “Indeed, his vast knowledge was such that Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, at a reference last year, said he wished he had had the chance to spend more time in conversation with Mr Rehman,” she wrote on behalf of the HRCP, which marked his first anniversary on Tuesday, April 12.

“Throughout his life, Mr Rehman championed a wide range of human rights causes,” she writes. “A veteran journalist, he wrote with exceptional clarity to advocate an end to enforced disappearances and the death penalty, while defending constitutionalism, freedom of expression and the rights of religious minorities. He was an integral part of the women’s movement and labour rights movement, while his particular affection and concern for Balochistan kept his finger on the pulse of the province for years.

Under Mr Rehman’s steady leadership, which lasted over 25 years, HRCP grew into an internationally credible human rights organisation and maintained its independence and non-partisanship. During this time, Mr Rehman mentored scores of young human rights defenders across the country, all of whom recall his warmth, perspicacity and unshakeable integrity.”

While I.A Rehman left a lasting impact on the field of human rights, for his son Asha’ar Rehman, a senior journalist, his father would always be remembered as a friend more than anything else.


“He was a friend and a guide,” says Mr Asha’ar Rehman. “Though we seldom conversed with each other, he always knew what was going through our – his children’s minds. And we also guessed what he was thinking. We envied his clarity and he allowed us our grey areas. When he departed, that was the time when I and probably my siblings most depended on him as a candid friend. After he left us, it seemed as if we have lost many personalities… we are still struggling to cope with it.”

“Of course, I remember and miss him every day,” says Ahmar Rehman. “But the thing that I remember most about Abba, was the power he exuded. Since I was a child I took him as a very powerful man. At first, as a child, I thought he was physically powerful. But as we grew up, I realized he had a different kind of power – one that made me feel secure. When he was not around I felt unsafe. But the other thing about him that impressed me was that he would remember anything he had read just once!” Ahmar also mentions Mr Rehman’s kindness and humbleness. “He did things for people but never flaunted it about. He did them in secret and we would only discover later.”


She adds that he remained a ‘moral compass’ for many including political leaders, students, peasants and trade unionists.

Nida Aly, Executive Director of AGHS (Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell) says Mr Rehman was a man of ‘few words but with the most wisdom I have ever seen in any person’.

“He was Asma’s mentor and she would always turn to him for advice and we continued to do the same as he was an oracle of information and wisdom for all of us,” remembers Aly. “After Asma passed away he became a very important source of guidance and strength for us, but as he left, we lost a true believer of human rights and democratic values. The sense of social justice was so deeply entrenched in him as a person. Sadly there will never be another I.A Rehman or Asma for Pakistan. We can only hope to continue their legacy through our work.”

Mr Rehman reached so many people across the board not just as a human rights activist but as a person too. People who knew him well treasure their memories with him.

“I vividly remember my first meeting with him in the Viewpoint office as Assistant Editor,” says Khawar Mumtaz, women rights activist and author. “Welcoming, smiling he was my mentor giving tips about reporting and writing. Those years shine out for me as the best period of my professional career. He remained the go-to person for me from simple to complex issues. I was always amazed at his depth of knowledge, store of poetry, literature, political and parliamentary history — not to forget cinema and theatre – and sense of humour! His support was always there and his columns were treasured for their analysis. And he remained so modest and unassuming, always available to listen and engage. He is sorely missed he remains in our midst in spirit.”

Peter Jacob, minority rights activist and Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice, says that he can never forget how Mr Rehman helped him come out of a very difficult phase in his life.

“I was suffering from partial paralysis, and I remember how we often met each other on morning walks during the time I was recovering,” he says. “Rehman Sahib took so much interest in my recovery – he advised on what exercises I must do, how and when I must do them. For me the encouraging part was that he himself had recovered from it and Hina (Jillani) told me if he could do it, so could I.”

Jacob calls him his ‘healer’ and an inspiration.

“He was such jolly company, and I looked up to him a lot, often consulting him before taking steps. He was the kind of person who lived with high ideas, without minding the personal cost, without indulging in any expectations – he was a man of great contentment and dedication, and he never aspired for high offices. His wisdom will always shine on us.”

Muhammad Tahseen, Executive Director of South Asia Partnership (Pakistan), Mr Rehman was a wonder to meet during his college days.

“We had invited him to open our program, where Dr Abdus Salam was our guest,” says Tahseen. “Even Dr Salam was astounded by the way Rehman Sahib explained his works. That is my earliest memory of being awe-struck by him. I was also told by another mentor of mine, Amartya Sen, that Pakistan was incredibly “lucky to have a person like Rehman Sahib”.

Today, everyone who knew him recognizes that Mr Rehman cannot be replaced, that whatever he did for human rights was irreplaceable.

“We celebrate his life even as we remain in his debt,”  says Hina.


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