The Azmi brothers: Profiles in courage

By Musaddique Thange for

Mark Twain once remarked “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” Rarer, one may add, are people whose moral courage places them not only at odds with powerful, sinister forces but also in acute physical danger. When two people from the same family embody these qualities, the strength of their conviction can inspire an entire community.

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The late Advocate Shahid Azmi and his younger brother Advocate Khalid Azmi are those rare souls, whose sense of justice and fairness drives them to stand up for the law and for the rights of the underprivileged, despite the clear and present danger to their own lives.

Khalid Azmi in a programme in Azamgarh, May 2010

Shahid Azmi’s first encounter with the law came in 1994, when, at age 15, he was arrested on the charge of plotting to kill a right-wing Hindu leader in the wake of Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai. Convicted of attending terrorist training camps in Kashmir, Shahid spent seven years in jail. During this time he studied law, and on his release, became a full-time lawyer. Says younger brother Khalid Azmi, “In 1994, when my brother was arrested, nobody was there to help him out. Going through that…he decided to take up law, and looking at him, I decided to take up law too.”

Shahid however, was no ordinary lawyer. He was known to speak up for many that were unjustly arrested and to defend the constitutional right to legal representation for all. He gained respect in the legal fraternity as a fearless advocate who took up some of the most difficult cases, including those of 50 Muslim youth that were behind bars in terror cases. Says younger brother Khalid, “Whenever he would pick up a point in law…he would go deep into it…I can say that my brother was a genius. He was a scholar of law.”

On February 10, 2010, Shahid Azmi’s brilliant career in law and public service was brought to an abrupt end, by the bullets of cold-blooded murderers. He was shot to death in his office at Taxi Men colony in Kurla, Mumbai at point blank range.

Those that believed that Shahid Azmi’s murder meant an end to his cause were soon to be proved wrong. One of the high-profile cases that Shahid had taken up was that of Faheem Ansari, an Indian accused of carrying out reconnaissance work for the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. Shahid’s younger brother Khalid aged 29, himself an advocate, decided to represent Ansari, although the final arguments in the case would be made by senior counsel R V Mokashi. Both Khalid and Mokashi were appointed as legal counsel by Jamiat-ul-Ulema, Maharashtra. Ansari’s eventual acquittal was indeed Khalid’s greatest tribute to his brother. Khalid himself however, downplays the enormity of his courage. “I am just performing my duty as my brother used to perform”, says Khalid.

The investigation in Shahid Azmi’s murder, is far from over, with only the hit-men having been arrested. The main culprits, who conspired to take a young lawyer’s life with impunity remain at large. On being asked as to who could have been behind the crime, Khalid quotes his brother who had said “Most of the cases in which I am appearing are opposing the state. I don’t have fear from any gang or gangster. I just have fear from the state. These people will kill me.. definitely.. It will happen”

For his own life, Khalid Azmi is not fearful, although he is clearly dissatisfied with the protection provided to him by the Mumbai police. Recently, police announced they were on the lookout for a bald person who was seen video-shooting Khalid on the 5th floor of the Sessions Court in South Mumbai with a spy camera pen. Khalid tried to alert the police, but the individual fled before he could be identified.

If the objective of killing Shahid Azmi was to silence a voice that spoke for the voiceless, to “win” a case by denying legal representation to the accused or to intimidate lawyers that are standing in the way of wrongful convictions, the assailants have failed miserably. Not only has younger brother Khalid taken on Shahid’s mantle, the exemplary courage of the Azmi brothers is likely to be inspirational for scores of youth and underprivileged whose hearts are crying out for justice. In the Azmi brothers, one finds evidence of the indomitable human spirit and the courage of those who believe that the rule of law is something worth dying for.

For Muslim youth that are alarmed by the increasing atrocities against the community, Khalid Azmi has a message of action; “The young generation should come up and create a legal cell, and protect their rights, and take up cases where people have been falsely implicated in terrorist cases” says Khalid. He also has a word of advice for those that believe in change by taking the law in their own hands. “They should not take the law in their own hands, but the law can be used as a weapon…It will be more powerful, stronger than anything else” says Khalid.

Despite their humble beginnings, the Azmi brothers are today the epitome of courage and selfless service for many in the Muslim community. Justice, although a basic right of every human being, is often obtained only through struggle and sacrifice. By their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of justice, the Azmi brothers have demonstrated the power of courage, patience and diligence, and have become a worthy example for Muslim youth to emulate.