Shahid (Azmi) Lives, Shaheeds Never Die

By Subhash Gatade,

It was the mid of 2008 when I first heard about Shahid Azmi. Friend/journalist Ajit Sahi had written a series of investigative articles in ‘Tehelka’ about the fraudulence of the police in framing innocent Muslim men, which had caused enough consternation among the chattering classes. As Ajit had revealed Shahid had played an important role in making the story happen. Apart from facilitating meeting with victims of system, he had himself provided many facts relevant to the story.

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And the name kept cropping in. I read an interview of Shahid where he discussed the challenges faced by lawyers like him who dared to take up inconvenient cases which at times put the police people on the defensive. I was still not aware of the many twists and turns in his life – his spending prime years of his youth behind bars as an innocent victim of TADA – or his classes at the prestigious TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) where he use to enthuse students in magical ways.

It was a period when Malegaon 2008 and the consequent investigation into Hindutva terror network had not happened and ‘criminalisation’ and ‘terrorisation’ of the ‘other’ was the sine quo non of daily life. It was a period when the Hindutva goons had the audacity to run SMS campaigns blaming the Muslim community for every other terror act in the country. ‘Every Muslim is Not a Terrorist, but every terrorist happens to be a Muslim’ use to be their key slogan to spread feeling of hatred among gullible masses. One still remembers how these goons had put up banners in prime locations in Bombay telling the people same thing after one of the terror acts.

Shahid Azmi

It was also a period when bar associations in different parts of the country had taken upon themselves the role of judges and had barred members from the lawyers’ community to take up any terror related cases. Few advocates who dared to challenge the unjust diktats of their ‘brethren’ had come under attack at different places. K.G. Kannabiran, former president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties and a famous human rights activist, who was himself an advocate by profession, had to issue an appeal to fellow lawyers to reconsider and rescind their decision of boycott of particular cases. In his well publicised appeal he had to tell them how their actions negate the right of the accused under article 21 of the constitution and their actions were neither morally nor constitutionally justified.

In such an ambience where one found very few advocates who could dare to take up such cases, Shahid’s role as an advocate really inspired confidence. One really yearned to meet him or interview him to get to know what made him such a man of steel at such a young age. And as events unfolded before our own eyes, the yearning will remain ever unfulfilled.

Just when the rest of the world became aware of Shahid’s legal intervention which brought to the fore the torture meted out to Muslim inmates inside the Arthur Road jail came the sad news that Shahid was killed ( 11th February 2010) in his own chamber by hired assassins. The judgment by the Bombay high courts in the Arthur Road jail was historic in the sense, it not only transferred the woman jailer from the Arthur road jail, it also saw to it that FIR be lodged against Ms Sathe for excessive and unwarranted use of force against the under trials but it also underlined the communalised atmosphere within the precincts of India’s jails.

Round face, always clean shaved and a demeanor resembling a upcoming hero of Bollywood, one can find very few such advocates who can earn name and fame within a short span of mere six years as Shahid did. He was merely 32 years when the assassin’s bullet pierced his body and silenced him forever.

But as friends reveal that this young advocate and human rights activist knew that death is lurking somewhere for him and would pounce on him any moment. No not that he was afflicted with any serious illness. His work for the stigmatised and the terrorised – wherein he was successful in pushing the powers that be on the defensive – or the zeal with which he took up cases had earned him many enemies in the underworld as well as those people who supposedly handle the law and order machinery. He had informed the police that he is receiving threats but nothing was done to trace those anonymous callers or provide security to this young man who was doing a yeoman’s job of making constitutional remedies available to the wronged.

Unlike many others belonging to his profession he did not charge the poor clients coming to him for succor, rather saw to it that even they do not spend monies for paperwork. He uses to make arrangements for paper from his own pocket. And not that he was concerned merely with particular cases, all those issues which concerned the democratic rights of people, he use to be in the forefront of taking up such issues as well. May it be the issue of displacement of thousands of people because of ‘beautification of Mithi river’ or those people who have been evicted from their jhuggi clusters, one could always count on him. Susan Abraham, a fellow advocate writes that he had also taken up cases of those people who were branded as ‘Maoists’ and sent behind bars for years together. At the time of his untimely death he was dealing with cases of innocents lodged in jail under the allegations of participation in Mumbai train blasts or those innocent people who were in jail as an accused in the Malegaon 2006 bombing case. It need not be repeated here how RSS Pracharak Aseemanand’s confession about involvement of Hindutva fanatics in the said operation ultimately paved the way for their release on bail few months back. He was of the firm opinion that all these accused would be set free much on the lines of the accused in the Mecca Masjid bomb blast case.

When one looks at the life history of Shahid one finds it really unbelievable. Yes, it has been told umpteenth times, but I cannot resist repeating it. It was sheer luck that during a police firing after the Babri mosque demolition, he was saved by a Hindu neighbour from the raging bullets, while he was returning from school in Govandi, Mumbai. Here he was implicated in a false case and arrested under the infamous TADA and had to spend many years behind bars inside Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Here he continued with his studies. In fact, he was one of those detenus who worked hard to make the library within the jail premises a better place.

He never tried to hide his past from anyone including his students at TISS where he uses to go as guest faculty. In one of his last lectures he told the students how during his early days in Deonar, where he use to live with his parents, he use to think whether it would be ever possible for him to enter the premises of this institute. And for his students it was difficult to believe how despite spending years in jail as an innocent victim of a fake case registered against him, how he could know intricacies of law in such details. And as has been written elsewhere people associated with democratic rights organisations also at times felt baffled when he use to speak with enough data and details of different court cases available at his fingertips.

It was understandable that when people had gathered to remember him in Mumbai one could find a plethora of people from various walks of life. Ranging from many leading personalities in town the hall was filled with students, human rights activists and families of all those whose near and dear ones once languished in jail and were out only because of Shahid’s legal acumen and commitment. Similar gathering was witnessed merely three days after this event when a condolence meeting was held in his honour in Jamia Millia Islamia.

There is no doubt that Shahid would have been still alive and would have metamorphosed into the highest paid criminal lawyer tomorrow if he would have been ready to traverse the beaten path. If he would start dealing with state repression, structural violence and systemic injustices as ‘cases’ and not as part of broader and wider struggle for justice, he would have been still amongst us. The hired assassins killed him, it is possible that his actual killers did not have any personal enmity with him but for all those people/forces/institutions which benefit from status quo his passion for justice, his quest for fighting deprivations, discriminations, humiliations of various kinds was an eyesore. And they wanted him dead at any cost.

The martyrdom of Shahid Azmi reminds one of similar assassination of another young lawyer from Hubli (Karnataka) whose name was Naushad Kasim who was killed in April 2009.

Naushad (39) practiced both in Mangalore and Udupi and was a hard-working lawyer, known for his ethics, and was also part of the human rights movement in Karnataka. He did not hesitate to take on the establishment by filing private complaints against the police on behalf of his clients and was active in providing legal assistance to `alleged’ terrorists arrested by the district police. Naushad was instrumental in bailing out innocent victims who were languishing in jail because of highhandedness of the police machinery and the inability of their near and dear ones to engage a good lawyer. Before his death Naushad was continuously receiving death threats and had disclosed this to his friends that he is feared of police.

At the time of his death he was fighting the case of 25 innocent people who had been arrested by the Karnataka police under charges of being accomplice in the murder of Sukananda Shetty, a BJP and Bajrang Dal leader. He was even successful in bailing out 13 of these innocents who were victims of a conspiracy hatched a group of police officials at the behest of some seniors in the Hindutva establishment. He was also fighting the case of Atul Rao who was lodged in jail as an accused in the murder of Padampriya, wife of a BJP MLA Raghupati Bhatt.He had also taken up the case of Rashid Malbari, a close associate of Dawood Ibrahim.

The senior-most advocate in the Mangalore Bar Association K. Purushotham Poojary (85) – under whose guidance Kashimji was practising law for the last nine years- lodged a complaint with the Pandeshwar police station here accusing four police officers of murdering Naushad Kasim who was like a ‘son’ to him. Naushad Kasim’s death and the attempts at cover up also prompted the Mangalore Bar Association demand a CBI probe into the case.

..The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Cowardice asks the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: is it politic? Vanity asks the question: is it popular?
But conscience asks the question: is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular- but one must take it simply because it is right.
– Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

It has been more than two years that Shahid was assassinated or Naushad Kasim was killed for similar reasons. While remembering them and paying our tribute to them it is also an occasion to see whether the cause for which they fought lies abandoned?

One would like to end this small note by mentioning two outstanding individuals who in their own way have tried to take up cases of ‘terrorists’ and fought valiantly to render them justice.

Ismail Jalagir, a senior counsel from Hubli (Karnataka) and Mohammad Shoaib, a senior advocate from Lucknow (U.P.) might not have heard about each other. But even their strongest critics would admit that they are made of the same mettle.What they have done and achieved – without bothering about the dangers to personal security and wellbeing – is really stupendous. They not only defied the unethical ban imposed by their fellow ‘brethren’ from their profession about not taking up specific cases but also exposed the manner in which a particular community is being ‘stigmatised and terrorised’ with due connivance of the police, media and a pliant legal fraternity.

It is for everyone to see that but for the efforts of Mohammad Shoaib, Aftab Alam Ansari from Kolkatta would have been languishing in jail as being a ‘Lashkar-e-Toiba’ operative supposedly involved in the bomb blasts in UP courts. And there would have been no counsel for people like Asadullah Abubaker, Riyazuddin Nasir, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Shakeel from Hubli and adjoining areas if Ismail Jalagir had not decided to take the plunge. In fact when Karnataka police arrested this foursome under charges of ‘terrorism’ there was no one to argue their case. Looking at the fact that nobody was ready to take up the cases of these people after the unanimous resolution by the Hubli bar association which had resolved not to fight cases on behalf of persons charged with ‘anti-national’ activities, Ismail Jalagir decided to act. It need be emphasised that for such courageous act he faced wrath of Sangh Parivar. Miscreants tried to set fire to his office and even his junior’s house was stoned.

Their battle still continues.

In one of his last interview Shahid told the correspondent how he grew up seeing the police barge in night and day in their slum, terrorising and kidnapping people, which bred in him a hatred — nafrat — for the police. But it was noteworthy that he gave a positive direction to this hatred and went down fighting for the people. The guiding of principles of Shahid’s life was the following lines from the famous easy, Lessons of Injustice by barrister Roy Black:

“By showing me injustice, he taught me to love justice. By teaching me what pain and humiliation were all about, he awakened my heart to mercy. Through these hard- ships I learned hard lessons. Fight against prejudice, battle the oppressors, support the underdog.”

Let celebrate martyrdom of Shahid as Shahid lives. Shaheeds never die.

(Subhash Gatade is a noted activist and writer. He author of Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India and The Saffron Condition: Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India. )

Related Link: First Shahid Azmi Memorial Lecture on 11th Feb. in Mumbai