Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mahtab Alam: Advocate Of The Terrorised: Remembering Shahid Azmi, On The Day He Was Murdered

11th February 2010. Taximan Colony, Kurla, Mumbai. This was just another day for Rehana Azmi. Her son, Shahid Azmi, a Mumbai based lawyer handling criminal and human rights cases at trial courts as well the High Court, had just returned from work. While Shahid changed and put his lawyer’s uniform to rest for the day, Rehana started preparing tea for him. His mobile rang. It was a call from his office assistant and court clerk Inder. He asked Shahid to come over and meet with some clients who had come to meet him. Shahid politely asked him to inform them to visit the next day in the morning, as it was already very late in the evening. “Bhai, wo kah rahe hain urgent matter hai (It’s an urgent matter, please come over),” came the reply. 

Given Shahid’s commitment towards his clients, no matter who they were, potential or unknown, he rushed to meet them in his office. Before leaving, his mother called out to him, “Beta, chai to peeta ja” (Have tea and go). “Ammi, abhi aata hoon (I will be right back),” came his reply. “Par, Shahid kabhi nahi lauta” (But he never returned), said Rehana, with moist eyes when I met her a few years back. But she was quick to mention, “Par hum zaroor milenge jannat mein”. (We will certainly meet in heaven).

Shahid didn’t come back because he was shot dead by some unidentified gunmen that evening, who came posing as clients in need. He was just 32 back then. Though born and brought up in Mumbai’s suburb Govandi/Deonar, an area better known for TISS, his familial lineage traces back to Azamgarh, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, often projected as a ‘Nursery of Terror’. His teenage years were marked with the fires of communal violence which spread across Bombay in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. A momentary flirtation and a swift disillusionment with militancy followed. But soon after, he was picked up by the police on alleged charges of conspiracy to kill Hindu leaders. 
The only ‘evidence’ against him was a confession he had never made. Yet, he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment. He was a minor when he was arrested under TADA, and was first sent to Arthur Road Jail, and then the Tihar in Delhi, as TADA superseded the Juvenile Justice Act. He was brutally tortured at Delhi Police’s infamous Special Cell in Lodhi Road and was forced to confess to a crime that was never intended, let alone committed.
While lodged at Tihar Jail, Shahid enrolled himself for graduation and began helping other inmates to pursue their cases in the court of law. Released in 2001, he came home and enrolled for journalism and law school. Three years later, he quit a paid sub-editor’s job to join defence lawyer Majeed Memon as a junior at Rs 2,000 a month. Later, he started his own practice that made a lasting difference. In a short period of just 7 years of his career as a lawyer, he made a reputation for his commitment to justice. The most remarkable thing about him was that he still chose to engage with the system, a system that criminalised and brutalized him.
He was a living example of what barrister Roy Black, an American criminal defense lawyer, meant when he said “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.” Hence, it would not be unfair to say that he was a man produced, consumed and later set to his ‘right place’ , by the system. 
One can still find Roy Black’s words hanging in the same office where he was killed, and from where his younger brother Khalid Azmi now works. Khalid took up his brother’s work two weeks after Shahid’s murder. “I want to take up my brother’s cause and I take it as a matter of challenge as well as a real tribute to him,” he had told me then. “I don’t fear for my life. The cause is more important than my life and I am ready to pay any the price for it, even if it is with my life,” he had determinedly told me when I asked him why he was putting his life in danger. In a recent conversation, he reiterated his pledge to carry forward the legacy of Shahid. What is even more heartening is that across the country, there are hundreds of youth, especially Muslims—both men and women, who have taken inspiration from Shahid and are now either studying or practising law. In fact, there are half a dozen of them in Taximan Colony itself.
At the time of his murder, Shahid was fighting dozens of cases related to terrorism. He was a lawyer for one of the accused in 26/11 case, apart from the Aurangabad Arms Haul Case, Mumbai Train Bomb Blast cases and cases of those accused in the Malegaon bombing. Six months after Shahid’s murder, his client in 26/11 case, Faheem Ansari, was acquitted of all the charges by a special court. The prosecution went up to the Supreme Court challenging the verdict but the Supreme Court also upheld the verdict. This was only possible because during the argument at the special court, Shahid had built a solid base and demolished the prosecution’s accusation on his client of being part of the conspiracy in 26/11 attack. 
Similarly, due to his initial involvement in the Aurangabad Arms Haul and the Malegaon Cases, the accused could avail bail over a period of time. Explaining his focus on terror related cases, Shahid once told a reporter, “I am pained, the heart bleeds, when I hear what they have endured. But, in spite of all that, it will never be easy for me to see an innocent being sent behind bars or to the gallows only because the crime alleged was a bomb blast.” Unfortunately, Faheem Ansari was implicated in yet another case of attack at the Rampur CRPF centre in Uttar Pradesh. Having followed the case and read the case files, I can say that this, too, is a completely concocted case.
What has happened to Shahid’s murder case? Have the killers been brought to justice? “It’s moving on at a snail’s pace. Charges are yet to be framed even after five years,” says Khalid. However, in this period, his assailants, alleged members of ‘nationalist’ underworld don Bharat Nepali gang, have been successful in securing relief in different forms. While one of the accused, Vinod Vichare, was able to secure bail in July 2012, Gangster Santosh Shetty, another accused in the case, was discharged by the Bombay High Court in October 2014. Not only that, in January 2011, the special Maharashtra Control Of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA) court dropped the MCOCA charges against four people accused in the case, buying the defense’s argument that “the police failed to prove the underworld links as well as the pecuniary gain in killing Azmi”
Here, one is reminded of Shahid’s petition in the Supreme Court challenging MCOCA and its selective use against Muslim youth accused of terrorism. How true was he when he said that MCOCA would be used to target Muslim youth. Moreover, there have also been attempts to sabotage the evidences, and the sole eyewitness has been threatened to make him turn hostile. Notably, in mid April 2011, there was an alleged plan to kill Khalid Azmi by some of the associates of these underworld gangs. Three people were arrested in this connection with guns in the court premises. According to Khalid, when the three accused were arrested, only three important persons were present in the court and he was one of them.
As strange as it may sound, but the fact of the matter remains that Shahid was in love with justice, he lived and died for justice, but his own family members are still waiting for justice.“Par Beta, Allah ke ghar mein der hai, andher nahi, yahan nahi to wahan to mere bete ke qatilon ko saza zaroor milegi (In the Lord’s house, there may be delay, but justice is finally accomplished. The killers of my son would get their due punishment)” said Shahid’s mother Rehana during one of our meetings. Now, the question is whether she would have to wait forever or would the system ensure that the culprits are brought to justice in this world only.
Mahtab Alam is a civil rights activist and writer. His twitter handle is @MahtabNama
NB - Horkheimer’s description of theology is that it is a ‘yearning for a state in which the murderer might not triumph over the innocent victim.’ See more in The Abyss of modernity