Remembering Shahid Azmi, the Shaheed: Mahtab Alam
Guest post by MAHTAB ALAM
It must have been around nine pm on 11th February last year. The nightfall and Delhi’s infamous wintry chill ensured that I stayed indoors at the mercy of closed walls and work for company. Sure enough, I was seated warmly in my setting of a cyber cafe of Jamia Nagar in Okhla. Okhla, an area I had migrated to as a 14 year boy from my hometown, to pursue my further education, like many other Muslim students from other parts of this country. As Basharat Peer has rightly observed, ‘India’s Muslims don’t move to Delhi; they move to Okhla’.
I was disturbed from my work by a call on my mobile. The caller, a friend of mine who used to live in Mumbai was calling to break the sad news of Shahid Azmi being shot dead by some ‘unidentified’ gunmen in his office late in the evening. The news was confirmed by my friends in Mumbai. It shook me and for a moment, I went numb with disbelief.
Shahid was just 32 when he was martyred. Though born and brought up in Mumbai’s suburb Deonar, an area better known for TISS, his familial linage traces back to Azamgarh, a city I had visited just a week before his murder. During my visits to Azamgarh, I found people across the age group speaking very high of him and always viewed him with respect. He was arrested by police from his home in 1994 for ‘conspiring’ to kill India’s top politicians. The only evidence was a confession he had never made. Yet, he was given five years of imprisonment. While at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, Shahid enrolled himself for graduation and began helping other inmates to peruse their cases in the court of law. When released in 2001, he came home and enrolled for journalism and law school. Three years later, he quit a paying 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 gained both fame and notoriety for his commitment for Justice.It would not be unfair to say that, he was a man produced, consumed and later set to his ‘right place’ by the system.
I had first heard about Shahid in early 2009 in a meeting organised at Advocate Prashant Bhushan’s residence, when we were told that he was the right person to avail the list of accused in terror related cases of Maharastra since he was representing many of them. Later, at a condolence gathering organised by Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, Advocate Prashant, recalling his association and few of his meetings with Shahid said, “Shahid was a brilliant lawyer with an extraordinary commitment for justice”.
In the last days of January of 2009, Shahid and I were invited as resource persons to speak at a workshop of paralegal activists at Mumbai organised by the Maharashtra chapter of Association for the Protection of Civil Rights (APCR), a civil rights’ group I was working with till I moved to Jharkhand to work at the grassroots. But I could not meet him as I arrived a day late. I still remember when I recall that the participants of the workshop were greatly impressed by his presentation and his personality. It reminds me of the words of Monica Sakrani, a friend of Shahid’s and associated with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. In an obituary piece that appeared in Economic and Political Weekly, “He was good at explaining things and came to Tata Institute of Social Sciences to take classes for the students as a guest faculty. His honesty, extensive knowledge, unassuming demeanor, good looks, boyish charm, soft voice and self-deprecating humour made him win over the students completely. They would be unwilling to let him go and the consensus every year was that his class was the best that they had ever had”. Later, when I saw the video of his presentation for APCR’s workshop, I realised I could not agree with them any less.
“He would tell the students about his childhood in Deonar, and how during his growing years he saw the institute and dreamt of entering it one day and that he had never imagined that he would come there one day to take a class. He would open up and share extremely personal, painful experiences with the students describing his years in the jail and the manner in which he was tortured. When asked about the most painful torture that he went through, he replied, not being given the Sehri (breakfast) during the month of Ramzan. He said that this was more painful than the physical torture that he went through. When students asked him what he felt the solutions to the problems were, he would softly reply – justice,” wrote Monica.
“At the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) and Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) both of which he was an active member of, everyone respected him for his knowledge and experience which was far beyond his young years and took his counsel on important issues including the legal cases”. But she also reminds us, “His work was not confined to only defending the cases that he gained notoriety for. He pro-actively took up causes of the oustees of the Mithi river beautification project and slum dwellers whose houses were demolished…He did not confine himself to reading his briefs and defending his cases well but also in analyzing them. He wanted to do his PhD and document the terror cases. In Mumbai he was probably the most knowledgeable person about terrorism, counter terrorism and the state’s modus operandi. At meetings, he would speak softly, slowly and concisely on issues and hold everyone’s attention with his layered and insightful analysis”.
Monica calling Shahid as the most knowledgeable person about terrorism and counter terrorism in Mumbai is confirmed by the report, The “Anti-Nationals”—Arbitrary Detention and Torture of Terrorism Suspects in India recently released by Human Rights Watch (HRW). Shahid is the only lawyer based in Mumbai who’s acknowledged in the report and quoted at various places. Letta Tayler, a researcher in the Terrorism and Counterterrorism program at HRW and one of the writers of the report told me that she had met Shahid in June 2009 and he meticulously described the alleged abuse of his Muslim clients who were accused of links to deadly bomb blasts in 2008 in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Jaipur. “As I listened to his words, I couldn’t help but fear for his future. The light he radiated seemed impossibly bright,” she recalled. “During more than five years in prison, Azmi explained to us, he decided that the most effective way to fight injustice was through the rule of law”. “But the quest for justice that he inspired cannot be extinguished”, she adds.
It is true that Shahid is not amongst us, and his untimely and violent death foreclosed rich possibilities that lay before all of us interested in justice. But the fact is that, in the last twelve months of his martyrdom, there has not been a single day that goes by without me thinking of Shahid. During last year, whenever I’ve visited courts or seen people wearing the lawyer’s uniform, i am reminded of Shahid and of my desire to follow in his footsteps. Even if he goes off my mind for a moment, the words of my senior friend Ajit Sahi and who closely worked with Shahid, would remind me that, “Shahid isn’t dead and will never be. I, for one, am far more determined to pursue the path he has shown. Just what bullet can take away the invaluable lesson in courage he has taught me?” I am sure that this holds equally for all of us.
(Mahtab Alam is a civil rights’ activist and journalist currently based at Ranchi. Contact: activist dot journalist at gmail dot com.)