by Mahtab Alam
“Shahid ’s life and work kindled a new kind of spirit amongst Muslims, especially young men and women.”Rajeev Yadav – journalist turned human-rights activists of Rihai Manch
While gunning down Mumbai-based lawyer Shahid Azmi on February 11, 2010, his killers must have thought that this act would strike terror within the Muslim community, especially amongst its youth. That it would deter those who’d dare to follow in the footsteps of their dearly loved lawyer – instilling in them the fear of an untimely and abrupt end. But, Azmi’s death seems to have worked to achieve the opposite, as eight years into his killing, many Muslims (and I am sure non-Muslims as well) are on their way to fight for justice, or to become a Shahid Azmi in their own right.
Meet Asim Khan, who was a TV journalist when Azmi was killed but now practices in the courts of Mumbai. He knew Azmi personally. “Shahid bhai’s murder changed my life” he recalls. “Immediately after his murder, I took admission in a law course and decided to become a lawyer, just like him,” adds Khan, who has been practising for two years now. “I know that it is almost impossible to fill the void that was created by his murder. You can kill a person but not the idea that he believed in and practiced. And that is the message that I want to give.”
Khan is absolutely right in saying that it’s difficult to match Azmi’s calibre and courage, as in a brief career of only seven years, he secured the acquittal of 17 men charged with terrorism. And this does not include the many acquittals that took place after his murder.
Azmi’s was not an ordinary fight, and despite all the hurdles and lack of resources that he faced, he did things for people that would take a lifetime for others to achieve. That’s because he knew what he was doing and why. His answer to his feelings towards the victims of the blasts ably illustrates what he had lived and died for. “I am pained, the heart bleeds when I hear what they have endured,” he had said. “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.”
From his personal experience, Azmi knew what it meant to be a terror accused. In court rooms and outside, he was often called the ‘terrorist lawyer’ because he was once a terror accused and had to spend five years in jail for a crime that he had never committed. He did not believe in just whining about what he had to go through, but moving beyond that and working and fighting for those who were going through a similar situation.
It is not a surprise that among the guiding principles of his life were the following words by Roy Black, a New York-based civil and criminal defence lawyer “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 hardships, I learned hard lessons. Fight against prejudice, battle the oppressors, support the underdog.” This quotation could be seen hanging both at his gate and the desk of his office in Mumbai. Justice was the key word in his life.
Muhammed Riyas, from Kerala’s Kasargod district, remembers Azmi as someone who was “unapologetic and courageous”, though he never met him personally. “I was a boy with an ambition to become a pilot and, therefore, chose to study science after my 10th standard, only to join a flying academy later on.” But then, on the first anniversary of Azmi’s murder, he read an article about his life and work and immediately decided to become a lawyer. “That was the turning point of my life,” he told The Wire, adding that “I decided to take sweet revenge by becoming a lawyer and to be just like Shahid. Through this, I intend to send a strong message to the evil fascist elements that they can’t be a barrier for justice by killing a young lawyer, who stood for justice and upheld constitutional values.” After finishing his law course last year from SDM Law College, Mangalore (Karnataka), Riyas is now practicing in his home district Kasargod.
Azmi was not the first Muslim lawyer to have been killed. In April 2009, a Mangalore-based lawyer, Naushad Kashimji, was killed. Like Azmi, Kashimji (with the help of his mentor and senior advocate Purshottam Poojary) had taken up cases for those whose lawyers were not willing to represent them. After Kashimji’s murder, his wife advocate Nusrath Fatima joined Poojary as one of his six juniors.
It is worth recalling that Azmi and Kashimji worked in an environment when their own legal fraternity was against them. In the wake of terror attacks, several bar associations across the country had passed resolutions that forbid members from representing those accused in terror cases. And those who defied these unconstitutional resolutions were beaten up by their fellow lawyers, as was reported in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, to name a few states.
According to Rajeev Yadav, a journalist turned human rights activist who works with the Rihai Manch, a forum to campaign for the release of innocent youth accused in terror cases, “Shahid ’s life and work kindled a new kind of spirit amongst Muslims, especially young men and women.”
Speaking to The Wire, Yadav says that he has by now met dozens of youth who wish to become like Azmi and carry on his legacy by doing something similar to what he was doing. He cites the example of a young girl named Firdaus Siddiqui, a madrasa graduate who is currently a law student. Apart from studying law, she is assisting Mohammed Shoaib, who is one of the few lawyers in the state fighting cases of the terror-accused for a couple of years now. He was beaten up in the Lucknow court premises by fellow lawyers in 2007, for defying the diktat of the bar association.
Apart from Siddiqui, there are several young Muslims who are assisting Shoaib in light of the path shown by Azmi. Yadav also remembers meeting a young Muslim woman lawyer in Amroha, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, who like Azmi, wants to fight for justice. “What is striking about these young men and women is that they don’t want to become just any other lawyer. They all want to be like him (Azmi),” he points out. “That’s because there is no dearth of lawyers in India, even among the Muslim community, but what lacks in them is the courage and competence that Shahid possessed and portrayed.”
Malegaon-born and brought up advocate Shahid Nadeem agrees with Yadav. “Shahid bhai was not just courageous but also competent to fight the cases he decided to take up,” Nadeem, who briefly worked with Azmi and now practices in Mumbai, told The Wire. “While I was studying law in Malegaon, it was my dream to work with him, which I eventually did. But it was for a very brief time, just for about a month and a half month.”
At the Jamiat Ulema Hind Maharashtra Legal Cell, a group engaged in providing legal help to the terror accused, Nadeem plays the same role for the organisation that Azmi previously played for it, and through which Nadeem came in touch with him. He says there are several others in his home town who want to practice law like Azmi.
In short, for those who conspired to see Azmi dead, he might be long dead and gone. But for dozens of Muslim youth across the country, Shahid abhi bhi zinda hai (Shahid is still alive). And if you have an iota of doubt about this, just count the number of programmes being organised in Delhi, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal among others, to pay tribute to his legacy on the eight anniversary of his murder.
The article first published on The Wire.