In a criminal justice system laced with judicial bias against Muslims and other marginalized communities, Shahid had surfaced like a Messiah of those whose cases famed lawyers were not willing to touch.
In a short life spanning thirty-three years, Shahid Azmi’s contribution to the democratic rights movement in India was immense. Though it has been nine years since he was killed on February 11, 2010, it is as if he is still alive, serving as the guiding light for many aspiring, young lawyers who want to work for social justice. Here, we remember Shahid for the life that he lived.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Mary Elizabeth Frye
Eight years since that fateful day when Advocate Shahid Azmi, fondly remembered as Shahid was killed on February 11, 2010, but it is as if he never died. Co-incidentally, his name too means the same. Shahid means the one who is immortal. Truly, in his death, Shahid has been immortalised.
I joined the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2012 and it almost feels like a personal loss to know that he took guest lectures on the campus in Deonar, on Criminal Law and had become popular in no time, interspersing hard laws with anecdotes from his own life- his life, which was quite a journey. Students took pride in boasting about how they had known and learnt from this person who became a martyr to the cause of justice. During memorial meetings to commemorate his death, those who knew him broke down in tears. Such was his impact, such was his life.
He was invited to TISS for his expertise in Criminal law, especially in terror-related cases in which dozens of innocents would be fabricated on account of false cases.
Shahid’s journey has inspired many. Remembering Shahid on his death anniversary his brother, Khalid Azmi says, “The loss is irreparable. This is a huge loss to our society, my family. Though his absence can’t be compensated, we keep his memory alive. Many deaths are forgotten, but not Shahid’s. We don’t want to forget his death. We gather people from our community and exchange our thoughts on the day. We also collect some funds in his name and donate it to the poor.”
Messiah of the Marginalized
In a criminal justice system laced with a judicial bias against Muslims and other marginalized communities, Shahid had surfaced like a Messiah of those whose cases famed lawyers were not willing to touch. “I am deeply indebted to Shahid Azmi for the work that he has done. I offer prayers for him every day, and wish that more lawyers are inspired by him and come forward to help the innocent and oppressed”, said Yasmin, wife of Fahim Ansari in an interview given in 2012.
He was acquitted in the 26/11 terror case. Recollecting the ordeals to fight his case, Yasmin had said, “I approached the best lawyers, but no one was willing to entertain my plea. Some refused to meet me, while others quoted gigantic sums of money as a legal fee.” One lawyer even told her that her husband is now ‘gone’, a statement that gave Yasmin nightmares for months. In these precarious situations, Shahid made it his life’s mission to defend the rights of the most neglected.
It is unfortunate that for a lawyer who had such a reputation of fighting challenging cases, the trial of his case is yet to begin. Talking about the challenges in the process, Khalid said, “Trial was to start correctly, in its designated time. But at the same time, the accused filed a petition saying that till the time their bail application is not heard, the trial should not start” Pointing at other reasons for the delay, he added, “Courts were changed quite a few numbers of times in this case.”
Though they had prepared the charges by 2015, the charges were only framed in 2017. In between, Santosh Shetty accused of giving the contract for Shahid’s murder also got discharged. Khalid said that he can’t say if there is any role of the State in the delay of court proceedings for the trial.
“Now that the charges have been framed, witnesses are ready and by next date, the hearing will start I think.” He added.
Shahid’s unending pursuit for justice
Aware of the challenges that lay ahead in the path that Shahid so courageously trod, he encouraged Khalid to pursue law. “I had no intention of becoming a lawyer but it was Bhai who pushed me towards it. Only four months had passed since I received my degree that this incident took place. The first case I was handed over was the 26/11 case which I handled with the help of a senior lawyer.”
Probably Shahid was already aware of the temporary nature of life, which is why despite being aware that his life was constantly under threat, he still responded to that call for help on February 10, 2010. This is why Shahid envisioned his dear ones to also walk on a similar path as his, no matter how difficult.
Shahid led a brief but rebellious life. Just in his teens, he had witnessed the slaughtering of Muslims in the riots of 1992-93, an event that prompted him to travel to Kashmir and join the group Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) – An event that Shahid spoke of with as simplicity and ease as anything else.
Soon disillusioned, he returned to Mumbai. He was falsely implicated and arrested for the attempted assassination of a political leader. He was prosecuted, convicted and sent to Tihar jai. He spent almost all of his teenage years there. In an appeal, Supreme Court acquitted Shahid. The prison was also a place where Shahid came into contact with a lot of interesting ideas and people. This gave depth to his experiential and practical understanding of both law, and life in the prison.
No wonder then, that a political prisoner noted, “Lawyers are not easy favourites with their clients, but he [Shahid] enjoyed a fairly high approval rating”
Treading the Path of Justice in an Unjust World
“Bhai had a lot of plans for making legal aid accessible for the poor, especially those who did not have the economic means to fight their cases. He was approaching many organisations for the same, and Jamat Uilama was one such. They had agreed that they will fight the cases of 26/11, 7/11, Malegaon Blast case.” Khalid believes that democratic rights organisations should provide legal aid for the marginalized in a similar line as Shahid.
There is no point re-telling a story unless it has relevance for the present. And at a time when Muslims are increasingly being hounded in broad daylight with the full complicity of the right-wing political dispensation in power, where the killing of Afrazul, an innocent daily wage labourer from Bengal, has seen money being raised to defend his killers, where an average working class person from any background neither has any economic security nor political freedom, Shahid is missed sorely. It is important his memory is kept alive, through seeking justice for his case and by telling his story to those who did not know him.