By: Monica Sakhrani
Shahid was in love with the idea of justice. Fighting against injustice was the driving force of his life. And this is what cost him his life. Had he looked the other way and treated the testimonials of state oppression, structural violence and systemic injustices as ‘cases’ and not as his crusade for justice, he would have been alive today. The tragedy of Shahid’s death is the tragic loss of possibilities of a life that will now never be. A brilliant, astute mind, a thirst for knowledge and a kind, loving heart. He combined moral courage with legal acumen. His work was his politics and his life. This was unpalatable to those whom he opposed and fence sitters who would rather have a lawyer defend his practice by calling it his ‘profession’- his bread, butter and jam. Instead it was his passion and he took his cases personally. This led to his being branded a ‘terrorist’ lawyer which label had a double entendre given his past. He never hid his past as he believed that it was bound to catch up with him anyway. With infinite patience and humility, he sought to convince people that he was not a terrorist and explain his stand point of justice to them. It was heart wrenching to watch him try to win the approval of mortals much much lesser than him. And often fail. It was hard for him to realize that in this profession where the main motive is money, most would not understand his moral quest. The approval of the legal fraternity was very important to him as of the larger community.
He spoke about his childhood when he went celebrated festivals with his Hindu neighbours and their influences on him. The Bombay riots changed it all for him- the harmonious co-existence- and changed his life forever. Like his death, his life was filled with tragic events and was out of the ordinary. He spoke about it sometimes in context. Listening to him talk about his life in his usual matter of fact tone was an experience quite unprecedented for a sanitized and protected middle class imagination. Losing his father when he was 7 and being brought up on the largesse of better off relatives by his mother. At 15, while returning home from school after an exam in December 1992, being confronted in a lonely lane by a policeman holding a gun at his head threatening to kill him and his lucky escape in a moment of distraction when he ran for his life. He once said that it was the most fearful moment of his life. His illegal confinement in the dungeons below Red Fort for over 50 days and the torture he went through there. His one year of solitary confinement at Tihar till Kiran Bedi ordered him to be taken off it. Pretending to be mentally ill and being in a mental asylum for another year in order to look after a mentally ill co-prisoner. The death threats that he received during his legal career. It was surreal that someone who had been through so much suffering at such a young age, could be so normal. He spoke of his co-accused in the case who were all killed by the state after their acquittal. He believed that he was alive only because of his profession as it gave him legitimacy and immunity from state attack.
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 was attracted to secularists and democrats and was passionately committed to democratic rights. In jail, he had met Maoist prisoners and helped build the Tihar library with them during Kiran Bedi’s time. He spoke of the books they made him read which shaped his world view. He spoke very highly of Kiran Bedi too and the impact that she had on his life. He was attracted to those who marched to a different beat and went out of his way to befriend them. He read a lot and knew a lot too. He had a driving need to know and dug deep into everything that he studied. 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 softy, slowly and concisely on issues and hold everyone’s attention with his layered and insightful analysis. 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.
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 humor 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. 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 which was the most painful torture that he went through- he replied, not being given food to break fast 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 solution to the problems was, he would softly reply – justice.
He was a workaholic and spent hours perfecting his craft. He worked till late into the night on his cases with the diligence of a student taking an exam. It was important for him to excel in his profession. He would spend hours discussing a legal point or a judgment and one often wondered how someone who had been so short shifted by the legal system could have such touching faith in it. But his past had also made him defensive about himself. He felt the need to reiterate his faith in the legal and judicial system- the constitutional processes. Like most Muslims he was carefully circumspect in voicing his dissent and backed it with evidence, of which he had plenty. But that did not prevent him from taking up unpopular causes and engaging in larger political issues and defending alleged Maoists and the bomb blast and 26/11 cases. This despite the fact that the Anti Terror Squad of the Mumbai police had him under their scanner and was on the wait to manufacture an opportunity to get to him. He spoke about how accused in the bomb blast cases informed him that they were under pressure to name him in their “confessions” as an abettor. As he began achieving success as a lawyer, there was backlash and Shahid knew that the state was out to get him and tried to take precautions but he would not bring himself to turn his back on the people who frequented his office sitting for hours recounting horrific tales of state terror. He did not do it because he chose the difficult path, but because any ‘easier’ way out would have been far tougher for him. Having been through acute suffering himself he empathized with others’ suffering at a fundamental human level. It would have been impossible for him to live with himself had he given up this work. He probably always knew that he did not have much time and tried to pack in as much as he could into each and every moment that he had. It was not that Shahid was free from fears, but it was not fear that dictated his life, it was love that did.