Shahid (film):Law and the Man

By Mahtab Alam,

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. Shahid Azmi (1977-2010)

This courage to stand up for those accused of crimes which were tried as much in the media as in the courtrooms –and decided as much by the ‘collective conscience’ as by law – defined Shahid’s life, and in the end his death as well. In his all to brief but brilliant career of seven years, Shahid secured the acquittal of 17 men charged with terrorism.

But Law had a strange relationship with Shahid.

His teenage years were singed by the fires of communal violence which stalked Bombay in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. A momentary flirtation and a swift disillusionment with militancy followed. But soon, he was picked up by the police on charges of conspiracy to kill Hindu leaders. He was a minor when he was arrested under TADA, but he spent years, first in Arthur Road Jail, and then the Tihar in Delhi, as TADA superseded the Juvenile Justice Act. He educated himself while at Tihar and when he emerged from prison five years later, acquitted by the Supreme Court, he enrolled in a law school.

All this is rich material for a film. And Hansal Mehta crafts a fine film out of it. It traverses Shahid’s journey from one side of the law to another. I think there are two sequences which set this film apart from the ordinary and indeed make it a courageous one. The first is the brutalization of the young Shahid in the dark bare offices of the Special Cell at Lodhi Road Delhi – and the subsequent coaxing of the TADA confession out of Shahid by the Special Cell officer. There have been torture scenes in many films, many very realistic, as in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (incidentally, the film whose screening Shahid Azmi litigated against) but this one stands out for its lack of glamorization of the anti-terror cop.  Torture is shown for what it is.

The second is the court room scene where Shahid tells the court that his client would be not be in the box today were it not for his name. In a way, this film links Shahid’s story to that of hundreds of others who were framed and arrested; and to countless others who are forever marked as suspect.  Shahid is shown as at once exceptional in his courage and brilliance, and unexceptional in his circumstances.

For a film industry whose political economy doesn’t often allow it to deviate from the formula; where Sunny Deol variety of jingoistic resolutions of complex issues of terrorism and violence gave way to the supposedly more nuanced –but decidedly more dangerous in their promotion of vigilantism – films like A Wednesday, Shahid stands out (Gulzar’s Maachis comes to mind as the other exception). It is a rare perspective of the world from the side of those accused of terrorism, and those who defend them. The sense of injustice, endless waiting, and frustration, as the judge denies bail one hearing after another despite the lack of evidence – and as the prosecution invents yet another reason for the delay in investigation are poignantly portrayed.

But Shahid could never have been an insider in a system that stood on violence, lies and prejudice.  He was often locked in a combat with the system itself –but his chosen mode of battle was the law itself.  He challenged the application of MCOCA in the Mumbai Train blasts case in the Supreme Court, arguing that laws relating to national security could not be enacted by the states. (In a rare clip of Shahid delivering a talk, he urges activists to document the cases of MCOCA slapped against Muslim youth. Systematic documentation, he said, had the power to expose the system and the vagaries of law). His other major victory was the enquiry that the High Court ordered against the Swati Sathe (Jail superintendent, Arthur Road Jail) for the custodial torture of the train blasts accused. I do wish that this relationship between Shahid and law itself had been depicted in a more complex way than it has been in the film.

The film moves towards its conclusion with the opening shot: that of the shooting of Shahid by unidentified men. Earlier in the film, we have been provided hints about those who stood to gain by silencing this brave lawyer. We are also shown in the end that three months after Shahid’s murder, his client Fahim Ansari, an accused in Mumbai Terror Case of 2008 (known more commonly as 26/11) is acquitted by the special court.

But of course Shahid’s story doesn’t here. What has happened to the case of Shahid’s murder? Have the killers been brought to justice? More than three and half years after the brutal murder of Shahid, the case has barely moved.  In this period, his assailants, alleged members of ‘nationalist’ underworld don Bharat Nepali gang, are behind bars. But the trial is yet to start. 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” (Again, Shahid’s words that MCOCA would be used to target Muslim youth rings true). Moreover, there have been attempts to sabotage the evidences, and the sole eyewitness has been threatened into turn hostile. Notably, in the mid of 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. He says, “I believe they were targeting me.”

As for his client Fahim Ansari, he continues to be in jail, as he has been implicated in yet another case of attack at the Rampur CRPF centre in Uttar Pradesh. Those who have studied the case files and followed the case say that this too is a completely concocted case.

While not agreeing with the contention of one critic that Shahid is “an incomplete tale of shahadat”, I certainly hope for a sequel that covers this ground. When I had first read parts of the script –provided by Khalid Azmi – I was filled with apprehensions. But Shahid has turned out be a deeply moving tribute to the man and his mission.

Mahtab Alam is a Delhi based civil rights activist and journalist. He co-edits IndiaResists.com and currently putting together a book on Shahid Azmi. Re-published from the print issue of HardNews MagazineNOVEMBER 2013

  • Good movie about an outstanding individual. Thanks for writing this review, Mahtab sahab.