Mission Impossible Part One
The film links Shahid’s story to those of hundreds of others who were framed, hounded, tortured and arrested; and countless others who are forever marked as suspect
Mahtab Alam Delhi
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)
The courage to stand up for those accused of crimes which were enacted as public spectacles in ‘media trials’ as in the courtrooms — and decided as much by the populist myth of ‘collective conscience’ as by law — defined Shahid’s life, and in the end, his death as well. In his all too brief but brilliant career of seven years, Shahid secured the acquittal of 17 men charged with terrorism.
However, the 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 in the bloody winter of 1992-93. A momentary flirtation and a swift disillusionment with militancy followed. But, soon, he was picked up by the police on charges of conspiring to kill ‘Hindu leaders’.
He was a minor when he was arrested under TADA, but he spent years, first in Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, and then in Tihar in Delhi, as TADA superseded the Juvenile Justice Act.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
All this is rich material for a film. And Hansal Mehta crafts a fine film out of it. It traverses Shahid’s life’s journey from one side of the law to another. There are two sequences which position this film apart
from the ordinary and make it a courageous narrative.
First, the brutalization of young Shahid in the dark, bare offices of the notorious Delhi Police Special Cell at Lodhi Road in 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 starkly realistic, as in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (incidentally, Shahid Azmi litigated against the screening of the film); 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 courtroom scene where Shahid tells the court that his client would not have been in the box today were it not for his name. In a way, this film links Shahid’s story to those of hundreds of others who were framed, hounded, tortured and arrested; and countless others who are forever marked as suspect. Shahid is shown as at once exceptional in his courage and brilliance, and unexceptional in
Bollywood is a film industry whose political economy doesn’t often allow it to deviate from the formula. It is overburdened with the Sunny Deol variety of jingoistic resolutions of complex issues of terrorism and violence. Meanwhile, this gave way to the supposedly more nuanced — but decidedly a more dangerous genre in their promotion of vigilantism — films like A Wednesday. Amidst this, Shahid stands out (Gulzar’s Maachis comes to mind as yet another exception).
Shahid’s story doesn’t end here. So, whatever happened to Shahid’s murder case? Have the killers been brought to justice?
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 despite the lack of evidence. And, as the prosecution invents yet another reason for the delay in investigation — this is poignantly portrayed.
Surely, Shahid could never have been an ‘insider’ in a system that stands on brutality, lies and prejudice. He was often locked in 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 cannot be enacted by the states. (In a rare clip of Shahid delivering a talk, he urges activists to document the cases of MCOCA on the Muslim youths. Systematic documentation, he said, had the power to expose the system and the vagaries of the law).
His other major victory was the inquiry that the high court ordered against Swati Sathe (jail superintendent, Arthur Road Jail, Mumbai) for the custodial torture of the train blasts accused. I wish that this relationship between ‘Shahid and the law’ could have been depicted in a more complex manner than what has been shown in the film.
The film moves towards its conclusion with the opening shot: that of the shooting of Shahid by unidentified men. Earlier, 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 the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, is acquitted by the special court.
Shahid’s story doesn’t end here. So, what happened to Shahid’s murder case? Have the killers been brought to justice?
Almost four years after his murder, the case has barely moved. In this period, his alleged assailants, gangsters of the ‘nationalist’ underworld don, Bharat Nepali, were put behind bars. But the trial is yet to start. Not only that, in January 2011, the special MCOCA court dropped the charges against four people accused in the case, buying the defence’s argument that “the police failed to prove the underworld links as well as the pecuniary gain in killing Azmi”. (Yet again, Shahid’s words that MCOCA will be used to target the Muslim youth, rings true).
Moreover, there have been attempts to sabotage evidence, and the sole eyewitness has been threatened into turning hostile. Notably, in mid- April 2011, there was an alleged plan to kill Khalid Azmi, Shahid’s brother and a lawyer, by some associates of these underworld gangs.
Three people were arrested in this connection with guns on 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 UP. 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. However, Shahid has turned out a deeply moving tribute to this young man of extraordinary resilience and courage, and his noble, unfinished mission.
Mahtab Alamis a Delhi-based civil rights activist and journalist. He co-edits www.IndiaResists.com and is currently putting together a book on Shahid Azmi.