India: The meaning of Shahid Azmi

MUMBAI, India — When Shahid Azmi was 15, police gathered outside his home in a slum area of Mumbai. As he, his brothers and mother huddled inside between the bed and cupboards, his older brother Arif recalls, police stoned the home and fired shots over the windows.

Shahid had a front-row view of Mumbai’s 1993 riots in which mobs of Hindus burned down homes, destroyed businesses and killed hundreds of Muslims as police looked on. His brother said Shahid also saw officers storm a Muslim home in their Shivaji Nagar community, drag women out of the apartment and try to rape them in the street. He witnessed an officer tell a Muslim neighbor to run, only to get shot by another cop.

Another brother, Khalid, recounts Shahid’s life as he sits in Shahid’s former office in Mumbai’s middle-class suburb of Kurla. Shahid had become a lawyer, representing Muslim Indians he considered wrongly accused of terrorist charges.

Last month, three armed gunmen entered this office and shot Shahid dead at point-blank range. He was 32.

“His goal was to provide justice to all those people who are innocent who have been falsely arrested,” says Khalid. As he talks, a group of Shahid’s former clients gather in the waiting room. One man sits across the desk from Khalid and fumbles through his papers. The man’s uncle was convicted in connection with the 1998 bomb blasts in Mumbai, in which more than 200 people lost their lives. The uncle wants a temporary release to visit his ailing brother. Khalid, also a lawyer, agrees to take the case.

Mumbai’s Muslim community has reacted with sorrow and anger to the murder of a young man many considered a selfless advocate for the poor and oppressed, say Muslim journalists and religious leaders. The Urdu-language newspapers have carried stories daily related to his Feb. 11 murder, and community groups have organized meetings to bring attention to his death and pressure the police to investigate it fully.

The murder has also stirred up long-held feelings of animosity toward the police and highlights the deep-seated distrust and disdain much of the Muslim community has for the investigative agencies.

After the 1993 riots — among the deadliest of the tit-for-tat attacks between Hindus and Muslims that followed the controversial demolition of a mosque in northern India by Hindu nationalists the previous year — Shahid was so enraged that he fled to Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region administered in part by both India and Pakistan but claimed as a whole by both. Once there, he took up arms against the state, says Khalid.

The younger brother says Shahid did not talk much about his time in Kashmir, only that he had good aim.

Police arrested Shahid in 1994 for allegedly plotting to kill a political leader. He was found guilty of attending terrorist training camps in Kashmir and waging war against India. He served almost six years in prison.

Shahid spent his time behind bars studying and helping others draft applications to receive food from their families or get parole, Khalid says. When he left prison, he did not return to the insurgency. He became a lawyer.

Shahid made a name for himself by representing Muslims accused of various bomb blasts or other terrorism-related charges. At the time of his murder he was representing Fahim Ansari, an Indian accused of reconnaissance activities in connection with the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which saw 10 armed Islamist militants kill 166 and injure more than 300.

Three people have been arrested on suspicion of shooting Shahid and one for arranging the logistics, according to Deven Bharti, a police commissioner in Mumbai. He says the police believe a suspected underworld gangster, Bharat Nepali, is behind the killing, but he has fled the country.

"It will be investigated very thoroughly," says Bharti.

Despite the arrests, much of the Muslim community believes the real culprits behind the murder will never be brought to justice. Various rumors and allegations have surfaced. A body of Islamic scholars that funneled Shahid cases and financed them believes the murder was part of a state conspiracy to eliminate people fighting against a system that wrongly accuses innocent Muslims, says Gulzar Azmi, general secretary of Jamiat Ulama-E-Maharashtra.

Some have gone as far as blaming the police themselves for the murder.

"It goes without saying that the intelligence agencies got him bumped off,” says Sarfaraz Arzu, the editor of the Hindustan Daily, an Urdu newspaper.

Civil rights leaders in Mumbai say the Muslim community is justified in its anger and distrust of the police because of a history of the investigative agencies acting with prejudice against Muslims. The community feels under attack because the state does not properly punish those who attack Muslims like after the 1993 riots, and police routinely round up and arrest large numbers of Muslims after terrorist attacks even when they have no grounds for suspicion, says Ram Puniyani of All India Secular Forum.

While there are some in the government who have good intentions, he says, “overall, the state has been … very cruel to the Muslim community at large.”

This history of alleged bias has led to a “completely lack of trust” in the police among the Muslim community, says Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy. Therefore when an incident such as Shahid’s murder happens, some members of the community jump to the conclusion that the police are either to blame or are not doing a good enough investigation.

Lack of training in how to conduct proper investigations has led to a distrust of the police among almost all Indians, says Meenakshi Ganguly, senior researcher for South Asia with Human Rights Watch and author of a 2009 report on the Indian police system. The report, called “Broken System,” which documents cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and extrajudicial killings, states that the police forces are “widely regarded within India as lawless, abusive and ineffective.”

While almost everyone distrusts the police, Ganguly says, Muslims feel this to an even greater extent because of the suspicion and aggression shown toward the entire community when there is a terrorist attack or gang activity.

Bharti, a police commissioner, says these feelings of bias are unfounded and insists that the police force is actively trying to be more transparent and inclusive of minorities.

Civil rights leaders, though, say the police have a far way to go. Police should develop stronger lines of communication with the Muslim community and do more to recruit Muslim officers, says Anand. Muslims make up 13 percent of India’s population yet only 4 percent of the police force, according to a 2006 government-appointed report on the status of Muslim Indians known as the Sachar Report.

For now, the community has few options for how to handle Shahid’s killing, says Hindustan Daily editor Arzu.

"The only thing it can do,” he says, “is find substitutes for him.”