Shahid Azmi often joked that he would be felled by bullets. And death, ironically, came exactly the way he had predicted — while sitting in the same chair where he often laughed off his premonition. He would shrug, saying, "I've died a hundred times and if death did come knocking, I would look it in the eye." As a Tada detainee, the teenaged Shahid was lodged in two of India's biggest prisons and had felt the hangman's noose around his neck several times, as a 'dummy' before it was readied for those on death row.
A fearless lawyer, he refused to erase his past. For, it was instrumental in shaping his life, step by step. Scarred by his past, he decided to join the system to beat the system and reform it in his own capacity.
One of the few lawyers who could empathise with the accused, particularly, those labelled "anti-nationals", the soft-spoken Shahid was often reluctant to charge legal fees. "They were all victims of the system," he often reasoned.
A few years ago, a local newspaper carried Azmi's interview in which he was described as a 'Reformed Radical'. This hit him hard, and a terribly saddened Shahid had retorted, "I was never a radical, so where is the question of reforming myself."
The first time I saw Shahid was when he entered a journalism class in 1999. Dressed in a blue jeans and white shirt, a haversack slung around his shoulders, Shahid sat on the first bench in class.
The replies of the shy Shahid would often be in monosyllables, sometimes stammered. But the anger never left him. And neither did his past. Naturally, he was anti-establishment and could not stomach anybody praising the system. Slowly, we got chatting in the canteen and bonded over books. Soon after college, we got our first jobs together. Eventually, he decided to pursue law, while I continued with journalism. And life moved on.
Then one day in 2002, I chanced upon a news report immediately after the Parliament attack, where Shahid was accused of having links with terror groups. Needless to say, I was shocked.
Next, I bumped into him at the Sessions court in 2005, where he was clad in a crisp black advocate's coat. He instantly knew he had to tell his story. And, he said it all, freely, episode by episode. After a couple hours, as he was pouring his heart out, I noticed the stammer had gone...
Lawyerspeak: Many were unable to react. "I am shocked. He was my best friend when we were studying LLM at University. I cannot believe it," said advocate Nilofer Saiyed.
Senior public prosecutor, Rohini Salian, who has appeared in cases against Azmi, said, "This is very unfortunate. This reflects not only on the security of defence counsels, but on everybody."
"Azmi used to appear with me in many cases. As an officer of the court he was a thorough professional. He would meticulously prepare for every case. Though he had a tendency to stammer a little, in court he was very impressive. I was a year or two his senior, but there were times when I learned from him," said advocate Mubin Solkar.