Why the Attack on Rajeev Dhavan Did Not Surprise Me

Rajeev Dhavan's case isn't an anomaly by any means – many lawyers have been attacked and even killed over the years for simply representing Muslims clients involved in controversial cases.

As news of the threats, intimidation and abuse faced by senior lawyer Rajeev Dhavan trickled in, it left me feeling sad and despondent – but I would be lying if were I to say that I was shocked or surprised.

Reading between the lines, the incident also becomes a cue to reiterate the oft-repeated questions of why Muslims are ‘silent’ and not taking to the streets to protest for justice, and why lawyers are unwilling to take up ‘controversial’ cases involving Muslims.

According to a report in India Today, senior lawyer Rajeev Dhavan, who represented the Muslim side in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute case, was abused, harassed and attacked. He even had excreta thrown outside his home.

“I have received death threats, curses, around 2,000 letters full of abuses. Excreta was thrown outside my residence,” Dhawan told India Today, adding that he was once nearly attacked in the Supreme Court by a member of the Sangh Parivar.

Reading about Dhavan’s ordeal, I was immediately reminded of the stories of other lawyers who have had to endure similar, if not worse, situations. These attacks are not just by right-wing activists, other lumpen and communal elements, but also by their own fellow lawyers; their only ‘crime’ being that they took on ‘controversial’ clients who happened to be Muslims.

They were attacked despite the fact that by representing such clients, they were not indulging in any extra-judicial or criminal activity.

They were attacked despite the fact that they are expected to defend the rights of their client as per the law – which proclaims one innocent until proven guilty.

They were attacked despite the fact that two of their own – Naushad Kashimji and Shahid Azmi – lost their lives in the process of defending Muslims involved in ‘controversial’ cases.

Also read: Rajeev Dhavan, the Atticus Finch of Our Times

In the wake of terror attacks in 2008, bar associations in five states passed official or unofficial resolutions that banned members from representing those (mainly Muslims) charged with terror activities.

This included the state bar association of Rajasthan, the local bar associations of Lucknow and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, and in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. The bar associations of Nagpur, Pune and Mumbai Metropolitan Magistrate Court Bar Association in Maharashtra also issued a similar diktat. Those who defied it were abused, intimidated and severely beaten by fellow lawyers and other lumpen elements.

Mohammad Shoaib was beaten black and blue by fellow lawyers in the court premises of Lucknow for representing Aftab Alam Ansari, an accused in the 2007 Lucknow court blast case. Thanks to Shoaib, the charges against Ansari were eventually dropped and Ansari today lives as a free man in Kolkata. If Shoaib had not defied the diktat, Ansari would still be languishing in jail, as has been observed in terror cases across India.

One should also keep in mind that most of the accused in these cases were from poor or lower middle-class families, and often the sole breadwinners, with little or negligible support from the outside.

Also read: There Is an Attempt to Silence Lawyers Who Defend the Marginalised: Sudha Bharadwaj

Like Shoaib, advocate Noor Mohammad of Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, was attacked on April 11, 2008, for defying a Dhar Bar Association ban on members defending terror suspects. Not only that, the police allegedly whisked him away in a van and refused to release him until he signed a written statement that he would not lodge an FIR about the attack and that he had not sustained any injuries.

Similarly, in May 2013, the office of Jamal Ahmed, a lawyer representing the terror accused Khalid Mujahid, was ransacked in Faizabad by several lawyers at the district court premises. Another lawyer, Saleem Ahmed, was also attacked that day and had to be admitted in the emergency ward of the district hospital.

These attacks were not limited to UP and MP. In April 2013, while travelling the coastal areas of Karnataka, I paid a visit to advocate Ismail D. Jalagar, whose office in Hubli was attacked for him defying the Hubli Bar Association’s diktat of representing young muslims accused of terror. In 2015, all of his clients (17 in all) were acquitted of the charge of having links with terror organisations and waging a war against the country in a 2008 case.

It was on this trip that I also remember meeting another courageous lawyer, Purushotham Poojary, in Mangalore.

Also read: A Profession That Was Once Noble

Poojary, who was 90 then, was a mentor of Naushad Kashimji, a Mangalore-based lawyer who was killed near his home one late April evening in 2009. Kashimji’s killing was a sort of prelude to Shahid Azmi’s fate a year later. Like Shahid, Kashimji had taken up cases of those who many lawyers were unwilling to represent. During our meeting, Poojary spoke highly of Kashimji and of how he had wanted to see him as his successor. Though Poojary did not face any physical attacks personally, he was taunted for being a ‘terrorist lawyer’ for representing those accused in terror cases.

The cold blooded murder of Shahid Azmi in February 2010 shocked the nation. The 32-year-old was killed on the behest of a ‘nationalist’ Mumbai underworld don for representing many young Muslims accused in terror cases. In a career spanning only seven years, Azmi had managed to secure 17 acquittals, and many came through after his assassination. Azmi then himself became a victim of the prejudiced counter-terror mechanism of India – nearly 10 years after his murder, his killers have yet to be convicted as the trial has not concluded.

Also read: ‘Threatened For Taking Up Case’: SC to Hear Rajeev Dhavan’s Plea Against Ex-Govt Official

This list of attacks is not exhaustive, but these stories clearly inform us how difficult it becomes for lawyers if a case is ‘controversial’ and involves Muslims. The attack on Dhavan is the latest in a long list of people (including activists) who have been harassed for daring to stand for the constitutional rights of people.

It is important to remember that Dhavan represented the Muslim side not because he is pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu – as the cheer leaders of Hindutva would like us to believe – but because of his inherent belief of wanting to uphold the constitutional values and ethos.

“I didn’t just appear for the Muslims. I appeared for a large section of Hindus who believed in liberal secularism. It was a cause lawyering case. It was not a case that can be depicted as Muslims vs Hindus. It was a case to protect the constitutional fabric of the state which was at stake,” Dhavan told India Today. Contrary to how he puts it, his efforts toward protecting the constitutional fabric has been construed as minority appeasement and anti-Hindu.

Thus, it’s clear that standing for the rights of minorities, even if the same have been safeguarded by the constitution, is a difficult road to embark on. The repeat cases of intimidation and abuse also explain the so-called ‘silence of Muslims’ over the last few years and especially after the Ayodhya verdict. ­

For all those who keep asking why Muslims don’t speak up, there are two things to remember and acknowledge. The first is that Muslims are not silent – as has been documented by this writer in the following Twitter thread.

Second, even if they have been quiet or silent, then there have been enough reasons to be so. For if a well-known person like Dhavan hasn’t been spared, then what is the guarantee that ordinary Muslims would not be harmed, let alone killed, for trying to speak their mind out against injustice?