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Rights

Ehtesham Hashmi, the Lawyer Who Worked for the Underdog

Though his life was tragically cut short after suffering a heart attack at the age of 40, he leaves behind a legacy of work that will echo for years to come.

Supreme Court lawyer and human rights defender Ehtesham Hashmi passed away early on February 9 in Delhi due to a heart attack. Hashmi, a native of Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, was fighting several cases regarding human rights violations at the time of his sudden demise.

The more I read and enquire about his life and work, the more I was reminded of another lawyer and human rights defender, Shahid Azmi.

Initially, Ehtesham death’s reminded me of Shahid because the latter’s death anniversary was just two days after Hashmi’s passing. Shahid was killed on February 11, 2010 by some unidentified men who came to his office in Kurla, Mumbai, posing as prospective clients. Thirteen years after his murder, the trial is yet to be completed, and the culprits have not been punished.

At the time of his death, Ehtesham was just 40 years old. Though his life was tragically cut short, he leaves behind a legacy of work that will echo for years to come. He was a first-generation lawyer and came from a humble background. He studied law because he wanted to represent the underdog. A relative of Ehtesham told me that after completing his intermediate studies in commerce, he enrolled in a five-year law course primarily because he wanted to help the needy.

According to the relative, while he also completed a diploma course in corporate law, his heart was in criminal and human rights law practice. While he chose to practice in the Supreme Court, he used to intervene in matters from different parts of the country. Not just in the Supreme Court but also at district, sessions and high courts, especially in Madhya Pradesh.

Ehtesham Hashmi. Photo: Facebook

Public interest causes

I am told by several activists and human rights lawyers that, unlike most legal practitioners, he used to intervene (or at least take an interest) in matters much before he was approached to represent an accused. Like Shahid, he fought both inside and outside the courtrooms. He engaged with the law as well as challenged it, as and when needed.

He filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court seeking that internet shutdowns be declared “unconstitutional, illegal and unenforceable“. The petition sought to put a stop to arbitrary internet shutdowns in India, particularly in the backdrop of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. In 2021, he led a team of activists and lawyers, which published a fact-finding report about the communal violence in Tripura. The Tripura police booked him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) because of the report. The Supreme Court later ordered that no coercive steps should be taken against him.

Ehtesham was rooted in the community. While he valued the importance of litigation and fighting in courts, he was also equally aware of the power of community engagement and mobilisation. Recently, I watched a short yet very powerful clip of Ehtesham which was circulating on social media and in which he can be seen appealing to members of Muslim community to ensure that their children study the constitution of India, along with the Quran.

At a public meeting, he appealed to the audience:

Please start equipping your children with the holy Quran in one hand and the constitution in the other. Persuade them to study the constitution. Only then they will be able to fight for their rights.

He was always articulate, confident and courageous. He was also ready take up the very matters which others would think twice about. It was his willingness to fight for the underdog, the ability to take on Hindutva forces and raise the atrocities committed against Muslims and other marginalised communities that made him a thorn in the flesh of those who are in power and their allies. He was also targeted by the media as well as members of the legal fraternity for taking up certain cases and speaking his mind.

On January 28 this year, “around 300 lawyers gathered inside the court to lead an attack on Hashmi” in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, a lawyer told Newslaundry. The lawyer added, “They wanted to set an example so that no lawyer would dare to fight such cases… Hashmi stepped out under police protection.”

Meanwhile, Dainik Bhaskar on January 30 published a story maligning him without naming him. In his legal notice to the newspaper on January 31, Ehtesham had asserted that the story was totally unsubstantiated and defamatory.

The sudden demise of Etesham has left many shocked and shaken. Amit Srivastav, a Delhi-based lawyer who worked closely with Ehtesham was still in shock when I spoke to him a few days ago. “It will take a lot of time for all of us to realise that you are no longer with us, but it is also a fact that the way you led your life, your thoughts and contributions towards society, your brotherhood, your view of holding everyone united as a team can never be forgotten,” he wrote in a tribute to Ehtesham on Facebook.

Bhopal-based lawyer Deepak Bundele told me that it took him several days to accept that ‘Etesham bhai’ is no more with us.

“He was our representative in Delhi and just a phone call away when we needed him in any matter,” he said.

In March 2020, when Bundele was beaten up brutally by some police officials of Madhya Pradesh because he “looked like a Muslim”, his case was taken up by Ehtesham. “We have not just lost an individual and a person who was concerned about his qaum (community), but also a person who felt strongly for humanity and worked relentlessly to help every person,” added Bundele.