How Gulzar Azmi Helped Wrongly Implicated Terror-Accused Fight for Justice Across India

Under Azmi's watch, the Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind transformed from a socio-religious to a legal aid organisation.

Mumbai: In 2006, a group of over 30 Muslim young men arrested in three different cases – the Mumbai serial train blast, the Aurangabad arms haul case and the Malegaon blast case – wrote a desperate letter to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind office in Mumbai. In the letter, the incarcerated men – all accused of being members of the banned terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyabba (LeT) – shared their socio-economic condition and argued that they were wrongly implicated in the cases.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, only a socio-religious organisation until then, soon transformed into a legal aid centre for men across India implicated in terror-related cases. And the man spearheading the legal campaign ever since was Gulzar Azmi, a senior leader at the Jamiat. Azmi was 74 years old at the time.

Following a fall and a subsequent head injury, Azmi died on August 20 in a city hospital. He was 90. But just moments before his fall, his colleagues say he was working until late evening in the Jamiat office at Mumbai’s Imambada Compound. In his over a decade and a half’s work as secretary of the Jamiat’s legal cell, Azmi oversaw cases of over 500 persons, all implicated in terror cases across India.

“His primary principle was that so long as the person is wrongly implicated, we have to offer them legal assistance,” says his colleague, advocate Shahid Nadeem. So when families of those incarcerated approached him, Nadeem says, Azmi took great interest in finding out if the charges levelled against them had any truth in them. At the time of his death, Azmi, along with the legal team at the Jamiat, was handling cases of over 75 persons who have been awarded the death sentence, and over 125 life convicts.

Azmi was not a lawyer. He had in fact only studied till class 5. But because of his legal knowledge, people mistook him for a lawyer, Nadeem says.

Originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Azmi spent most of his life in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazar area, a predominantly Muslim locality. At a very young age, he got involved in the socialist movement and became a part of many socio-religious groups. He was associated with the Jamiat Ulema since the 1950s. For over 65 years, he served the Muslim community, his colleagues recall.

Gulzar Azmi’s funeral. Photo: Imtiyaz Shaikh

Wahid Shaikh, who was falsely implicated in the July 11, 2006 Mumbai serial train blast case and was incarcerated for over nine years, says Azmi’s work gave hopes to hundreds of those families who couldn’t fight the might of the state. “Once you are arrested, the fight is not limited to just the trial court. One has to fight it all the way up to the Supreme Court. And most families can’t imagine this arduous legal battle,” Shaikh says.

Shaikh says Azmi came with respectable stature and was known to have close associations with political leaders across parties. “But that didn’t come to his rescue when his two nephews were arrested in a MCOCA [Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act] case,” Shaikh recalls.

Over the past two decades, Azmi spent time building a legal team across every state in the country. This team of lawyers has been handling most terror-related cases in India – right from the trial court level up to the Supreme Court. One of the first lawyers to work with him was Shahid Azmi, who was killed in 2010 allegedly by gangster Chhota Rajan’s aides. At the time of his death, Shahid was representing several accused in the 7/11 train blasts cases, Malegaon 2006 bomb blasts cases, the Aurangabad arms haul case, the Ghatkopar blasts case and the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attack case.

After Shahid’s death, Azmi started a scholarship for students interested in pursuing law. “Every year, the Jamiat has been sponsoring studies of 25-30 law students from the Muslim and Dalit communities. Azmi believed that besides helping those arrested, the community needs its own lawyers to fight against the injustice meted out to them,” Nadeem says.

Every time the police claimed to have cracked a new terror module, Azmi would tap his local networks, find out the background of those implicated and work out a legal strategy for them.

Photo: Special arrangement

So, when Mufti Abdul Qayyum Mansuri, who was awarded the death penalty in the Akshardham blast case only to be later acquitted by the Supreme Court, needed legal assistance, Azmi was the first person to reach out. “Azmi sahab came to see me and other men arrested in the case in Sabarmati jail. He didn’t need to but he did. He assured us that the Jamiat will take care of the case. And he did till the very end,” Mansuri says.

Mansuri was in Mumbai to attend Azmi’s funeral. Thousands turned up to pay homage, most of whom were persons accused of terror crimes and their families.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind is a donor-driven organisation and every year during Eid, many people from the community offer zakat (a customary 2.5% of the total income offered to the poor and needy) to the organisation. The organisation, however, did not have a smooth run. In 2014, BJP MLA Ashish Shelar kicked up a storm by urging the Maharashtra government to ban the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind. Shelar accused Azmi of having links with fugitive gangster Chhota Shakeel. The statement led to furore and eventually Shelar was forced to withdraw his statement.