On 12 March 1993, when an RDX bomb went off at the Bombay Stock Exchange, advocate Farhana Shah was on the premises of the nearby High Court, getting ready to enter one of the courtrooms. The explosion was deafening, and soon everyone including her was running towards the stock exchange tower. As a criminal lawyer, she was used to stories of gore, but it didn’t prepare her for mutilated dead bodies lying in pools of blood. After an initial spell of shock, she remembers being deeply angry at such senseless mayhem.
And yet, some months later, Farhana found herself standing up in court to defend Janu Kamlya Wetkoli, an accused charged with helping deliver wooden boxes containing the RDX used in the blasts. Wetkoli was unaware of the contents and had been promised Rs 300, which he never got. The next year when Farhana got him released on a personal bond of Rs 10,000, she says he cried like a child. And the year after that, when he was discharged from the case, some of the other similarly accused, who hadn’t been able to finance a good defence, started desperately asking her to be their advocate. In the end, of the 26 people discharged in the case, her tally was 12.
Fifteen years after the serial blasts, when a team of ten terrorists attacked four spots in Bombay on 26 November 2008 and went on a killing spree, Farhana watched the minute-by-minute coverage on TV. Again, she was speechless and angry. And, a year-and-a-half later, she finds herself defending the sole surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab. Sentenced to death by the special trial court which adjudged the case, Kasab has been assigned two lawyers to appeal in the Bombay High Court against the decision—Amin Solkar and Farhana Shah—by the Maharashtra State Legal Services Committee. Hearings are to start on 30 August. There are, of course, differences between Kasab and those she got off the hook in the bomb blasts’ case. They were not guilty. But Kasab, the entire country has seen in the act of mass murder. It is the reason why Farhana’s husband is against her taking up this case. “I do not want her to defend Kasab. We have all seen for ourselves what he has done. But if she is keen, then all I can do is support her,” says Afzal Shah, who Farhana married in 1998 on the condition that she would not give up the blasts’ case.
Farhana had her first meeting with Kasab on 12 June this year. It lasted 20 minutes. Sentenced to death on 6 May, Kasab has been in solitary confinement since. “When Amin and I went to the jail, Kasab hadn’t met anyone since his conviction. He was well behaved, kept his eyes lowered, and was worried about how much longer the trial would take. At the end of the meeting, he said shukriya, aap aa gaye (thank you for coming).”
Farhana is 44 years old, and a picture of political correctness, something she has been all the more particular about since she accepted the Kasab brief. Seated in a high-backed chair at her Grant Road office, a large white dupatta covering her head and upper body and wearing a long-sleeved black kurta demurely styled with a high neckline, she tries to look conservative. While her predecessor Abbas Kazmi, who defended Kasab in the trial court, had to face the rage of Bombay’s Muslims (the Islam Gymkhana even cancelled his membership) and Hindu organisations, there has been an uneasy silence in Farhana’s case. “Inshallah, I have done no wrong. I don’t think I am doing anything against the law. I have been appointed by the law,” she says. “When I said ‘yes’ to the Kasab brief, I did not think about how society would react. Justice Patel had asked me to handle the case and you never say ‘no’ to him.”
And yet, the danger of having such a client always hangs like a shadow. Solkar, the other lawyer, has been provided with police security following threats. Farhana has not got any. Some days after she took up the case, an office next to hers, owned by a cousin, was vandalised and its occupants threatened. Farhana’s office was shut at the time, and she’s not sure that the attack is unconnected. As a mother, she is also concerned about her school-going children’s safety. “I travel by public transport as I cannot afford a car,” she says, “My clients are people who cannot pay much. If I ask for security, I will have to pay for what I can’t afford. I believe in prayers. I pray five times a day. I know my family and I will be safe.”
Farhana has had illustrious (if you can call Kasab that) clients in the past. During the bomb blasts’ trial, Sunil Dutt would come to the courts because his son Sanjay Dutt was an accused. “Dutt saheb watched me in court. He would call up my mother and talk to her. Later, I started handling small matters for Sanjay. It started with his approaching me to get court permission to go abroad on work. I started handling all his cases,” Farhana says. She is also defending Mohammed Atik, Mohammed Iqbal and Dastagir Feroze, alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives charged with bomb blasts.
Being a criminal lawyer has often meant trouble for her and her husband, an acupuncturist once affiliated with GT Hospital. “Once an accused had been brought to the hospital at night, and was then taken to the police station closeby. I was his lawyer. My husband accompanied me to the police station… because it was late. When the hospital authorities realised our relationship, things started becoming difficult for him. He quit the job,” she recounts. But that’s a price Kasab’s lawyer is willing to pay. “People think that I am freeing the guilty. This is not so. There are many poor people languishing in jail as they cannot afford a lawyer. I am doing my job by the law.”