Remembering Adv. Mukul Sihna: Mahtab Alam

Guest post by MAHTAB ALAM

On 12th of May, while I was still trying to cope with the sad demise of noted human rights lawyer Advocate PurushothamPoojary, from Mangalore in Karnataka, I was informed of yet another loss. But this time, the loss was more personal and tragic. “Mukul Sinha passed away,” informed a friend who was calling from Delhi. The news shook me to the core and for a few hours, I went numb with disbelief and was unable to respond properly. In fact, it is still difficult for me to talk of him in the past tense.

Dr. Mukul Sinha, a physicist by training, a trade unionist and human rights activist by passion, and a lawyer by practice, succumbed to lung cancer in Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat. His diagnosis with cancer was revealed to us a year ago. But the news had to be kept under wraps as it would ‘unnecessarily concern’ his distant friends and well-wishers. In the last one year, while he had almost stopped participating in public functions, he was very active on social media, especially Twitter. I first met him in December 2008 at my alma mater, Jamia Millia  Islamia, Delhi, through a friend during the 32nd All Indian Social Sciences Congress, where he was one of the lead speakers. After his presentation at the conference, we had a long conversation at the University’s café. He encouraged me to carry on with the work that I was doing and offered his help and guidance whenever required. The next month, when I had to travel to Ahmedabad accompanying family members of a few terror accused lodged in Ahmedabad Central Jail, I made it a point to meet him. He invited me to his home and treated me in a manner, as if he was meeting an old friend. In my subsequent visits to the city, I visited his office and met several of his comrades. Eventually, we became good friends and in 2012 when I invited him to deliver the first Shahid Azmi Memorial lecture in Mumbai, he readily agreed not only to deliver the lecture but also insisted on travelling at his own cost.

During one of our meetings, when I expressed my desire to study law and become a lawyer, he categorically told me, “Study law only if you seriously want to study it. There is no point in merely taking a degree.” For him, justice was a serious business and there were no short-cuts to it. As a friend recently recalled, he would always say that “There is no way, but only the way of truth and painstaking efforts. If we have to secure justice in mass violence, we have to be very precise and go after the case in detail. Only a case built on a systematic and a scientific manner would stand the scrutiny of time.” And he always practiced what he preached. Hence, one finds a scientific precision in his work.

Together with his wife, Dr. Nirjhari Sinha, who is a scientist, he analyzed call records of the violent period of 2002 in Gujarat and presented it to the Nanavati Commission. Scientific analysis of these call records had long lasting impact on the case, resulting in the conviction of Maya Kodnani, a former minister of the Gujarat government and others involved in the Gujarat communal violence. He was also of the view that in cases of mass violence, especially those with the connivance of the state, “the choice is pretty stark—either you give in to the fear of reprisal and clam up or stand rock solid to fight for your beliefs. No matter what they throw at you.”

Mukul bhai, as he came to be called by his friends, comrades and clients of all ages, was one of the finest criminal and labour lawyers of our times. He was the man who fought, mostly pro-bono, countless cases of family members and victims of anti-Muslim violence (2002) and extra-judicial killings in Gujarat. He fought decisive legal battles against the Gujarat government, resulting in the arrest of three senior police officers of the government who were charge-sheeted for murder in various cases related to fake encounters. But his work and struggle was not limited to Gujarat alone. He was equally concerned and associated with various people’s movements and struggles across the country. He was fighting on multiple fronts. His timely, courageous and relentless struggle, both inside the court as well as on the streets, and in the public sphere through his mass based organization, Jan Sanghrash Manch (People’s Struggle Forum), helped and inspired many to ensure justice for the victims of communal violence, extra-judicial killings, labour rights, issues of urban poor, Adivasis, Dalits and displacement in not only Gujarat but across the country as well.

One of the lesser known but very important work done by Adv. Mukul Sihna is his cross examination of army officials and Assam Rifles personnel during the hearings of Justice (retired) Santosh Hegde Commission, appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate a sample of six cases of extra-judicial killings in Manipur. He played a crucial role in the cross-examination of witnesses. It was his impassionate arguments before the commission, both in Manipur as well as in Delhi, which led to their recommendations.

The commission, while finding the allegations made by the petitioner to be true, said that “the continued operation of the AFSPA in Manipur has made ‘a mockery of law’, and that security forces have been “transgressing the legal bounds for their counter-insurgency operations in the state of Manipur.”

Today, when Mukul bhai is no more with us and his early death has left us shocked and stranded, I am reminded of his own words, which he said while delivering the first Advocate Shahid Azmi Memorial Lecture in February 2012 in Mumbai – “While we shall salute and keep remembering warriors like Adv. Shahid Azmi, we must realize that this struggle has to be waged by the masses as a part of their larger struggle for democracy.” To pay our real tribute to Mukulbhai, we should accelerate our work of mobilizing people in order to defend human rights.

(The author is a human rights activist and freelance journalist, currently based in Bangalore and working as Co-ordinator, Human Rights Defenders Project at Amnesty International India.)

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