(This article was first published on 27 January 2020. It is being reposted from The Quint's archives after the demise of senior advocate Zafaryab Jilani on 17 May 2023.)
Video Editor: Varun Sharma, Mohd Irshad Alam
Very few know that Zafaryab Jilani, key lawyer for the Muslim petitioners in the Babri Masjid dispute case, would have been born and brought up in Pakistan, had his father not had a change of heart after the Partition, in 1948.
"My father, Abdul Qayyum Jilani, was in the railway service. When the Partition took place, he went to Pakistan. He came back to India to marry in 1948... on his way back, my grandmother, who only had one child, said something to him, when he was at Malihabad. He changed his mind at the railway station and decided not to go back to Pakistan," Jilani said.
In a freewheeling chat with The Quint, 68-year-old Jilani sidestepped the communal overtones expected while speaking about the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir debate, and amiably spoke of his friendships with those in the Hindutva fold.
From meeting Bollywood superstar Dilip Kumar, to his failed attempts to get constitutional giant and renowned lawyer Nanabhoy ‘Nani’ Palkhivala on board, Jilani spent four decades of his life relentlessly pursuing a case, which became the contentious face of a communally divisive India.
"When the demolition happened, it was one of the worst days of my life. I was shocked. But a day later, we started to process what had happened. I didn't break down or start crying, but began thinking of ways to face it," Jilani said. And he did exactly that.
Till the very end, Jilani saw to it that the Muslim petitioners exhaust all legally available remedies. The latest being the review petition filed by him before the Supreme Court, which was rejected in December 2019.
But this rejection was vastly different from the time Jilani was first introduced to the structure he was going to help reclaim. Back in 1984, a 36-year-old Jilani sat behind 60-year-old Hashim Ansari on a bicycle, a petitioner in the case, and came face to face with the disputed mosque in the bylanes of Ayodhya for the first time.
"Hashim Ansari, one of the original petitioners in the case, wrote a letter to me on the night of 22/23 December in 1984 – the anniversary of when the idols were placed inside the mosque. A ‘Prakat Utsav’ was being organised, an event that translates to celebrating the emergence of God. So, he came to meet me from Ayodhya, about eight kilometres away in Faizabad," he said.
Upon hearing about this disputed mosque and the Hindu idols, Jilani felt compelled to see the structure that very moment.
"I told him that I want to see the Babri Masjid. He said we could go right away. When I asked how, he said we could go on his bicycle,” he said.
Sitting behind a man almost double his age, but brisk with his cuts owing to the familiarity of the holy town, Jilani was in awe of the sensitivity of the issue and the circumstances. From that day on, he has remained invested.
He visited Babri again in 1990, this time as a part of a commission sent by the Allahabad high court. The famous picture of the three dome structure was taken then.
Two years after this visit, the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Jilani and the other lawyers on the case huddled to find a big name to get on board. This attempt of locating influential contacts brought him face to face with Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar in Salahuddin Owaisi’s – Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi's father – residence in Delhi.
"In 1994, we felt the need to engage Nani Palkhivala, who had refused to represent us. We wanted him to argue the case as he was a senior lawyer from Bombay (Mumbai). Upon consulting, we got to know he had good relations with Dilip Kumar and Salahuddin Owaisi knew Dilip Kumar well. When Owaisi called Kumar, they realised he was in Delhi,” Jilani said.
“So, around 11:30 that night, we met him. Kumar immediately extended help by making a call to Palkhivala. He, however, denied taking up the case, again. He told Kumar that the budget is coming up and he is bound to get busy... so he does not want to get caught up in this. It was a plausible excuse," he added.
Today, however, the case has ended. Even with his reservations, both based on religion and legal understanding, Jilani has always maintained that the last word of the SC will be accepted.
While the dust on the Babri-Masjid Ram-Mandir case settles, Jilani says the image of the three-dome structure will continue to be prominently visible in his room. Almost every interview of Jilani is taken with the image in the background which, according to the SC judgment, sooner or later, will be the site for a Ram Mandir.
When asked about it, he smiles. "In my life, this is a historical monument and will be the same till the end,” he said, pointing towards a seldom seen photo of the Babri Masjid from 1900, when it used to be white.
“In India, hardly 0.1 percent of people would know about this photo. This photo was first put on display here in my office. It was not found anywhere else till then,” Jilani said with a smile, adding that these images will always be relevant.
“I believe for Muslims, including this generation of young people, who have heard the judgment... given the sadness, anger, anguish they have in them, they will not forget this structure. Everyone who comes here, clicks a photo and takes it. This monument has a personal attachment to everyone alive, even for the generation after,” he said.
Speaking of the younger generation and the growing angst and restlessness against BJP-government led measures that are criticised for being anti-Muslim, Jilani said that young boys from the community come and see him often, to ask for his advice. They complain of dwindling faith and dejection in their fight against the system:
What do you say to them?
When you are Muslim, you should have belief in the fact that whatever happens is done by God. We make them understand that their belief is weak and in order to be strong, your belief should be entirely on Allah. You have the order to fight against this crime. If you are not able to fight, use your tongue. This is a democracy; we can fight using democratic means. We can make Hindus, who are pro-government, understand that the road they are taking is the wrong one. The nation is getting destroyed.
So, you think they will understand through optimism?
Definitely, I guarantee you they will understand.
Outside the world of heated debates, communalism and advocacy though, Jilani has always been a fan of poetry. But, unlike law, where he has taken centre stage, here he is only seen in the audience.
"Iqbal has been my favorite poet since my student days. For example, one of his poems goes like, ‘Khudi ko kar buland itna, ki har taqdeer se pehle, Khuda bande se khud pooche, bata teri raza kya hai (Make your self-respect so strong that when you have to go up, on the day of judgment, god himself asks you what you want."
Speaking on his future plans and retirement, he said: “There is no retirement in law. Till I can, I shall keep working.”