After the Babri Masjid case was transferred to Lucknow in 1989, he devoted all his time to the litigation, fully committing to the cause
Zafaryab Jilani was born in 1950 in Malihabad district, Uttar Pradesh. At the time of Partition, his father was an employee of the Indian Postal Services. His father sensed that his service condition might dislocate him and hence, he decided to resign from his job. Jilani’s four brothers were born and brought up in Malihabad; now all are settled in Lucknow. One of his younger brothers, Qamaryab, predeceased him by 15 years. Jilani is survived by his two sons and one daughter. One son, Najam, is a law practitioner in Lucknow.
Jilani completed his LLB in 1969 and LLM in 1971 from Aligarh Muslim University and started his law practice in Lucknow in the chamber of Shafiqur Rehman, a well-known civil lawyer of that time. Considering his interest in academics, he started teaching law on a part-time basis at Shia Degree College, Lucknow, where he taught for a few years. Simultaneously, he was also involved in different movements like the minority protection movement in 1971, which led him to be jailed for about 28 days.
As a young lawyer, Jilani, as he told me, was very enthusiastic to learn different branches of law, and under Rehman, it took no time for him to emerge as a promising lawyer. This led to Sanjay Gandhi choosing him as his lawyer in 1980 to represent him in a criminal case. That was the time when Arif Mohammad Khan was also associated with him. He told me that, thanks to his dedication to the case, he was offered a ticket from the Congress party to contest the Lok Sabha elections, which he declined for two reasons. One, he wanted to stay away from political groups and two, he had no resources to undertake the election expenditures. Later on, he was also offered a Rajya Sabha membership which again he declined because of the conditions attached to that offer. He was also offered a judgeship in the High Court.
He told me that in 1986, Ali Miyan of Nadwatul Ulama requested him to inspect the file related to the Babri Masjid dispute and check as to what was the status of pending litigation in Faizabad. Thereafter, he got actively involved in the case. Later on, in 1989, the High Court transferred all the cases from Faizabad to the Allahabad High Court, Lucknow Bench. After the transfer of the case to Lucknow, Jilani devoted all his time to this litigation, fully committing to the cause.
I was introduced to him in the year 2010, when some party had approached the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the proposed pronouncement of judgment by the three-judge Bench of the Allahabad High Court regarding the title of the land in Ayodhya. During this short interaction, he asked me to suggest a few young lawyers who could work on this litigation as and when it reached the Supreme Court at the instance of one of the parties. A few days later, the judgment was pronounced directing the division of the said land into three parts. The very next day, I received a call to start downloading the entire judgment from the website and start reading so that whenever he was in Delhi, I would have some idea about the litigation. Later on, he called me to meet Rajeev Dhawan, a Senior Advocate, and requested him to appear for the Muslim side. I had no prior interaction with Dhawan, but I went and conveyed Jilani’s request. Dhawan responded positively. However, he expressed unhappiness over not having got the request over a phone call from Jilani. It was much later that I understood Dhawan’s fondness for Jilani — quite rightly, he always wanted Jilani’s instructions on any crucial issue to be conveyed directly to him.
Jilani was excellent at articulating the legal issues in papers and submissions in Court. Much later in 2012, he was offered the position of Additional Advocate General of the Government of Uttar Pradesh, which he reluctantly accepted and worked for five years in that capacity. He will be remembered as a great lawyer who served humanity in different spheres of life. Apart from being an active office-bearer of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Babri Masjid Action Committee, he was manager of Islamia College, Lucknow, and an NGO which ran an orphanage and a degree college. He was a true community leader, who ignored his personal interest and put his entire life in contesting and defending the issues of the Muslims. In my view, the community at large shall remain indebted to his services, which have no parallel.
This article was published in the Indian Express on May 18, 2023