The first time Mir Urfi decided to become a lawyer, she did not know if she would be able to deliver in a field dominated by men. Eighteen years later, however, she is still on the job and has made a name fighting cases that few would take up in Kashmir.
After graduating from the Women’s College in Srinagar, Urfi wanted to pursue her higher degree in journalism but her father, late Mir Mohammad Ishaq, counselled her to opt for law — there was no scope in journalism, he had said.
In 2002, Urfi completed her law degree from the Kashmir University.
“My father never forced me,” said Urfi, 40. “He just made me understand [how I would better serve the society as a lawyer] and that is why I choose to do law.”
Soon after, Urfi joined the firm headed by one of Kashmir’s most famed human rights lawyers Mir Shafqat Hussain — who died in 2020 after battling cancer and left his legacy of providing legal succor to the countless detainees of the Public Safety Act (PSA) to Urfi, who now heads the firm.
Under Hussain’s mentorship, Urfi said, “I learnt most importantly how to deal with our clients.”
Urfi accompanied Hussain to almost every case hearing and noted every word of Hussain in the courtroom to better understand how to argue cases for clients. “I believe it was my luck that I was able to join [Hussain] sir’s firm at the start of my career,” she said.
All through this Urfi learnt the most important thing from Hussain: helping deliver justice. “That’s the only thing he was strict about,” said Urfi. “Other than that, he would give all of us freedom to do and try everything.”
Dealing with countless cases of ordinary citizens falling on the bad side of the law, it struck Urfi that there was more happening around her than she had realised. “I came to know about the real human rights violation,” she said, adding that before joining the firm, “I would read it in the newspapers but I could never comprehend the depth of it.”
Studying clients’ cases with Hussain, Urfi said she realised that Kashmiris are truly denied the basic principle of the law wherein an individual is innocent until proven guilty. “I realized that Kashmirs are declared guilty before trial,” she said. “That’s how they are looked at.”
Helpless families from across the Kashmir Valley thronged the offices of Hussain’s firm with the hope of getting their kins’ PSAs – widely condemned law that allows detentions without trial – quashed.
“I could feel the pain in the eyes of mothers whose sons were detained under the unlawful act,” said Urfi. “At times people who had never been to the city would have to come to meet Mir sahab… My heart would break every time I would see a father or a mother, tears in their eyes, asking for help.”
Over the years, Urfi said, beginning her legal career under the tutelage of Hussain left a distinct mark on her career. “I am able to pursue this profession even today because of him,” she said. “Everyone wants to legally help people but for that you should get the right case. I was lucky in that case because I got those cases right on my table.”
Hussain, she said, “believed in teaching” and would always tell her that nothing is more important than your client. From hoping to earn money from the profession, Urfi said that her perspective changed to “helping someone to release his or her kid, it gives you satisfaction.” She added: “When your client leaves you while giving prayers. It is the most overwhelming feeling and no amount of money can replace it.”
Today, after two decades as a lawyer, the human suffering behind the endless paperwork has left a heavy toll on her mind. With each case, said Urfi, the trauma renews itself. “It’s not only the struggle of those young boys,” she said, “it is also the struggle of their family, their parents and that makes it more difficult.”
In the past years, Urfi witnessed many cases where juveniles were arrested like in 2008, 2010, 2019. “Whenever they were brought to the court, it was the most difficult for me to see. I would see small kids who didn’t know what a court was, they had handcuffs around their hands,” She said. She remembered a case in which a group of 18 young men were arrested for links with militancy. “Among them, a few had qualified KAS and some were doing MBA.
She felt terrified that such talented young men are getting tormented by the lengthy course of hearing; to be acquitted after years, sometimes decades later. “It drained me emotionally,” she added.
She believes that Shafqat helped her in building a bridge between her and her clients. “He wanted his legacy to continue. All of his juniors, including me, can try but there can be no other Shafqat Sahab,” she said adding “I cannot take his place, that’s impossible.”