A just cause

After landing in London for higher studies Khursheed Drabu began his career as a lawyer and activist challenging discriminatory measures towards immigrants. He retired as the first Muslim Judge of Britain, but the government now finds his services indispensable.

Judge Khurshid Hassan Drabu

For Judge Khursheed Hassan Drabu, success has been a complex and continuous struggle. His hard work fetched him the distinction of being first Muslim judge of United Kingdom. Almost one year after Drabu retired, the British government has requested him to join the judiciary again given his contributions.

“I had to be twice as good as local lawyers to make it good,” Judge Drabu told Kashmir Life at his father’s Srinagar residence last week before flying to London for taking the new assignment. He is the son of Khwaja Ghulam Nabi Drabu, a former Excise & Taxation Commissioner of state government. “As immigrants then, there were prejudices against us. There was discrimination but at the same time I realised (that) if I worked hard enough there was no ceiling to what I could achieve.”

Drabu did his matriculation in 1961 from Church Missionary School and became the captain of J&K cricket team at the age of 24 as a student of the S P College. He graduated in 1967 and did his Bachelors in Law from Aligarh Muslim University in 1969. After becoming a pleader for a brief period, he took off for the UK to do his Bar at Law.

It was in the UK where the best thing happened to young Drabu. He was married. “It is an interesting anecdote. My father and uncle were studying in Lahore when the partition took place. While my father could reach Srinagar, my uncle could not so my uncle stayed put in Pakistan where he joined the army and later immigrated to the UK in 1959,” Drabu said. The two brothers were married to two sisters. Reefat, Drabus’ wife, is his cousin.

“Reefat’s family arrived in Britain when she was nine while Khurshid remained in Kashmir. They got to know each other through letters, exchanged photographs and the poetry Khurshid wrote to the girl he hoped would one day be his wife,” wrote The Guardian in its 2009 Valentine Special on February 14 that shortlisted four British couples for seeking advice for today’s young couples. “They finally met in 1969 when Reefat visited Kashmir and the meeting confirmed their mutual attraction. Two years later, Khurshid arrived in Britain and they married in September 1972”.

Their marriage interestingly was televised by Thames TV. The TV had just started the programme that year where they selected four immigrant couples to tell the story of how they are doing in England.

Post marriage, the real life started. “I became a leading practitioner in human rights and was a regular feature in the media opposing government’s repressive law on immigration and inadequate laws on racial discrimination,” remembers Drabu. For his campaign against repressive laws and staying put as immigration law practitioner (1972-89) despite having other options, he was once described as “the authority in immigration law”. Then I started working for UK Emigrants Advisory Service where I would get little money but it was my conviction to try to make a difference to the society in Britain.”

For around 15 years he was a magistrate – Justice of the Peace (1984-2000), in Southampton Division, holding a part-time, an honorary position where one works for peace and justice without actually being paid. Besides, he headed UK’s Mental Health Review Tribunal for South that is mandated to decide inmates of mental hospitals over whether they are fit to be released to the society or not. He accepted the position in 1987 and resigned in 1999.

In 1978 he returned home intending to settle here. For two years he was a lawyer at the High Court and the District & Session Court in Srinagar besides being a visiting faculty to the University of Kashmir’s Law Department. But the “shabby treatment” forced him to change his decision and he flew back to London.

In 1990, Drabu was appointed to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) – a statutory body with law enforcement powers to combat racial discrimination, where as a member of the senior management team he headed its litigation department. Two years later, he felt discriminated against in the promotions and sued CRE. It took the case two years to settle to his satisfaction. Finally, in 1996, the Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern appointed him as the first Muslim judge to the British judiciary, his full-time judicial appointment. Three years later he became Vice President, Immigration Appeal Tribunal, a position that was re-designated in 2005 as Senior Judge, Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

“I rose to the ranks and became a senior judge and at one time VP of emigration appeals tribunal. I was also appointed as a legal member of special emigration commission that deals with cases of all alleged terrorists”, Drabu said.

In 1997, he became a founder member of an umbrella group of British Muslims – the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) where he held three positions – adviser on constitutional affairs, head of legal affairs committee and convenor of its board of councillors. “It is extremely unusual for a judge to be allowed to get involved in societal affairs but the Lord Chancellor allowed me to all this knowing my objective is that Muslims should survive in the country as a peaceful lot,” said Drabu.

In MCB, Drabu became an ex-officio advisor on Islamic Affairs to the British Ministry of Defence. His critical interventions led to permission to Muslim soldiers to wear trimmed beards and Muslim women hijabs. Apart from managing changes in diet, he got a Muslim Imam appointed as part of British Defence Ministry’s Chaplaincy team.

But all this came at a cost as his stress levels were always up. Drabu had angina and in 1996 he went for a triple artery bypass. But a vein remained blocked and no doctor in Britain could fit it. However, last year after Drabu bid good bye to his job, he was operated upon and it was successful.

Post-retirement, Drabu says life became more hectic. As he joined UK’s Mosques and Imam’s National Advisory Board (MINAB), time became scarce for him. The organization was launched early last month.

MINAB, Drabu said is the first serious initiative in the UK that gets not only Shias and Sunnis but also Barelvis and Devbandis on a single platform on basis of a common theology. The largest Muslim population in the UK comprises Barelvis and most of them are Mirpuris who actually dominate the Bradford.

“MINAB is a great achievement. I must confess the government is very supportive in democratising the Muslim institutions”, Drabu said. “We created, for the first time, benchmarks for certain positions to be held in Muslim institutions and it is a huge development to the extent that many countries in Europe are studying this model and seeking help from us in implementing it.”

These contributions have made judge Drabu a very respectable personality, capable of contributing to the larger society. And this has started paying. The Ministry of Justice has requested him to resume duties as a judge. “If everything goes well, I will be joining as a fee paid judge early next month and I will be working four days a month,” he said.

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