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The hangman’s noose has apparently satiated some of our appetite for revenge for the terrible crimes committed by a young man who so casually sauntered into Mumbai four years ago, a gun slung across his shoulder, shooting innocent citizens at random. That image of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab stays with us. In the nation’s collective imagination, we can now also see him hanging from a rope. Crime and punishment. Violence and retribution. Due process of the law. Justice delivered.
As we conjure up for ourselves the image of a medieval tradition in modern times, let us also see the picture with complete clarity, shorn of emotion. The Kasab hanging is also about politics. The man was quietly hanged and buried five days ahead of the fourth anniversary of the siege of Mumbai. It was announced to the world the day after Pakistani foreign minister Rehman Malik officially cancelled a scheduled visit to India. It happened the day before a stormy session of Parliament began. And it has come just ahead of the Gujarat elections, where the Congress would argue that it has some muscle to show the sole surviving ‘Hindu hriday samrat’ after the passing away of Bal Thackeray.
“The fight wasn’t against just Ajmal Kasab but against the citizen of an enemy nation. I felt like a warrior.”
Kasab’s hanging came on the very day newspapers were reporting that India was among the 39 nations in the world which voted against the United Nations draft resolution for abolishing the death penalty. It came at the hands of a home minister hailing from Maharashtra, the very state Kasab and his friends had struck on the night of November 26, four years ago. And it came within months of Pranab Mukherjee taking over as President. Little wonder, Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde was preening before TV cameras saying he would deal with any file that came before him, even Afzal Guru’s, within days of receiving it. And to cap the perfectly executed deed, secular India’s ‘Muslim’ external affairs minister Salman Khurshid (personally against the death penalty) informed the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that its unwanted citizen was now buried inside an Indian jail. Do they want the body back?
Rewind to shortly after midnight between November 26 and 27. Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists zoom in from a lane on to the Metro Junction near the Mumbai Police headquarters in a police jeep. One of them, his weapon jutting outside the vehicle’s window, sprays a round of fire from the machine gun, injuring a journalist and instantly killing a constable. India’s ground zero. Soon, there comes news of the killing of top cops Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar. A few minutes later, we hear about constable Tukaram Ombale being killed and of a “terrorist having been captured alive”. This is one of the rare cases of a terrorist in a fidayeen attack being caught alive. He is a living proof of dangerous forces in Pakistan waging war against India.
A back story to that lethal child-man slowly emerges. He is from Faridkot district in Pakistan’s Punjab. One who left home at age 14 in search of a better life and ended up being a fidayeen. One who joined the Lashkar-e-Toiba and came to India on a boat with nine compatriots fully trained to execute the LeT’s lethal agenda. His nine companions died in the course of that operation. In his video confession, recorded soon after his capture, Kasab tells a Mumbai police officer that his handlers told him, “You have to do these things if you have to become a big man and get rewarded in heaven”. Kasab therefore had come to India fully prepared to be martyred in the name of jehad. Instead, he ended up being a “prize catch”. And a dead man at 7.30 am on November 21, 2012.
“There’s no doubt that it’s very shocking news that a Muslim has been hanged on Indian soil.”
It’s the first time a capital sentence has been carried out in India since 2004. Shortly after the execution, home minister Shinde said that “all police officers and personnel who lost their life in the battle against the terrorists have today been served justice”. The Maharashtra home minister, R.R. Patil, confirmed the news in a press conference, saying, “His execution is a tribute to the victims of 26/11.”
Kasab’s hanging is certainly a safe execution. He does not hail from India; so there is no political price to pay. The hanging of assassins from Punjab is a politically loaded question, as is the pending execution of Afzal Guru, which would again damage the delicate status quo in Kashmir. Ajay Sahani of the South Asia Terrorism Portal feels “Kasab’s was the easiest case for the government to take care of. He was past his utility in India. The case against him had been successfully concluded. Pakistan considered him an embarrassment. If we didn’t hang him, we’d come across as a weak state. But hanging Kasab doesn’t really make us a strong state either. So for the government, it was an easy point to score.”
Kasab, an inconvenient reminder for Pakistan, was indeed no one’s child. From a strategic point of view, however, his execution could be a tactical mistake for India. In summarily hanging him while there is an ongoing court case against him in Pakistan, it is difficult not to wonder if, in the search for short-term political gains, the Congress-led UPA has snuffed out a key piece of evidence (see interview with Shahbaz Rajput) and squandered bragging rights over India’s vaunted humanism? It was, after all, the great Indian, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who is remembered across the world for saying that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
“With this hanging, homage has been paid to my husband. But other accused are shielded in Pakistan.”
Given the history of relations with Pakistan, are we now to fear tit-for-tat actions? There is, for instance, the Indian national Sarabjit Singh who has been in Pakistani jails after being handed the death sentence in 1991 for his alleged involvement in serial blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad. India has been making sustained efforts to get him released. By executing Kasab, have we placed Sarabjit Singh in peril? Ashish Choudhury, whose sister Monica perished in the 2008 siege of Mumbai, says: “I don’t want to preach to my kids in a wrong way by rejoicing over Kasab’s death. I think Kasab as a kid must have been preached to kill people in the name of religion. We need to instil good values and ethics in our kids and stop being fanatics about religion.”
There is also the reality that the law, as it stands, ran its full course. There was no doubt about Kasab’s guilt; the only debate possible here is about the moral nature of capital punishment itself. Also significant is the fact that prominent Indian Muslims have made it a point to say that the law of the land has to be followed. MIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi says that “there is nothing to debate here as the law of the country has been followed”. Mumbai-based advocate Majeed Memon says that he does not subscribe to the view that keeping Kasab alive would have been better for the probe. “There is some percentage of truth that some evidence could have been gathered by keeping him alive, but there is a limit for that. We cannot wait indefinitely, when he has been held liable for so much death.”
Indeed, there are those who believe there is some closure for 26/11. Smita Salaskar, wife of slain encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar, says she was satisfied with Kasab’s execution, “but I will be fully satisfied when the masterminds shielded in Pakistan are brought to justice”. K. Unnikrishnan, father of nsg commando Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who was killed in the Taj strike, too accepts, “With the execution of Kasab, there is a sense of closure, yes.” A closure for some, but a simultaneous opening up of old wounds for others.
“It’s a step in the right direction. But 26/11 perpetrators in Pakistan have to be brought to justice.”
In the Kashmir Valley, for instance, almost the entire population believes that Afzal Guru, on death row for the Parliament attack case, is an innocent trapped in the labyrinth of Indian intelligence agencies. The Valley, now in the midst of the winter freeze, was unusually calm about Kasab’s execution. No one protested or said anything. Ageing pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who condemned the US for killing Osama bin Laden, and is revered by Kasab’s LeT outfit, chose to target Israeli aggression on Gaza in his daily press statement and say nothing on the Kasab hanging. The Valley Press, a leading English daily, carried the news as its fourth lead.
It doesn’t mask the lurking question and concern, though: could it be Afzal Guru next? People in the Valley know the Congress is being taunted by the BJP to hang Afzal Guru now. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi tweeted to this effect soon after the Kasab hanging, asking for Afzal Guru to meet the same fate next. There is a broad consensus among pro-Pakistan, pro-azadi and pro-India groupings in Kashmir that were Afzal Guru to hang, the Valley will burn again. His hanging wouldn’t pass off as a non-event here, says activist and lawyer Parvez Imroz: “He’s a native, and if he is executed, it would give birth to a new violent revolution in our streets. His conviction rested solely on circumstantial evidence. People in the Valley are aware that the SC found no direct evidence but said that the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
Pro-independence JKLF chief Yasin Malik is one of the most vocal opponents of Afzal Guru’s hanging. Counted among the pioneers of armed insurgency in Kashmir, Yasin, who gave up violence in 1994, says that the people of Kashmir have consciously and collectively moved away from violence to non-violence. “Please respect this big gesture. My appeal to Indians is not to force Kashmiris into another phase of violence by hanging Afzal Guru.” Yasin recalled that thousands of Kashmiri youth picked up arms after JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat was hanged in Tihar in 1984. “Maqbool sahib’s execution had serious repercussions. A Maqbool Bhat was born in every home in Kashmir. Please don’t hang Afzal Guru unless you want to see another generation of Kashmiris carrying guns in their hands,” Yasin told Outlook. Chief minister Omar Abdullah too has said that he has “serious apprehensions” about what would happen were Afzal Guru hanged.
The Congress has certainly opened up an issue that is troubling for a vulnerable part of what we celebrate as the Indian Republic. In a scenario that now compels the party to live one day at a time (the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous), it can only take solace from the fact that there is greater public support for Kasab’s execution than for some of its other policies.
By Saba Naqvi and Toral Varia-Deshpande with Showkat A. Motta in Srinagar