The high drama that accompanied Ajmal Kasab when he appeared on the Indian scene four years back was missing in his death. If at all, it came in the form of headline-grabbing news and daylong debate and discussions on Indian TV channels only after he had disappeared from the scene. As the lone survivor of the Pakistan-based terror group that launched its audacious attack on Mumbai, killing 166 people and wounding several others, on 26/11 in 2008, Kasab had been a “dead man walking” since the time of his capture. But the government’s announcement early on Wednesday morning that Kasab has been hanged to death came as a surprise to most Indians.
More surprising perhaps was the muted reaction in Pakistan. Barring tweets, a few discussions and predictable statements from jehadi groups, Kasab’s death went almost unsung. There were no demonstrations or rallies carrying his portrait; no anti-Indian sloganeering. By mid-day his death was not even in the main headlines on Pakistan’s busy news channels.
The Pakistani government, which had earlier politely refused to accept the letter from the Indian government informing them about the decision to execute Kasab, asked its foreign ministry to make a statement emphasising its resolve to fight terrorism and the readiness to work with all countries in the region to fight it. But, as many in the establishment describe Wednesday’s incident as a “closure” on the Kasab case—with the trial and execution completed in as few as four years—questions are being raised. Can keeping him alive have served India’s purpose better? Or was it too late?
“He should have been hanged two years back,” former Indian foreign minister K. Natwar Singh told Outlook. He pointed out that former president Pratibha Patil had been sitting on Kasab’s mercy petition. “The entire judicial process had been completed and there is no reason why he should not have been hanged earlier.”
“Bold initiatives are required on part of the Indian and Pakistani leadership to avoid brinkmanship.”
—C. Raja Mohan, analyst
Motives are being attached to the government’s decision to hang Kasab around the onset of the winter session of Parliament, expected to be stormy. However, while observers recognise the UPA government’s attempt to shore up its domestic stock by acting tough on terrorists, it begs a question. What would it mean to the future of Indo-Pakistan relations? From the time New Delhi decided to return to the talks table, after having suspended negotiations with Islamabad for several months after 26/11, the Indian government had been insisting on Pakistan showing progress on the Mumbai attacks case. India argued that unless Pakistan acts against the perpetrators of the attack, the trust deficit will remain. The signal was clear: India wanted Pakistan to take action against seven terrorist leaders suspected to have masterminded 26/11 and now in Pakistani custody.
But many are now questioning whether Pakistan will have the political will to do so. Despite the muted response in the country to Kasab’s hanging, there are fears among many Indians that jehadi groups as well as the hardliners in Pakistan may take a much tougher line to prevent the Pakistani government from showing meaningful progress on the 26/11 trial. There are indications from Pakistan that while its army and the ISI have not said much on Kasab’s death, they may not encourage the government to act against the seven suspects.
“Kasab dead may prove to be stronger and more potent than Kasab alive,” says K.C. Singh, former MEA secretary. He thinks the jehadis will turn Kasab into a poster boy to boost recruitment. South Block, however, insists that the “closure” on Kasab does not mean India can stop insisting that Pakistan acts against the 26/11 perpetrators. “That is the bare minimum for Pakistan to establish its credibility on this important issue of bilateral ties,” says a senior Indian diplomat.
The signals from Pakistan are complicated. Khawaja Haris Ahmed, one of the lawyers for Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the seven being held, says, “Kasab had to be cross-examined before his Indian confessional statement could be admitted in a Pakistani court. Now, his statements have no legal value.”
However, lack of progress on the 26/11 case is not the only worry. There are indications that, in the coming days, the focus may shift to Sarabjit Singh, an Indian being held in a Pakistani jail after conviction on a terror charge. So are we looking at a scenario when India and Pakistan are likely to go back to their old rivalry, ending the bonhomie and ambitious talk of liberalising trade and visa regimes? “Bold initiatives are required by the Indian and Pakistani leadership to keep the bilateral ties moving forward and avoid getting into a game of brinkmanship,” says C. Raja Mohan, an Indian strategist. But as both countries get into election mode, can Manmohan Singh and Asif Ali Zardari end their tenures on a high note by embarking on a breakthrough in Indo-Pak ties? Or will they play it safe and leave that task to their successors?
By Pranay Sharma in New Delhi and Mohammad Zulqernain in Lahore