Ajmal Kasab’s expressionless face has been branded in a billion heads since that day in November 2008 when India sat riveted to the three-day orgy of violence unfolding in Mumbai. Now the Supreme Court has affirmed that capital punishment is the just way to bring closure to the horrors of 26/11.
For four years India has watched Kasab’s trial proceed, and done much soul-searching alongside about the principle of capital punishment. Should it remain on the books, given concerns about the possibility of miscarriage of justice? Kasab was 21 at the time, and even now would have to wait another couple of weeks to legally be able to buy a drink in Delhi. Does his youth and naiveté constitute a mitigating factor? Will he file a mercy plea? Will it be rejected? Should the sentence be commuted to life? Do we really feel like paying for his room and board through his lifespan? Why wasn’t the guy hung day before yesterday?
We’ve debated all of this threadbare, but beyond the matter of capital punishment per se, we’ve spent a lot of airtime talking about how the Kasab trial demonstrates the fabulousness of the Indian judicial system. That’s a lot of hooey.
The fact is that the eyes of the world are on the trial, and the world’s largest democracy can’t afford to come off as anything other than a well-functioning democracy. The fact is that there was never any doubt, given the fact that the man is on videotape shooting people, about the fact that he would be convicted-and little doubt, if any, that he would be sentenced to death (whether or not that sentence is eventually commuted). Kasab’s trial was an open and shut case, as the amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran pointed out, and while the advocate did his job by offering viable reasons to commute the sentence, there just weren’t any reasons viable enough. Chances are that even he knew that.
The self-congratulatory cry on television channels is that India’s judiciary is so even-handed that even a Pakistani terrorist can get a fair trial. This is true, and it’s nice to know, and I’m glad. But I’m really much more interested in whether even an average Indian can get a fair trial.
Trials begin with good police work and due diligence, both famously shoddy in India. Just ask any number of people who have tried to file an FIR at a police station and been refused. Ask any number of people who have watched their case go pear-shaped because of sloppy detective work and contaminated or destroyed evidence. (In the Arushi Talwar murder case, it took over a day for the police to find the body of the other deceased, Hemraj, which was…wait for it…on the terrace. To be fair, the door to the terrace was shut.) Ask any number of witnesses who have been intimidated, any number of police officials who have been suddenly transferred, and any number of judges who have felt the fetid breath of political pressure down the neck of their robes.
If there is reason to feel good about India’s justice system, it lies in the other verdict that was pronounced this week, convicting 32 people, including BJP MLA Maya Kodnani, and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, of murder and incitement and other crimes in the Naroda-Patiya massacre of 2002 in Gujarat. That verdict took ten painful years to achieve, but it is a much more real triumph of justice over all of the police, political and judicial problems cited above.
It is a far more significant verdict, because, while Kasab’s crimes are terrible, they are exactly what you might expect of a Pakistani terrorist. The much more heinous wagers of war against India, the far more poisonous snakes, are those of our political leaders who turn against our own people.
As it happens, judge Jyotsna Yagnik handed out reasonably-sized life sentences to the accused, not death. Honestly, I’m much more ambivalent about the relative merits of putting Kasab to death than those accused in the Naroda-Patiya case. I find that watching the tape of Babu Bajrangi smirking about murdering people and setting them on fire, or reading about Maya Kodnani’s lawyer pleading for mercy on the grounds that her husband is not well and her son is studying in the US, is very clarifying.
Maybe it’s a terrible thing, the death penalty. Maybe not. But if we’re to have it, we should use it to send out signals about what India will and will not accept. Personally, I worry that death might just be too good for Kodnani and Bajrangi, but if I examine my heart, I wouldn’t have minded taking the chance.