Religious Violence Gets Its Day in Indian Court

Judgment on the perpetrators of two gruesome massacres in India in the last decade -- incidents far apart in space, time and ideological motivation, but sharing a common blood lust and moral blindness -- was delivered by the courts this week, and elbowed one another off the headlines.

The site of the first judgment was the capital, New Delhi, where India's Supreme Court upheld the death sentence passed by a trial court in 2010 on the Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab. This was the man who, with nine companions, went on a killing spree in Mumbai on the night of Nov. 26, 2008, in a highly organized operation supported by handlers in Pakistan. The terrorists attacked one of Mumbai's biggest railway stations and two of its plushest hotels.

The attacks claimed the lives of 164 people. Eventually, all the terrorists except Kasab were killed in skirmishes with security forces. That left the 21-year-old gunman to shoulder the enormous burden of opprobrium and guilt that came from being, in the eyes of millions of outraged Indians, the face of the battle, and in his own gaze, the would-be martyr whose death wish didn't work out. Indian citizens demanded action against Pakistan and, at the very least, a swift death sentence for the captured terrorist. Kasab, who in the beginning was as blase about the violence as a teenager at the controls of a video game, slowly seemed to become aware of how he had been a mere tool in the hands of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Attending his trial in 2009, the New York Times correspondent Vikas Bajaj provided a memorable picture of the extreme naivete that had led Kasab to give himself over so willingly to such a heinous project:

The sole surviving gunman of the deadly rampage in Mumbai unexpectedly confessed in court here on Monday, adding his voice, matter-of-fact even as he spoke of opening fire into crowds, to what may be the most well-documented terrorist attack anywhere. ...

“I don’t think I am innocent,” Kasab said, speaking in subdued Hindi. “My request is that we end the trial and be sentenced.”

For the better part of a day he held the courtroom spellbound: he portrayed himself as a poor Pakistani who joined the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba only for money. But in the end, the mission was martyrdom, inflicting the greatest amount of death and chaos along the way.

But later that year, Kasab recanted his confession, and when sentenced to death in 2010 he broke down. Subsequently, he exercised his right to appeal the judgment in the Mumbai High Court and the Supreme Court of India, both of which upheld the sentence.

As Bajaj noted, according to transcripts, one of the gunmen's handlers was heard saying, “For your mission to end successfully you must be killed.” But Kasab was captured alive, and to be sentenced to death now is not to die in the same way, especially since he seems to want, as he did not seem to then, to live.

The scene of the second judgment, meanwhile, was a trial court in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in the west of India, where a special court held as many as 32 people guilty of criminal conspiracy and murder for the massacre of almost 100 people in the town of Naroda Patiya on Feb. 28, 2002. The orgy of violence was one of the most organized and cold-blooded of the many violent attacks on Muslims in Gujarat that were part of the reprisal by Hindu right-wing groups after a train compartment containing Hindu religious activists was torched by a Muslim mob in Godhra the previous day.

Crucially, the court judgment gave the lie to the theory that the violence visited on Muslims in the state was a spontaneous outbreak of violence. The two most high-profile figures convicted by the court were Maya Kodnani of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who was at the time the state legislator for Naroda Patiya, and Babu Bajrangi, a leader of the Hindu hardline right-wing group the Bajrang Dal. A sting operation in 2007 by the journalist Ashish Khetan for the investigative newsmagazine Tehelka had provided plenty of incriminating evidence against Kodnani and Bajrangi, including Bajrangi's own satisfied description of the work he had done in rounding up a gang to exterminate Muslims in Naroda Patiya. A post on Tehelka's website this week said that justice had finally been done in the case and reprised the role of Bajrangi and Kodnani in the massacre:

Two members of the select team formed by Bajrangi, Suresh Richard and Prakash Rathod, were recorded on Tehelka’s spycam saying that Kodnani drove around Naroda all day, urging the mob to hunt Muslims down and kill them.

Not only did Bajrangi recount hacking and setting on fire hundreds of Muslims but also said he enjoyed it. ... “I don’t care if I’m hanged… Give me two days before my hanging and I will go and have a field day in Juhapura [a Muslim dominated area], where seven or eight lakh of these people stay… I will finish them off … Let a few more of them die… At least 25-50,000 should die…” he said.

Does the logic -- the ravening appetite for violence, the embrace of martyrdom -- of Bajrangi's words sound familiar? Of course it does -- it mirrors the language of indoctrination and self-sacrifice that persuaded Kasab to take such pride in the massacre of dozens of innocent people in Mumbai. It's not a surprise then that Islamist groups often justify terrorism by pointing to real or imagined outrages perpetrated on Muslims somewhere in the world, and, especially in South Asia, by Hindu right-wing groups (or just Hindus in general). And it's not a surprise that Hindu right-wing groups rationalize their own violence by thinking of it as a response to the conspiracies of Islamist groups (or just the bad faith of Muslims in general). Seen from a certain viewpoint, such as the one suggested by this week's two judgments, it might seem that these antagonisms actually sustain one another, each creating the circumstances in which the other can thrive.

That's one way in which one might draw a line between the two judgments -- a line that makes brothers in bloodshed, if you will, of Kasab and Bajrangi. The other connection one might make is to point to a similarity in what is left unfinished by these judgments, welcome though they are.

In Kasab's case, it's clear that he was only a pawn in a much bigger game, and plenty of evidence is available of the role played in the attacks by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and what India's former Home Minister P. Chidambaram, in a statement last month, called "state actors" in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the brain behind the attacks, is a free man in Pakistan today, evidence that the government there isn't serious about investigating the case. That's not surprising, as such an investigation would likely embarrass it enormously, just as its denial last year that it knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad rang hollow. But the pressure must be kept up on Pakistan by the international community to do more to root out terrorism.

In the case of Bajrangi and Kodnani, the question on which law hasn't yet arrived at a conclusion is the complicity of the government of Gujarat in the violence of 2002. The present judgment is deeply embarrassing to the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who inducted Kodnani into his government in 2007 as minister for women and child development, and who last month dared his critics to hang him if his own involvement in the violence could be proved. Notwithstanding these churlish dares, the pressure must be kept up by Indian citizens, journalists and human rights groups to hold the government of Gujarat accountable for its lack of interest in delivering justice to the victims of the 2002 violence, and to call out the disguised egotism and cunning projection of Modi's claim that attempts to defame him are attempts to defame the state of Gujarat.

The two verdicts were a depressing testament to the ubiquity of religious violence in South Asia and to the unfortunate place of the state as an instigator of such violence. Yet, they also provide a welcome vindication of the Indian judicial system, which committed its own resources to provide counsel for Kasab and heard out the captured terrorist's appeals, and swam against the tide of majoritarian sentiment in Gujarat in convicting the accused in Naroda Patiya.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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