Indians See Justice in a Terrorist's Execution

The Pakistani militant Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, 25, sentenced to death in an Indian court two years ago, was hanged at the Yerwada jail in Pune  last week. Kasab was the lone surviving member of the 10-man terrorist squad that, in an operation meticulously planned by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, slipped into Mumbai from the sea and attacked several soft targets on Nov. 26, 2008, killing 166 people. It was the first death sentence to be carried out in India since 2004.

In the four years between his rampage in Mumbai and his hanging in Pune, Kasab was housed at great expense in a high-security cell and was given a fair hearing by the many tiers of the Indian justice system. Sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, Kasab appealed unsuccessfully in both the Mumbai High Court and the Supreme Court of India, which upheld the sentence in August. In September, he wrote to the president in Hindi, a language taught to him by Abu Jundal, one of the handlers who directed the attack on Mumbai and who was recently handed over to India by the government of Saudi Arabia. A few days after President Pranab Mukherjee rejected Kasab's mercy petition, the convict was spirited away to Pune in a top-secret operation and executed early on Nov. 21.

The language of the government communique that announced Kasab's death was commendably restrained, with no mention of his nationality or his crime:

New Delhi, Kartik 30, 1934

November 21, 2012

The petition for clemency filed by condemned prisoner Mohammed Ajmal Mohammed Amir Kasab was rejected by the President on 5th November, 2012. The sentence was executed today at 7.30am at Yerwada Central Prison, Yerwada, Pune.

The message is worded so that it isn't the prisoner who was executed but the sentence; what is emphasized is that the law has taken its course and that all available channels of reprieve have been exhausted. When broadcast on news channels and in newspapers, however, reports of Kasab's execution were accompanied by images of his crimes, and reactions on the street were much stronger. The news was received with jubilation in many parts of the country, with many Indians seeing it as a fit reply to, even revenge for, the carnage and horror of 26/11. The families of policemen and citizens who were killed in the rampage saw it, quite naturally, as a small compensation for their suffering.

Human-rights activists condemned the decision to carry out Kasab's sentence, which occurred just a day after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a draft resolution against the death penalty. (India was one of 39 countries that voted against the resolution.) Some of the common arguments against the death penalty, though -- particularly the one that in many instances there is a small margin for error in the judgment -- don't apply to the Kasab case: Extensive footage of the crimes is available, some of it taken by photojournalists who risked getting killed in the in the bloodbath by Kasab and his compatriots at Mumbai's CST station.

Some very nuanced and cogent thoughts were offered by the political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an essay called "Our Humanity And Theirs." Mehta cautioned against interpretations of the death penalty that emphasized either deterrence or retribution, and pointed to a welcome restraint on the part of the Indian state to actually implement the ultimate penalty:

The Indian legal system, for once, dealt with the Kasab case matter of factly, with due process, under existing law. The final outcome was consistent with the law as it exists. This particular matter should rest there. But the attempt to construct the exercise of the death penalty as the expression of some collective retribution is deeply problematic in two ways. It privileges retribution as the only legitimate moral discourse. But even more dangerous for democracy, it constructs a false idea of collectivity. ...

The argument that the death penalty deters crimes is empirically untenable. The most complex moral argument for it was Immanuel Kant’s, who, paradoxically, thought that the death penalty was a way of recognising the humanity of the perpetrator. For Kant, the most important aspect of our humanity is that we are responsible agents. Punishing perpetrators in accordance with their crime, under the principle of ius talionis, is attributing responsibility to them, and therefore acknowledging their humanity. ...

It could be argued that even in India, despite the surface frenzy, norms are shifting. The Supreme Court has said that the death penalty should be applied in the rarest of rare cases, though the number of crimes to which it can be applied has not shrunk. We have about five hundred inmates on death row. And while uncertainty is psychologically torturous for the convicted, our reluctance to execute even those who have been sentenced does suggest that there is more healthy ambivalence about exercising the death penalty in our system than before.

It seems fair to suggest that if there should be a justice system in which the death penalty is applied "in the rarest of rare cases" (unlike, say, in China), then Kasab's was such a case. Here was a man who approached a terrorist group seeking to be part of its cadre, and then traveled to another country as one of a squad of would-be martyrs seeking to take the lives of as many innocents as possible. Kasab voluntarily accepted the loss of his own life the moment he agreed to be part of the attacks, which is one good reason his case can't be used as a completely sound argument for the pro-life camp on capital punishment. Were Kasab's case to be taken as a test case for the abolition of the death penalty, most Indians would vote against it. As a writer for The Economist wrote on its Asia blog, The Banyan, in "Killing Kasab":

It is hard to feel particularly sorry at the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, in Pune, India, early on November 21st. He was the sole surviving gunman from a 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, in which Pakistani infiltrators killed at least 166 people during a prolonged and traumatising rampage in the city. The assault on ordinary residents and tourists, at a busy train station, a Jewish centre and most notably a prominent hotel, was vicious, intended to spread terror and possibly to provoke a wider conflict between India and Pakistan.

Mr Kasab, who was 21 in November 2008, presumably expected to be killed during the abhorrent attack. Instead he was arrested, interrogated, tried and imprisoned fairly. Now he has been executed according to Indian law, which allows the use of the death penalty only in the “rarest of rare” cases. A majority of Indians almost certainly support the hanging in this case and probably back the death penalty in general.

Further, there was a practical reason for executing Kasab swiftly, as explained by Namrata Biji Ahuja in a piece in the Deccan Chronicle. The convict belonged to a terrorist group based in a neighboring country, which could launch a second attack on an Indian target to obtain Kasab's return:

One reason for the swift execution of Ajmal Kasab was a warning from the Intelligence Bureau that if he was kept alive any longer, the country might once again face a situation like the hijacking of Flight IC-814 in December 1999 [in Afghanistan] that forced the then NDA government to negotiate and release three Pakistani terrorists who had been held in Indian jails for a long time -- Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Saeed Omar Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar -- on December 31, 1999.

As much as arguments about the legitimacy of the death penalty, retribution or closure, an aspect of the Kasab execution that needed emphasizing was flagged by Y.P. Rajesh in the Indian Express:

By all accounts, Kasab was an illiterate LeT footsoldier, radicalised like thousands others of his ilk in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and sent to his death as part of a delusional strategy of conflict pursued by the jihad factory across the border. ...

But any way you see it, the execution of Kasab on Wednesday provides absolutely no reason to gloat. It is not a “victory” for India, as some have made it out to be, or a “tribute” to the innocent victims, as some leaders have claimed. And closure it certainly is not. …

The most critical, unfinished business on the post-26/11 agenda is the prosecution of the seven men held in Pakistan for planning and organising the bloodshed. But the speed at which the trial, held in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, has progressed, the frequent change in the judges presiding over the case, and the judicial obstructionism over considering evidence from India, have only raised more questions about Pakistan’s proclaimed commitment to see the process through.

India can't complete this "unfinished business" on its own; it requires pressure on the Pakistani government from the international community, particularly the U.S., as much in its own interest as in India's (as the discovery last year of Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, close to Pakistan's premier military academy, made clear).

Indeed, it might be argued that the U.S.'s military and strategic response to the Sept. 11 attacks has, in strengthening Pakistan's army, and thereby army-backed jihadist groups, at the expense of the state, had the effect of making India much more vulnerable to terrorist attacks from across the border. That is why, to many Indians registering the news of Kasab's execution last week after a full and fair trial, it seemed logical that death can't just be interpreted as a penalty for a man who first sought it as a prize.

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

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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