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Linking religion and ethnicity when it comes to punishing terrorists does us great harm.
Mohammad Amir Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was finally hanged last fortnight, although not quite in the manner a great many would have expected. However, besides the ramifications for the law and procedure in India, there is another sad lesson we can draw from this event - that a great deal of hypocrisy vexes how we regard terrorism against the nation.
First, considering the long periods that even simple hit-and-run cases take to reach their logical conclusion in India, this trial proceeded at a faster rate than usual. Consider the facts. Despite the apparently overwhelming evidence the courts had to study an 11, 000-page chargesheet, hear endless arguments and deal with inconsistent statements. And finally after a rather long hearing, that spanned over two and a half months, the Supreme Court found Kasab guilty of 80 charges, including waging war against India, murder and terrorism. It upheld his death sentence. Although there is no doubt that Kasab's death can hardly be called a closure - mostly because the pain suffered by the victims and their families is too great - this will go a long way in instilling more faith in our system.
Kasab's hanging is also significant in light of the fact that there were 11 mercy petitions pending before his, some having been around for nearly two decades. These petitions include that of Parliament attacker Afzal Guru (who was to be hanged in 2006), Rajiv Gandhi's assassins, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan (who were to be hanged in 2011) and former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh's killer Balwant Singh Rajaona (who was to be hanged in March, 2012). Back in April, the Supreme Court had expressed its anguish at the long delays in disposing off mercy pleas, saying that it renders relief meaningless. Seven months after that court rap, the long queue of mercy pleas poses the other big question: when will our governments and political leaders give up on their innate hypocrisy?
Many governments and several intellectuals have never missed a chance to beat the drum of "terrorism has no religion or colour". This is a message relayed time and again during bomb blasts or riots. This was the case with Kasab. But then isn't it duplicity when these same people do exactly the opposite of what they preach by attempting to save criminals or seek clemency for them under the garb of religion?
Isn't it sad how in attempts to seek a pardon for people like Afzal Guru, a terrorist suddenly acquires a religion and colour? Political parties in J&K, like the PDP, have voiced their support for Guru while implying that hanging a Kashmiri Muslim risks peace in the Valley. Last year, the Centre's interlocutor on Kashmir, Dileep Padgaonkar, had said that any decision on Guru's mercy petition should be taken keeping in mind the present situation in J&K. It's surely frustrating for many Indians when they consider how a criminal, held guilty of terrorism and of killing eight, has been turned into a "defenceless and harassed minority".
Back in 2011, President Pratibha Patil rejected Khalistani militant Devender Pal Singh Bhullar's mercy petition and sent him on his way to the gallows;but his death sentence is yet to be carried out. Instead, Punjab CM Prakash Singh Badal wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking his intervention in getting Bhullar a lease of life. Again, his Sikh status and the possible benefits of vote-bank politics outweighed his crime of bombing a car and killing nine people. Similarly, Rajiv Gandhi's killers have been saved, thus far, by old pro-LTTE organisations and vociferous Tamil politicians. Surely, we should then ask, why legally argue about one's crime when playing politics over religion can do the work instead?
The reason why the law hanged Kasab is not because he is a Pakistani Muslim or that it settles India's thirst for revenge. It is because he knowingly committed a heinous crime and had the blood of 55 innocent lives on his hands. Not once was his religion part of the legal discourse. And this same yardstick has to be applied while judging the crime of every other convict. In the 2002 Gujarat riots case as well: how is the law to decide who deserves punishment on such a basis? Is it because the culprits are mostly Hindus, or because they knowingly, with state support, killed hundreds of Muslims?
The United Nations defines terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians and non-combatants, with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or international organisation to do or abstain from doing an act. " Going by this definition, Guru and Bhullar are terrorists. Period. Being Muslim or Sikh is extraneous. We can only hope, perhaps in vain, that our leaders would do the national cause far more good by not linking religion with terrorism whenever convenient. Secularism, remember, is not custom-made.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist.
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