The hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is a good PR result for the Indian justice system, but does nothing to improve India’s security and makes it even less likely that the masterminds of the attack will be brought to justice. That may work in the government’s favour.
India’s judicial system is a lumbering beast – trials can take years to reach their conclusion amid a backlog estimated at around 30 million cases. India retains the death penalty, but mostly because no one wants to appear weak by calling for its abolition. Only one execution has been carried out in the past 15 years (a former security guard hanged in 2004 for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl).
So with a trial that clocked in at just over three years, and a sentence that was carried out just six months later, the case certainly stands out. The president rejected his mercy plea on 5 November and he was secretly hanged in Pune jail on Wednesday. A token offer was made for Pakistan to reclaim the body, which will no doubt be ignored.
For once, the government looks decisive and got results. The anniversary of the Mumbai attacks is usually an occasion for the media to rake over the many embarrassing failures of the police and authorities at the time. As Sandipan Deb pointed out in Mint today, carrying out the execution just a few days before the fourth anniversary is a good way to deflect some of that criticism. We might even forget about the National Counter-Terrorism Centre and other much-needed security reforms that were repeatedly promised and never delivered.
The execution was primarily about revenge. Many were today disappointed that the hanging didn’t take place in a public square, perhaps hoping for some kind of communal hysteria – tearing his body to pieces, smearing his blood on their faces and urinating on the mutilated corpse. Certainly, it had nothing to do with the official justification behind executions that they act as a deterrent to future offenders. As many people have pointed out on social media today, Kasab went into this operation hoping to die, as will any future jihadists of his kind.
There is also the question of how this affects the broader investigation into the attacks. Kasab had probably provided as much information on their planning as he was ever likely to divulge. Nonetheless, his death closes off forever the one source of living knowledge in Indian custody.
In a way, this may prove useful to the Indian government. Its attempts to pressure the Pakistan government into co-operating with the investigation have made barely any progress, and this has hampered the broader peace negotiations that resumed in 2011. India is desperate to move beyond the endless bickering with its difficult neighbour. It wants normal trade relations, security in Kashmir, and the chance to engage with Afghanistan without fear of triggering a proxy war. It must be clear to the Indian government that they will never get a satisfactory response from Pakistan in bringing to justice the plotters of the Mumbai attacks. At some point, a line will have to be drawn in the sand, and that starts by burying the painful reminder that was sat in a Pune cell.