In August 1978, two children, Sanjay and Geeta Chopra, were kidnapped in Delhi and murdered in cold blood. The Sanjay and Geeta Chopra murder case, as it came to be known, shook the conscience of the nation and held its attention for years till the murderers Ranga and Billa were caught, arraigned, sentenced and finally hanged in 1982. Despite the absence at the time of the 24/7 channels of communication available today, this episode was seminal. It was the birth of a sense of vulnerability in a city, a recognition of an “it could happen to me” feeling, and an incident that induced a strong element of collective social involvement. So much so that the poor handling of the case contributed to the Janata Party’s rout in the 1978 Delhi elections.
Thirty years later, Ajmal Kasab’s case epitomizes a similar national emotion. While there are similarities and differences in the two cases, I want to point out some subtle elements that have relevance in the battle against terror.
There are certain categories of crime that incite blind fury in societies. At times, more than the acts themselves, it is the choice of victims that invokes the sense of outrage. Hardened criminals have been known to kill child molesters in prisons because paedophiles are considered vermin even by criminal standards. So mindless, unrepentant and deliberate slaughter of innocent people, including women and children, stirs a sense of anger screaming for fierce retribution.
The nation’s mood after Kasab’s verdict is evidence of that anger. The judicial process has been astoundingly fast, thanks to the focused mindset of the government and the profile of the case, making this unarguably one of the fastest trials in the world without compromising jurisprudence. And Kasab’s situation is not a happy one, regardless of the quantum of punishment or the number of days he might be able to survive on appeals. But it is important for us to remember two aspects.
Societies frame laws and codes of behaviour to influence governance. Theft, injury, murder and so on are punished with varying degrees of severity to act as deterrents—to prevent their recurrence and to forge a closure. Ranga and Billa’s hanging sent a strong message to potential kidnappers. The prolonged cycle of appeals, hope, refusal, disappointment, devastation and misery actually reiterated that message. And for what it is worth, their death penalties perhaps brought a sense of closure to the aggrieved family and an emotionally ravaged society. Justice had been done. They could move on.
Kasab is different. He doesn’t come from a pool of criminals whose modus operandi is to commit crime and get away. In fact, he comes from a stock of fanatics, whether long-term ideological believers or temporarily brainwashed pawns, whose objective is to die at the end of the mission and whose purpose of survival is only to kill more. Conversation intercepts between Kasab’s accomplices and their handlers and the matter of fact way in which a terrorist at Nariman House discussed his last stand—suggesting that since it was Friday, he might as well go out in a blaze—prove this. There were several other messages to the terrorists from their handlers reiterating not to be captured alive. Clearly, a swift broken neck is not a deterrent to killers, who are willing to be shot to death, or blow themselves up in the process of “waging war”.
We have had similar experiences battling suicide squads of the LTTE wearing cyanide capsules around their necks—more a mark of their commitment till death rather than an instrument to avoid a painful one. The year-long waiting list for suicide bombing volunteers in West Asia and the sophistication in their attacks clearly show that suicide squads are strategic threats and not just heinous criminals.
So while law enforcement agencies and the judiciary must be complimented on the swift handling of the last of the 26/11 terrorists with a rigour that reinforces the state’s moral high ground, this in itself will not be much of a deterrent for the perpetrators of the attack. For them to be deterred in any meaningful fashion, punitive actions have to be far-reaching and sustained. Such actions must use every instrument available to a nation to hit back at all the participants, planners and beneficiaries of the attack.
The pent-up anger and outrage in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks have understandably been directed at the few faces that represent them—Kasab having the misfortune of being the trigger man and also in our custody. The temptation to achieve closure with his sentencing is strong, but incorrect. Equating the end of Kasab with the end of the incident would be a fallacy; instead, it must be considered simply as a minor victory in the battle against an enemy that uses terror as a strategic weapon— and nothing more than that. The war is very much on.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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