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So the good judge has decided that Ajmal Amir Kasab should get the death penalty for brutally gunning down people at the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus in Mumbai in November 2008. Kasab’s sole regret is probably that he got caught. The death penalty, he perhaps imagines, will finally unite him with his accomplices. Ujjwal Nikam, the special public prosecutor, is pleased with the verdict. Politicians, sensing the lynch mob mood, want an immediate execution. People are offering themselves to be the hangman; some relatives of the victims have even called for a public execution.

The relatives of the victims deserve sympathy and have the right to express anguish and anger. But nobody sensible is thinking of erecting a stage with a dangling noose in a public square any time soon, and that is as it should be. The law must take its own course—even if it means Kasab appeals and the case takes its time going to higher levels of the judiciary, perhaps reaching the President with a mercy petition. That is what Indian laws provide, and that is what sets India apart. Terrorists treat all laws, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (which protects civilians), with contempt. India must not act like outlaws merely in order to get even with them.

India is a functioning democratic state, not a lawless one, even though politicians do their best to prove otherwise. Instead of upholding the rule of law, Yakub Qureshi, one-time minister in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s cabinet, offered a reward to anyone who’d kill one of the Danish cartoonists. The threat may have been idle, but the intent was serious. Instead of upholding the Constitution and the integrity of the law, Naveen Jindal, the Congress parliamentarian, becomes a postman for Haryana’s khap panchayat (a caste-based council), which wants to make marriages within certain groups illegal. The unelected bullies of those panchayats have been blamed for violence. And yet, instead of sternly reminding them to obey the law, Jindal becomes their courier. That panchayat is no different from a Maoist show trial, nor from the politician issuing a call to murder.

They all defy the law, highlighting the failure of the Indian Republic. Little wonder, then, that vigilantes feel they can act with impunity. And no surprise, then, if some want a public execution for the Mumbai attacks—the one avenging the 166.

There is a good reason why people close to victims of violent crime do not get to decide the punishment to be meted out to the ones found guilty. Their loss is deeply personal, and their response human. But different people respond to private grief differently. Some want justice, by which they mean revenge; others want justice, by which they want to end impunity. Some see justice as a way to ensure that others do not suffer again in similar circumstances. Some see justice as redemptive, if the criminal offers hope for redemption. And some are extraordinarily compassionate—they forgive.

It isn’t easy to forgive: Not only does it require the victim’s loved ones to overcome their instinctive response, which may seek revenge, but it requires the offender to express remorse. Only then is it easier to think of reconciliation, and of closure. Until then, these heavy words, laden with deep meaning, float over the wounds, conflicting the individuals.

Kasab’s case is difficult, for he has not shown remorse. That he is the sole surviving terrorist means the anger directed at him is multiplied many times over. But think for a moment why: It is not as if Kasab’s accomplices managed to escape. They died, either taking their own lives, or falling to the bullets of Indian security forces. Kasab’s survival is a form of punishment for him: He sought the reward of martyrdom. Denying him that reward will keep him miserable for the rest of his life—he won’t get the instant gratification he seeks.

But the public mood is impatient; many people want revenge. And yet, some relatives of victims have risen above that eye-for-an-eye insanity. Kasab’s execution won’t bring back their loved ones; their magnanimity is exceptional, given the absence of genuine remorse. Forgiveness brings closure, but how do you forgive someone utterly unrepentant?

These ethical considerations are difficult enough even for dispassionate judges. That is why a society takes away the responsibility from the victims’ kin and from mobs. Justice has to be firm, consistent, impersonal and impartial. Undermine those principles, and you get arbitrariness—where mobs rule, and vigilantes judge. Elias Canetti warned about the power of disorderly crowds under paranoid leaders in Crowds and Power (1960).

Most terrorist groups ignore laws, but more is expected of a state. It reveals its character when it upholds the highest standards in dealing with the criminal who has violated all norms and flouted all standards. Because this is about the Indian Republic, not a khap panchayat doling out justice under a banyan tree.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

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