The attack on Mumbai that unfolded on November 26, 2008, and didn’t stop for 60 unrelenting hours was not an ordinary crime. Indeed, if there ever is any occasion that fits the Supreme Court’s “rarest of rare” qualifier in handing out the death sentence, this would be it, considering how emotive the issue has become in India and how much the scenes of carnage from 26/11 have embedded themselves in collective public memory. The hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor among the 10 terrorists who killed 166 people, will bring much-needed closure for some. The government deserves credit for a number of things. One, it demonstrated political will when it could have dragged its heels for a few more years. Two, it went through with the execution with efficiency as well as secrecy, despite the high-profile nature of the case. The president, on November 5, rejected Ajmal Kasab’s mercy petition, and the plan was communicated immediately to Maharashtra. A date along with the time was set for the execution, apparently by the High Court, in advance. He was shifted quietly to Yerawada prison in Pune, the only one in the vicinity with gallows. The government also ensured that the right protocol was observed throughout, with the external affairs ministry, through its Islamabad mission, delivering and faxing letters to the Pakistan government about the hanging, and sending a communiqué to a known address for his family members.
Indeed, throughout the case, the government should be commended on following due process with extra scrupulousness. Ajmal Kasab received high-quality legal counsel and was allowed to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. According to reports, even Pakistan, in reaction to his hanging, has said that it respected the outcome. However, this is not a moment for self-congratulation, for celebration, or for forgetting the larger, difficult questions surrounding the death penalty. Even if questions of whether the state should take human life are set aside, the death penalty’s efficacy as a deterrent is fiercely disputed; and many on death row have been discovered subsequently to be innocent. Ironically, Ajmal Kasab’s hanging comes a day after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a draft resolution against the death penalty. India was one of 36 countries that opposed the resolution asking for a moratorium on executions.
True, the timing of the execution is suspiciously fortuitous — Ajmal Kasab’s hanging might allow the Congress to position itself as serious about both justice and terror in its electoral battle in Gujarat; a weak government might also be strengthened ahead of the winter session of Parliament, where many Bills are to be passed. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the swiftness and efficiency with which a painful chapter in India’s recent history has been closed.