Ajmal Kasab’s death sentence was confirmed by India’s Supreme Court on August 29. Only the government can now intervene to stop his hanging.
Few can deny Kasab deserves extreme punishment for his actions. Should he be killed?
Let us first look at the case for death. The most compelling reason to hang him is that capital punishment is approved of by the Indian state. If the punishment is deserved, and the Supreme Court says it is, then it must be carried out. The second and third reasons are the nature of the crime and the manner in which it was carried out: the execution of dozens of children and adults for no particular reason other than hatred. Then there is the matter of deterrence: that killing the person who did it will discourage others from doing it again, because they will be killed if caught and tried.
This, unless we have missed some minor reasons, is broadly the case for death. Let us look at the case against hanging Kasab. I must reveal here that I do not support the death penalty and do not think it should exist. In India, we want revenge more than justice in such cases. We are all expected to be comfortable with state participation in ritual violence when the non-violent option of jail is available.
However, I accept that laws should be changed in the legislature, and not in newsrooms.
But there are some very specific disadvantages to hanging Kasab. The first is that Kasab might prove useful to the state. He could have information that he hasn’t yet revealed, or could not remember: for instance, something about training and method that might help in preventing or tackling a future attack. Now that his trial is finally over beyond all appeal, Kasab could be cultivated, since he has no further legal hope. A second reason is that he might testify, should a time come, even if this is unlikely, when Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi and Hafiz Saeed are tried in India or somewhere outside Pakistan. Unlikely and impossible are different things, and we must remember that. He is the one strong witness on the Lashkar-e-Taiba that India has, and it is in the interest of attacking terrorism in India and Pakistan that he be kept alive.
Then the state must look at the question of deterrence carefully and consider whether killing Kasab deters or encourages potential attackers. I believe that the latter is more likely. The 10 young men who got off that dinghy and began their slaughter in Mumbai did not intend to return to Pakistan. There was no escape planned, and such men are usually undeterred by the thought that they might be killed on their mission. They might even welcome that outcome. Long years in jail in the company of those you have tried to kill seems to me a more effective deterrent.
The president (actually the government) must now decide whether to do the popular thing, which is to hang Kasab or to do, what is in my opinion, the thing that benefits it.
As I said, I have a problem in general with the death penalty, but I think that even the specific arguments against it in this case are substantial.
India should jail, not kill, Ajmal Kasab.
Tailpiece I: Ayaz Amir wrote a few weeks ago that Emperor Akbar walked from Agra to Muinuddin Chishti’s shrine in Ajmer every year. I asked him if he meant Salim Chishti’s shrine (in Fatehpur Sikri) instead. He ran a correction the following week, saying he was mistaken and that it couldn’t have been Ajmer since it was “a whole country away”. Now I’ve learnt that Akbar did in fact walk the 370 km from Agra to Ajmer at least twice. Court poet Faizi said there was nothing wrong with this: “On the chessboard also the king moves on foot.”
My apologies to Amir and his readers.
Tailpiece II: I once referred to Gen MO Mitha’s wife, Indu Chatterjee, as Hindu. Their daughter recently wrote to me saying the Chatterjees were Christian. The column was written years ago and in another Pakistani newspaper, but the daughter feels my mistake could have repercussions for the family. My apologies to her.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2012.