Kasab Left Our Humanity Hanging in the Air

Shiv Viswanathan | Ahmadabad Mirror

The Ajmal Qasab execution was a drama to end all the dramas. Like most acts of death penalty, it was conducted in private, virtually secretly. On TV, the Qasab story was several dramas, each of which needs to be read in its own way. The first TV picture of Qasab wielding an AK-47 is stark. He is Qasab the hunter, a terrorist seeking to gun down a city.

People in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra celebrated Qasab’s hanging by bursting fire crackers and distributing sweets. Qasab became a mnemonic of violence whom Mumbaikars refuse to forgive

Qasab is not a faceless terrorist. There is no mask creating a message of anonymity or indifference. He faces the camera. His intentions are clear. Watching him on TV, one does not immediately sense his youth. Had he been holding the guitar he would have been part of the faceless youth who look global. The gun and the hardness of the face change the tenor of the picture. It smells of the threat and yet he could be advertising branded clothes.

Qasab however remains an exquisite mnemonic of violence. His presence keeps a city agitated. Watching TV one senses Qasab has moved from being a threat to an irritant. As long as he is alive, the Mumbaikar feels he cannot return to the normalcy of life. Qasab threatens the availability of normalcy and a city waits for justice. There is something unforgiving about the city. It cannot forgive the one man who held it to ransom. The Mumbaikar, from Sunil Gavaskar to the dead cops’ wives, felt terror undermines and emasculates a city, eats into its very identity and its entrails.

Terror to the Mumbaikar becomes a threat to the integrity of the city they love. Terror is anti-city. TV becomes a garden where the image of Qasab grows as an imagination. Qasab holding the gun becomes an all-pervasive eye scanning the city. Qasab becomes the killer indifferent to the deaths he caused. He looks arrogantly at the city and the city refuses to forgive him. But TV mellows the image of Qasab. There is a virtual sense of the comic as TV shows him trembling with illness, felled by a dengue mosquito.

Even terror seems powerless before the mosquito and such is its impact that even Arvind Kejriwal on TV also claims he is one. Qasab inspires fear and trembling, a nervousness that Indian justice might lose him to international pressure. Yet everyone knows he needs and deserves a fair trial. Justice as drama has to confront the terrorist as spectacle to maintain its dignity. The civility and civics of Mumbai demands that justice be available even to the terrorist.

A battle over death penalty rages and as Qasab is hung one senses split level views. Qasab’s death gives closure for rituals of relief, allows many to pronounce, “He needed to die so that Mumbai might live.” Yet those watching the last days wondered who really Qasab was. The vignettes flashed about him made one wonder about the etiology of terror and the making of a terrorist. How does an innocuous person become a terrorist and does the human in him deserve to die? Qasab’s death raises the question whether any society needs death penalty.

TV in its attempt to raise the debate left the question open. The legacy of Qasab might be towards making us rethink death penalty. TV makes us ironically realise that death penalty does not only eliminate the human in the other, it diminishes the human in us. In sentencing Qasab, we carry this burden with us. That might be his one victory.