July 2009. It was Raksha Bandhan. The festive mood pervaded even in the muggy air of the cramped courtroom at Mumbai's Arthur Road jail where a special trial court was hearing the case against three accused in the 26/11 conspiracy. Accused no. 1, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, drank in the scene: women draped in silks; most men, including his security guards and the judge, sporting decorative rakhees. Succumbing to the atmosphere, the 21-year-old wistfully asked his counsel, Abbas Kazmi, “Kya koi mujhe rakhee bandhega? (Will someone knot a rakhee on my wrist?)”
Had Kasab momentarily forgotten why he was sitting in that courtroom? Perhaps. But a nation of 1.2 billion never for a moment did. More than three years later, when his time finally came, Kasab did get a knot. Only, it wasn't in a sister's silken skein, but the hangman's noose.
Kasab's end was as sudden as his appearance. Just as on one November night, India suddenly found its premier city, Mumbai, held to ransom by 10 crazed gunmen from Pakistan, so did it wake up on a November morning four years later to learn that the last of those fidayeen had just been hanged to death. If the swiftness of the developments took everyone by surprise, Kasab himself was perhaps the most surprised.
Having lived in his galvanised-steel-reinforced bomb-proof shelter (at a cost of Rs2 crore for 20 square feet, it is among Mumbai's most expensive pieces of real estate) for nearly four years, Kasab must have been surprised when late on Monday night he was told to instantly get moving, then bundled into a bullet-proof vehicle and driven to Pune's Yerwada jail. Even though his clemency petition was rejected, Kasab, like the rest of India, would have been lulled into believing that the hanging itself could take a lifetime, as is the precedence.
The concept of death wasn't new to this boy from Pakistan's Faridkot. He had been rigorously trained for a suicide mission, and sent with strict instructions to kill as many as possible. This, he executed with lethal precision. Between Kasab and buddy pair Abu Ismail, in the few hours they went berserk with their Kalashnikovs, they took 72 lives, wounded another 159. The dead included some of the finest shots in Mumbai Police: sharpshooter Vijay Salaskar, Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare and assistant commissioner of police Ashok Kamte.
When captured alive from Girgaum Chowpatty a few hours later, Kasab might not have known how many more breaths he had left. But in subsequent months, while he received medical treatment and the dignity of a fair trial, hope began to blossom. Recalls Kazmi, his lawyer for nearly nine of the 11-month-long trial: “When I told him I was representing him, he brightened up. He began to hope he'd live. He wanted to live.” That desire for life was seen in the jaunty step with which he entered his dock in court, the theatrics with which he drew attention to himself.
Kasab was mission-trained, and fed with the right amount of hate to ensure he saw through his assignment. The semiliterate, impoverished villager was neither mission mastermind nor jihadi ideologue, just expendable foot soldier. Yet, it's quite possible his trainers knew he was intelligent. After all, you need a person who has his wits around him when things don't go according to plan. It's said Kasab and partner's original plan did get derailed when they weren't able to find a spot at CST railway station from where they could lay siege to the building, the way the others did at Taj and Oberoi hotels. They improvised. With bloody ramification. The trail of blood ran from CST to Cama Hospital to Marine Drive, and even Mazgaon where a taxi they had fitted with a bomb exploded.
Yes, Kasab possessed a sharp mind, something that often revealed itself during the trial. Though mostly bored by the dreary proceedings in Marathi, he kept track of just what was happening. He thirsted for knowledge, often asking his counsel, “Aaj kaun aane wala hai? (Who will depose today?)”
The slight, fair boy with a mop of unruly hair didn't take to Indian food, at least not the simple vegetarian jail fare he was served. Once he threw a tantrum, leading to the infamous comment that did he expect biryani. Later, leftovers sat quietly on his plate. What he craved in solitary confinement was company. He yearned for contact with the outside world, of which he learnt only second hand from lawyers, prosecutors and guards.
He once made a request to court for Urdu newspapers, cockily suggesting they be paid from the money confiscated from him at his arrest. The plea was rejected. During trial, he was quick to figure out he was the antihero of a vicariously followed live show and often performed for the audience, keeping the media in business. Otherwise, news from outside the cell was never good. He learnt his father disowned him; his country did the same. In the end, there was just “Ammi” for the boy from a large family. Ammi, however, couldn't be contacted either.
The meeting with his handler, Abu Jundal, a few months ago must have been one of shock, and a sinking realisation that here was another nail in his coffin. As his appeals and clemency petitions were turned down, Kasab died a little more each day, fitting into one of public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam's imaginative descriptions of him: He is not a human being, he is only a human shape.
The peddler of terror was conditioned to hate India. But the little window view he got of this country, during the trial, left him intrigued. If it was the novelty of a festival one day, he seemed as fascinated by the new tongues he heard around him. It's said he picked up a smattering of Marathi from prison guards. Given the chance, is it possible he'd have shed hate and undergone a change of heart? After all, he was just about 21 then, a very impressionable age. “When Valmiki could be reformed, why not him?” mulls Kazmi.
On the other hand, while Kasab displayed a range of emotions in court, from smug smirks directed at the public gallery to banters with Nikam, often calling him “badshah”, Kasab never once expressed remorse, in public or private. On one occasion, he became loquacious and admitted to all his crimes in court. He confessed. He didn't say sorry. He was able to meet his victims in the eye as he sat in court, unfazed.
The gunman lies cold in an unmarked grave, his country having refused to accept him even in death. People have various reactions. It is vindication for some, justice delayed for others. For those who got a glimpse of Kasab, the man without a gun, it is important to recall M.L. Tahaliyani's wise words as he delivered the death sentence on May 6, 2010. The judge observed that while delivering justice, courts had to keep in view rights of the victims and society, and not those of the accused. “If we have to enjoy an efficient system of governance, we have to impose a penalty in proportion to the crime,” the judge said, adding that he had tried to prepare a balance sheet of the mitigating and aggravating circumstances but the quantum of Kasab's crime far outweighed the consideration of his age. It was then that Kasab's shoulders slumped.
It is said that as he walked towards the noose, he said, “Allah kasam mujhe maaf kar do, aise galti dobara nahi hogi. (In the name of God, forgive me. I shall not make such a mistake again.) The remorse came a lifetime too late.