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Kasab hanging: Why not Afzal Guru, Rajaona, or Rajiv killers?

There is something disquieting about the decision to fast-forward Ajmal Kasab’s death penalty — carried out surreptitiously today morning — when several other death sentences involving terrorism and political assassinations have been quietly sidestepped.

At the outset, let us all be clear. Kasab, the only Pakistani terrorist involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to be caught alive and convicted, deserved his death penalty many times over. No tears need be shed over the hanging of this grossly misguided youth from across the border.

But was the crime of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri who was sentenced to death for his role in the attacks on Parliament in December 2001, worth an inordinate — if not indefinite — delay? If the attack had succeeded, the entire top leadership of India could have been eliminated at one go. But Guru is still around, a standing indictment to the pusillanimity of a politically weak government.

Last year, the hanging of three killers of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan — was stayed by the Madras High Court after pro-LTTE and Tamil politicians raised a shindig over it. The Tamil Nadu assembly even passed a resolution calling for clemency. Again, the government showed no spine.

The timing of the Kasab execution is also political. With two elections underway, especially the one in Gujarat, this execution will put the BJP on the backfoot. AFP

Earlier this year, the execution of Balwant Singh Rajaona, convicted and sentenced to death for the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, was put off following political protests in the state and repeated pleas for clemency by not only the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, but also the BJP-partnered Punjab government.

What is the reason why the Union government has been so eager to hang Kasab, but entirely unwilling to send five others to the gallows for terrorism, assassination and murder?

No government will actually confess to its real motives, but one thing is apparent: only politically convenient convicts will be executed.

In Kasab’s case, he was a Pakistani national, and there was no political pressure to keep him alive in India. Even Pakistan could be secretly happy, for it can now claim it does not have the evidence Kasab could have provided them for prosecuting his handlers in Pakistan.

The bottomline: in all the other three cases, there were political considerations — in Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and Punjab coming in the way.

The timing of the Kasab execution is also political. With two elections underway, especially the one in Gujarat, where the Congress is fighting BJP hardliner Narendra Modi, this execution is not only convenient, but will put the BJP on the backfoot while trying to tell the electorate that the Congress is soft on terrorism.

The execution is also well-timed for the parliament session — where the Congress will now be able to divert attention away from corruption scandals and seek to pass bills that would normally be difficult to pass, given its minority status.

The execution of Kasab and its timing yields us no other explanation, raising questions about whether justice is merely something to be meted out to politically convenient persons.

More so, when the same Manmohan Singh government is busy talking peace with Kasab’s creators in Punjab.

The execution also comes, ironically, just a day after the Supreme Court itself expressed confusion over the issue of awarding death penalties. It confessed that there was a fair degree of human judgment involved in what is or is not a “rarest of rare” crime meriting a death sentence.

Calling for a review of the norms for awarding death, a bench comprising Justices KS Radhakrishnan and B Lokur admitted that there was "little or no uniformity in the application" of this principle (rarest of rare).” The Times of India reported that the bench “seemed to even concede that categorising crimes — the basis for ranking them and assessing which all meet the "rarest of rare" standard — might be difficult. In short, the court suggested that the present system was not working.”

"In the sentencing process, both the crime and criminal are equally important. We have, unfortunately, not taken the sentencing process as seriously as it should be with the result that in capital offences, it has become judge-centric sentencing rather than principled sentencing," the newspaper reported, quoting Justice Lokur, main author of the judgment.

If the courts are now getting critical about judge-centric hangings, politicians should be careful when deciding on mercy petitions on the basis of political convenience.

The Kasab killing — on which there has been a rare consensus in political circles — may not immediately invite a review of the death penalty, but — as is usual in such cases — the death penaltywallahs may choose to speak up only when politically inconvenient criminals are up for the noose.

We now in a situation where only politicians will decide who to hang — and that too when it is beneficial to them politically.

The message is stomach-churning: no noose is good news for political hot potato cases. For the others, the likes of Kasab who have no political support, it’s bad noose.

What a way to decide on whether someone should live or die.

A dangerous message is also being sent to Pakistan: next time you plot a 26/11, ensure that the killers are Indians. They will never be hanged — as the Guru case shows. Pakistan can then find more political fodder locally, and even organise airline hijacks or terror campaigns to demand their release.