Mumbai - one year on

On the first anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, Priyal Sanghavi looks at the trial of the sole surviving terrorist and its impact on India-Pakistan relations
Priyal Sanghavi
26 November 2009

July 20th this year was a regular day at the court trial of Ajmal Ali Kasab, the lone surviving member of the terrorist group which attacked Mumbai on November 26th 2008. Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor who was appointed to the case, had by this time interviewed more than 100 witnesses. But on this day the main accused decided to spice things up. 

Kasab suddenly declared that he wished to confess to the crime. Journalists had their front page story. Everyone knew this confession had dramatically changed the political landscape following the Mumbai attacks.

 Soumik Kar

Kasab’s capture was important for a variety of reasons. First, India had the chance to look into the mind of a terrorist. The police and intelligence agencies could get crucial information regarding the operating procedures of terrorist organisations. In not immediately hanging Kasab and instead putting him through a systematic trial, India set an example for all captured terrorists. But most critically of all, there was now concrete evidence linking terrorism to Pakistan.

The infamous photograph of Kasab killing innocent people at Chatrapati Shivaji railway station proved Kasab’s involvement in the Mumbai attacks. The photographer Sebastian D’Souza, photo editor of city tabloid Mumbai Mirror, recalls the scene: “There was no guilt in his eyes. He didn’t even lift his AK-47 gun and rather chose to fire at people crouched on the ground for safety.”  

From the moment his trial began on March 23rd, Kasab’s antics in court provoked anger. Journalist Megha Prasad from Times Now says: “For the first two days, he was holding his stomach and laughing like a mad man. We couldn’t understand why. His lawyer told him to stop because he was giving a wrong impression in court.” Kasab withdrew his earlier confession to the police as he alleged it had been obtained under torture. Additional commissioner of police Deven Bharti denies these charges. “Kasab was in fact quite co-operative. We got what we needed in two hours.”

Nikam was not swayed by the accused. “Kasab is a well trained commando who knows how to counter-question,” he explains. The terrorist made demands which included perfumes, toothpaste, newspapers and permission to walk around outside in the verandah - which the court flatly refused.

However his demeanour rapidly changed. The cocky, immature and demented facade of Kasab gave way to a man who was sick, tired and knew his fate. Nikam feels Kasab has now realised that he is not a martyr: “In his heart Kasab has realised the crime he has committed, although I don’t think he is repenting.”  

Kasab’s confession on July 20th – giving details of the attack and the militant organisation which perpetrated it, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) - opened many doors for India. Indians who were irked by the length of the trial were optimistic that Kasab would finally be punished. The trial could be wrapped up in a shorter time. Was this confession enough to hang him? Was it finally an open and shut case?   

The prosecution does not think so. Nikam says: “‘Open and shut case’ is the wrong phrase in a criminal trial. The burden is on the prosecution to provide documentary evidence and provide witnesses to prove the crime. Kasab had cleverly delinked himself from the majority of incidents during the three day attack and blamed them on his deceased colleagues. His account did not mention the late Inspector Omble at all, who was responsible for his capture. Also he mentioned an unknown Indian national called Abu Jundal, who helped them with the attacks. Hence the prosecution decided to continue the trial.”

Nikam remains optimistic about a speedy judgement. But not everyone is. Journalist Jigna Vora from Asian Age says: “Kasab may very well appeal in the Supreme Court and that may stretch things longer. I definitely feel the trial will go on for a year.”

Kasab is still on trial, while LeT and its founder Hafiz Saeed, believed to be the brains behind the Mumbai attacks, remain at large.

Saeed, who also heads Pakistani charity Jamaat-ud Dawa, is coming under increasing scrutiny from India, which insists Pakistan should interrogate him. “There is enough evidence against Saeed,” P. Chidambaram, Indian minister of home affairs, has said. Deven Bharti, additional commissioner of police for Mumbai, also finds Pakistan’s reluctance exasperating: “They have been dilly-dallying the whole situation. We will definitely prove the whole conspiracy.”

In December 2001, five terrorists stormed into the parliament building in Delhi, resulting in the deaths of nine people. Fingers were immediately pointed at Pakistan and LeT, but on that occasion there was a lack of concrete evidence. Mohammed Afzal, the main suspect, was convicted but has since filed a clemency petition and so the case remains open. But the Mumbai Police remain unperturbed and believe this trial is different.

The spotlight is on Pakistan. Attacks on foreign nationals and a Jewish centre made the event international, with the US and Israel keenly observing Pakistan’s next move. India has submitted seven dossiers of evidence to Pakistan alleging LeT’s hand behind the bloodbath. Pakistan is furious that India is indirectly accusing the state of abetting the Mumbai attacks, and its government says India’s evidence against Saeed is unsatisfactory. “Why should one man be allowed to hold hostage the entire India-Pakistan relationship?” Pakistan’s foreign minister Shahid Malik recently asked.

Saeed may determine political ties but among the masses, the reaction has largely been mature. At the time of the attack, the media’s jingoistic rhetoric was not shared by the Indian public, especially Mumbai citizens. There has been no warmongering; both countries have fought each other before, but this time they have nuclear weapons. Saleha Riaz, a Pakistani freelance journalist, finds this sentiment echoes with the general public. She says: “A lot of people don’t believe we were behind it. If there were some individuals the nation as a whole shouldn’t be punished.”

Sporting and business ties have been affected. India cancelled its January 2009 tour of Pakistan. Pakistani cricketers were not allowed to participate in the Indian Premier League cricket tournament on security grounds. Trade between the two countries fell by 60 percent. A recent Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) report suggested India should inflict “economic pain” by banning imports and restricting travel between the countries, as well as carrying out covert retaliation and surgical strikes against Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the situation has now improved after almost a year of near stalemate. Pakistan is putting seven of the 38 people accused of planning the Mumbai attacks on trial. India has in turn extended an olive branch to Pakistan, saying the attacks should not discontinue constructive dialogue between the two countries.

The need of the hour is not pointing fingers, but rather a sincere reflection by both countries on what went wrong.

"Whatever happens, you cannot be arrested" – terrorist handler in Pakistan on the phone to a terrorist attacking Nariman House in Mumbai, November 28th 2008

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