The news of Ajmal Kasab’s execution was sudden. Like everyone, I too was stunned. Despite my being aware of the obvious. But what disturbed me deeply was the affective spectacle that was created by mainstream media—the news bites, images, and words. It was to make the most of the first big opportunity of a ‘terrorist’ being brought to justice. The Indian public had to be made aware that Kasab had finally paid his dues. The cheer and jeer following his death were creepy and unsettling, be it in the newspaper images or fervent posts on Facebook. Here was a nation all fired up and ready to let the world know that terrorists deserve death, because with death comes closure. There have been a few thoughtful and stirring pieces questioning this burst of collective celebration of Kasab’s death. But they were just a handful.
I wondered what it was all about. Where did such passionate hatred and jubilation come from that made rejoicing someone’s death in the most public way (even when he has committed the most heinous crime) kosher and almost a moral necessity that day? While Kasab’s body remained ‘unclaimed’, for the Indian media this heightened moment had to be ‘claimed’ and made into a throbbing, emotional drama. I tried to make sense of this sad and brutal ‘claiming’ of Kasab’s body by the mainstream Indian media. After all, such triumphant celebration is not an uncommon phenomenon, thanks to present-day global media. But there was something distinct about the urgency with which mainstream Indian media tried to exact Kasab’s body.
It seems India is finally mastering the language of a hyper-vigilante counter-terrorism and moral guardianship that accompanies it. Like the United States, it has ably moved into this role as the nation’s defender against a new kind of enemy. An enemy who is at once highly mobile and multiple- an organization of global reach or a rogue state. The enemy is also highly strategic and frightfully well-organized. So nations like the U.S. and India are on the path of a ‘global’ war on terrorism. Strikingly similar are some of the rites of passage that allow nations to become part of this consortium of “the willing”. For example, anniversaries of terrorist attacks are claiming and attaining a sacral, diurnal dimension: days to be memorialized. Likewise, old-new words/phrases are turning into motifs, becoming part of our everyday consciousness and public discourse: from ‘terrorist’, ‘jihadist’ to phrases like ‘nation under threat’. While counter-terrorism experts would shudder at the thought of these highly charged words being used loosely, for the public there is an overarching moral clarity that effortlessly fuses these differences to create this visceral condemnation for the enemy.
The nature of the passionate jubilation that took place after Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab’s was hanged, took me by surprise as much as the suddenness with which his execution was announced. Nobody had the faintest idea that this ‘lone gunman’ would be executed so hastily within two weeks of President Pranab Mukherjee’s rejection of Kasab’s clemency plea. But such a triumphant commemoration usually concludes such dramas of modern statehood. What I was really not prepared for was the gradual unfolding of it in the mainstream media and its changing colors and mood as more information filtered in. I guess for the media too it was a bombshell. The first news bite was short and to the point and Hindustan Times reported it in a big bold letters but without any other frills. But then within a very short time almost all the major national dailies just burst with energy as if trying to win a race of who could cover Kasab’s death in the most macabre way. There was a surge of photographs of people rejoicing the moment in all possible ways. Policemen, politicians, and the aam janta, not to mention the kin of the victims’ distributed sweets, burnt effigies of Kasab and speeches were made. Emotions flowed while the nation won a major victory in the war on terror. What was really disconcerting was not so much the deafening celebration of Kasab’s death by the public and the media. There was similar rejoice when Saddam Hussein was put to death or Osama Bin Laden was killed. And of course mainstream media in the U.S. was similarly sensational in its reporting of both.
But there is a difference. While there was a scramble over how much detail each cable channel could deliver for the hungry public, be it in the case of either Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden, I felt there was something curiously distinct about the way in which the Indian media covered Ajmal Kasab’s execution. To my mind that had to do with the fact that after four years, the killing spree of Kasab and the terror he unleashed had shrunk into the figure of this ‘lone gunman’ who remained isolated and powerless in an Indian prison. There was almost a ‘need’ for the mainstream press to re-visit and re-create every part of that entire saga, from the ‘26/11 attack’ to Kasab’s petition for mercy and finally its rejection. Kasab was no Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden for that matter, in his stature as a perpetrator of terror and violence. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and Osama Bin Laden evil personified. At one point Hindustan Times even used the word ‘butcher’ to describe Kasab’s crime. There was definitely a need to re-create a Kasab who was a heartless killer.
A second reason I presume has to do with the peculiar nature of capital punishment in India. Retaining capital punishment is based on a rather fanciful and inconsistent justification that it is used on ‘rarest of rare’ occasions. But Shivam Vij argues on the basis of a report published by PUCL and Amnesty International (an extensive study of judgments between 1950-2008) that there is a marked degree of arbitrariness to the extent that it amounts to a “lethal lottery”. With very few legal safeguards, there is always a very real and serious possibility of errors. Kasab’s execution also broke the eight-year old unofficial moratorium on executions as AlterNet reported. While the “rarest of rare” is based on a faulty logic to say the least, for the media as much as for the public Kasab’s hanging was indeed a rare occasion of national celebration. What made it further bizarre is that hanging as a method of execution was upheld in 1983 by the Supreme Court on ground that it did not involve “torture, barbarity, humiliation or degradation”. While hanging as a method of extermination is currently practiced in a number of countries, there is a serious debate in place questioning the apparent lack of pain and suffering involved. Any killing is brutal, whatever its legally chosen and justified method. There are intense discussions around all the methods of capital punishment, be it hanging or by lethal injection. Some pharmaceutical companies have even banned the export of drugs, which have been commonly used in deaths by lethal injections, for example, the UK stopped exporting the drug thiopental, which many US death row states have used for long. The debate has been around a central issue: whether any of the methods can actually prevent a painless death.
In such a context, hanging as the chosen method in India has not been sufficiently debated at all. And the Indian newspapers hankered to provide as much detail as possible about the last moments of Kasab’s life. The most disconcerting aspect of all this was the blaring of his last words before he was hanged. It was as if the words were chosen to tell the Indian people that Kasab did in fact commit a heinous crime, which will never be repeated. The issue is not whether he did utter those words or not: the mainstream Indian press somehow had to extract his last words and then enact the mea culpa that they were always hoping will come forth at some point. This was their last chance. And they did not miss it.
One would imagine or even expect that Ajmal Kasab’s execution by hanging and similar other instances would encourage the mainstream media to critically examine capital punishment, its chosen methods and whether justice is indeed served– taking every single nuance into consideration. Unfortunately, nothing of this happened. Rather the emotional applause following Kasab’s death undertaken by the media-public signaled a demand for justice (in a frenzied and painfully cruel manner) that cannot anymore depend on the good intentions of the nation-state anymore.
Srirupa Prasad teaches Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology in the University of Missouri-Columbia.