Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Critical Choices… When the soul of a nation hangs by a thread

There is a moment from the Steven Spielberg film Munich that I cherish. In this particular moment, the bomb maker Robert is beginning to have doubts about the morality of killing the persons whom the Mossad held as responsible for the brutal killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. And so it is that Robert says ‘We're Jews…Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong….Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn't make you decent. But we're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish. That's what I knew, that's what I was taught and I'm losing it. I lose that and that's everything. That's my soul.’

This cinematic moment has been replaying itself in my head over and over again ever since the drama around Kasab’s punishment erupted in the Indian media space. It would be worthwhile for us to examine this issue of capital punishment for Kasab from the doubts that Robert has in Munich. Robert captures the dilemma perfectly in his phrasing. Suffering, even if for a thousand years, does not make us and our actions righteous. Thus the real sufferings of those who lost family and friends through the violence in Bombay, and the alleged sufferings of the Indian nation are not reason enough to justify the Indian state’s killing of Kasab. What we should be the real focus of our debate is what the killing of Kasab will do to all of us as Indians. This is what should be the focus of our discussion. And this is what Robert realizes after he has sufficient blood on his hands; that all that killing is making him loose his soul. And at the end of the day, the loss of his soul is too much to bear.

The loss of our collective souls and the loss of the humanity of the Indian nation-state is what we stand to loose through the State killing Kasab. The Indian judicial system assures us that capital punishment is to be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare cases’. This may in fact be true, where a higher court may hold that a decision granted by a lower court was irresponsible and overturn the sentence of capital punishment. But this is not the point. The point is what does the presence of the death punishment do to us as a people of the legal system.

The Kasab case is a wonderful example of what is being done to us. No one will deny that we have been turned into an audience in this particular case.And the audience in this particular case has been turned into a blood thirsty mob, crying and screaming for the blood of this man. This audience is presented with actors, such as the prosecutor in the case, Ujjwal Nikam, who argues, contrary to the supposed ‘rarest of rare cases’ principle, that all terrorists should be given the death penalty. In the environment that has been generated in this particular drama event, what has been done is to convince so many Indians that indeed terrorists should be given the death penalty. What we do not realize though, is while in Kasab’s case it can be proven that he was stomping around Bombay spraying people with bullets, this is not necessarily the case with every alleged ‘terrorist’. The justice delivery system can sometimes go wrong, the wrong person implicated, the reasoning of courts clouded by fear and nationalist sentiment, and innocent blood can be shed.

Further, a situation where we start baying for blood and believe that all terrorists should be given the death penalty allows for State killings outside the law. Take for example the case of the Batla House ‘encounter’. We know now that the boys killed in the Batla House shootout, were innocents, and victims of a fake encounter. Fake encounters are a fact of life in India, where numerous Muslim boys are routinely dragged and shot. Tribal boys too, under the suspicion that they are Naxals. And let us not forget the trouled areas of the north-east. Allowing for the death penalty creates a certain callousness in our souls, where we shrug off these deaths. Even if we do not shrug these off however, we should remember that we are responsible for these deaths, in allowing for the existence of the death penalty.

What we should constantly keep reminding ourselves is that Kasab is not the point in the debate that is emerging. The point is the soul of the Indian population. The point is not what we can or will do to Kasab, or what he deserves. The point is what will become of us after he is gone. The attempt of the criminal mastermind is to breed bad blood between peoples. Thus either Kasab, or the forces that sent Kasab on his mission, intended that there be tension and escalating violence between the people of India and Pakistan. The idea is to create a state of permanent tension within India. If we kill Kasab, and do so after the kind of frenzied calls for his blood that have marked his trial, then Kasab will not have died in vain. He and his directors will have succeeded in the larger campaign that they have in mind. What we will have done, is to convert the peace loving people of India into a blood thirsty mob. Create a by-and-large gentle, trusting people into a suspicious collective of witch-hunters. The real victor of any battle is the one who winds up with the options. The option still rests in our hands, and we can determine the real extent to which Kasab has impacted on us. To allow Kasab and the forces he has been made to represent to transform us in this manner is to allow them to win and have the final laugh.

It is true that we have to deal with Kasab one way or the other. The way the system operates is to punish him. If one is thinking of punishment, and the inclination is towards death, then allow me a suggestion. The suggestion is that of social death. Let his name be struck from the records and his name never be spoken again. The violence he wreaked will not be mentioned, his efforts will have been in vain. At the same time, let us reach out to those who have been impacted by the violence he and his colleagues effected. In doing so we will strengthen the bonds of loving brotherhood that reputedly make India the nation that it is, and the country it wanted to be at the start of its independence.

The Jews have constructed a history of thousands of years of suffering. And yet, as the Robert of the film Munich points out, the soul of Judaism lies in persevering in righteousness despite these sufferings. India is acclaimed as a spiritual land. It is to this heritage that it owes the obligation to realize that in killing Kasab it will loose the battle of righteousness and walk into a battle where the lines are scripted by the forces of discord on the other side. Like Dronacharya told Arjuna, focus on the eye of the bird in the tree, nothing else. Kasab at the end of the day is a part of the larger forest, the Kauravas even. Our goal, our true goal, lies elsewhere. But at this moment, it hangs by a thread. My prayers are for the soul that India risks loosing.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 12 May 2010)

1 comment:

Partho P. Chakrabartty said...

Very interesting article, and fairly balanced, though I have a severe problem with the concept of 'soul' and certainly with the supposed moral insight of films (almost certainly a conflict created for melodrama).

I do not have a position vis-a-vis the death sentence. For me the death penalty does not risk India's 'soul' because India doesn't really have a 'soul'; nor am I whole-heartedly in favour of it.

However, just to play devil's advocate, something can be said about the death of Kasab being a kind-of public catharsis. For a high-profile case like this to have ended up in any other penalty, given the provisions of the law, might just have been election suicide. Kasab may be easier forgotten once the death penalty has been handed to him.

Also, to enforce social death, you'd need the kind of control over the media that can (and will) be misused very quickly. Rather than a social death, I think a re-orientation of energies is needed, from revenge on Kasab to focus on security and better prevention of such acts in the future (because there'll always be someone trying; true vigilance has little to do with loss of innocence or a feeling of comfort with one's neighbours).

But I can accept your last paragraph and ignore Kasab and consider the abolition of the death penalty, with Kasab just bringing up the issue. That, for me, is a whole new debate. Given the success of this measure in other countries, I'd support the abolition of the death penalty, especially since the economic advantages of the death penalty (fewer prisoners to support) are offset by the decade we take to carry out executions.

Your comments about the media's stupidity and Ujjwal Nikam's appalling rhetoric are spot-on though. He certainly lost all dignity... someone should have reined him in. Made what was a fairly legitimate process look like a show trial.