Yakub Memon – the only convict sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai – is reportedly set to be hanged on 30 July. The serial bombings in Mumbai which lead to the deaths of 257 people were apparently in the nature of ‘retributive justice’ for the rioting that took place after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Defined by vigilantism, the bombings punished and took the lives of people who had nothing to with the riots.
To paraphrase Sudhir Kakkar, in conditions of riots, the distinction between the victim, perpetrator collapses and a reductive , synoptic worldview takes over and the ‘them’ versus ‘Us’ thinking takes over and finer distinctions are elided. This is what may have happened in Mumbai after the Ayodhya riots. All this is not to whitewash or justify the Mumbai bombings. The bombings were ghastly and took the lives of innocent people. But both the bombings and now the potential hanging of one of the perpetrators raise a bevy of questions.
First, why did Muslims or some Muslims in Mumbai take the law in their own hands and took recourse to violence? Second, the question pertains to the nature of justice: is capital punishment the answer to violent vigilantism? Will it serve to sate the ‘collective conscience’ of the masses in India? Third, what will the hanging signal to Muslims? Is justice skewed in India? What has happened to the perpetrators of Godhra riots and others of a similar nature?
The obvious answer to Muslim vigilantism and acts of counter violence is that Muslims do not appear to have faith in India’s justice system. The judiciary and its concomitant may be viewed by Muslims in India as slanted and beyond their scope and reach. Hence, vigilantism in extreme circumstances and taking recourse to non formal means and methods of seeking justice.
The Mumbai underworld springs to mind here. This gels in with what appears to be seen by Indian Muslims as slanted and skewed justice. If, for example, the perpetrators of Gujarat riots were identified, and are known , why are not they meted the same ‘justice’ as was meted out to say Afzal Guru or now Yakub Memon?
The obvious inference that Muslims would draw is that there are double standards at work. The corollary to this is not hard to decipher: given that Muslims do not have access to justice like other citizens of the country and given that double standards are at work, the best defense lies in offence and in protection rackets. This is not to justify the means and methods chosen by Indian Muslims but to delineate the psychology behind their inclination to take recourse to extra legal methods to seek ‘retributive justice’.
Now, having laid out the reasons for violent Muslim vigilantism (unjustifiable as it is), I would like to draw attention to capital punishment. Broadly speaking, the proponents of capital punishment assert that society has a moral obligation to protect its members and their welfare and security are paramount. Depriving a criminal or a murderer of his life is the best means for ensuring this as depriving the perpetrator of his life serves as a deterrent. There is also an element of equality in capital punishment- an eye for an eye thing. However, at the same time, the argument against death penalty is that life is sacrosanct and it is incumbent upon society to protect it.
The death penalty, has not been an effective deterrent and depriving a perpetrator of his liberty and imprisoning him has the same effect. This, of course, is a very reductive delineation of the case for and against death penalty. The question now is: what would depriving Yakub Memon of his life serve? And more to the point, the question of justice arises here. That is, who punishes?
Morally, I side with those who make a case against capital punishment. However, the problem is more poignant in the political domain. Yakub’s hanging, like the hanging of Afzal Guru, would signal to Muslims that justice is slanted in India and that they don’t have a real voice in the country’s justice system. The question of equivalence would obtain here. If Godhra riot perpetrators are either scot free or got away with light sentences, why is Muslim being hanged here?
Again a synoptic and reductive world view would hold and the ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ psychology would take surface. This time, however, the state would be implicated in this. The question of,’ Who punishes’ would also become salient. In some theories of justices, it is held that the powerful and those who wield power in society are the ones who enforce justice. In this schema, the majority community in India would be implicated here . The potential hanging of Yakub would then carry communal overtones (perceived or real) and would further lead to the alienation of Indian Muslims.
If, however, the state is really interested in justice, then the state has its work cut for it. The state must do its bit to ameliorate the condition of Indian Muslims and reach out to them. The first prong of this should be empowerment of Muslims in India through education and economic advancement followed by making equal rights real for them. This means access to and fair justice for Muslims in India. Inculcating a sense of security would also help. In conjunction, these prongs could lead to a condition where security, peace and prosperity would obtain for all communities forming the Indian firmament-the sine qua non of Justice.