On the late afternoon of July 30, under the surveillance of cameras and watchful glare of Mumbai’s police chief and his entire 41,000 armed police force, nearly ten thousand Muslims gathered to pay their respects in prayer as Yakub Memon’s dead body was taken to be buried.
Convicted of taking part in India’s deadliest attacks – the 1993 bombings in Mumbai – Memon was hanged after last minute bids for clemency were rejected. Given the heated and bruisingly polarising controversy that cropped up in the few weeks leading to the execution, the excessive security measures of the police force were justified.
But what turned out was something unprecedented, which some columnists subscribing to a particular political ideology and worldview have derided as Memon – a Muslim terrorist who was given a ‘hero’s farewell’.
Senior politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that many of those protesting against the execution were potential terrorists and had done a disservice to the nation.
Tathagata Roy, the governor of Tripura – a state official who should be bearing his official position in mind – resolutely stated that many of those mourners were ‘prima facie suspects’ and ‘potential terrorists’.
Should things have been allowed to turn out this way? The government and everyone else strenuously emphasised that Memon’s religion played no role in his guilty sentence and subsequent execution.
Then, how would they explain the sheer number of attendees without labelling every one of them an Islamic extremist? Up until the execution, India’s Supreme Court upheld its 2013 decision – that Memon was one of the ‘driving spirits’ behind the devastating blasts that rocked Bombay (now Mumbai) on March 12, 1993, killing 257 and injuring hundreds – and deserved nothing less than the death penalty.
True, he did not directly participate in planting the bombs at any of the 13 locations, but he had been a key conspirator, the court held.
He was the younger brother of Tiger Memon, the principal plotter. Jan Khan Usman Khan, one of the men who carried out the bombings had provided all details of Memon’s involvement in his confession statement to the police.
The final judgement of the Supreme Court to reject his clemency bid was delivered in an unprecedented hurry. In April, the court issued the death warrant and announced July 30 as the date of the hanging.
The government made its stance clear: it would make sure that the execution was not carried out a day later. But Memon still had his legal options. He had the right to approach the Supreme Court and also to file a petition for clemency to the president of India and the governor of Maharashtra state.
But the court was in a hurry to ensure that the execution wasn’t delayed. It rode roughshod over procedure, and in its final judgement, delivered only a couple of hours before the hanging used a line of reasoning which was flawed at best and contrived at the worst.
The Hindu nationalist BJP government has always maintained that Islamic terrorism (the party refuses to accept that terrorists can, and often do hail from, other faiths) must be met with the toughest response and remained steadfast in its decision not to spare him, vociferously invoking the blast victims – the majority of whom were Hindus – to demand death for Memon.
The 1993 blasts came in the immediate aftermath of one of the worst communal pogroms in India – the riots of December 1992 and January 1993 which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and in which, more than 900 people, including 575 Muslims were killed.
A judicial commission indicted the Shiv Sena, an ultra-Hindu nationalist party (and a long term ally of the BJP) for orchestrating the carnage, by turning the police and state machinery against hapless Muslims.
Bal Thackeray, the founder and first chairman of the ultra-Hindu Shiv Sena party, was indicted for leading the riots. The commission stated that he, “like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims”.
Thackeray was never brought to justice, and in fact, he was accorded a state funeral in 2012. The policemen who were responsible for carrying out one of the most gruesome massacres during the riots also got away without punishment.
And here, it is the Indian state, not any particular political party, which cannot evade responsibility. Once the blasts were investigated and prosecuted with unprecedented zeal, what could be the reasons for sustained apathy to the riots?
If the religious identities of perpetrators and victims were not the determinant factor, as Muslims were repeatedly assured, then where is the proof?
In the weeks before Memon’s execution, television debates, editorial pages and national discourse on social media websites resembled a stampede of ‘patriotic’ Indians clenching their fists and screaming bellicose lessons in nationalism.
Contrast this marauding march with the sombre gait and silent grief of Memon’s mourners. Did they walk in solidarity with or out of sympathy for the Muslim convict who was hanged? Or, was it a shared feeling that – at the end of the day – being a Muslim could well make one subject to entirely different and patently unconstitutional treatment by the government and the country’s highest court?
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Is India practising discriminatory justice?’.
By: Saurav Datta