The Death of Yakub Memon Should Alert Us to the Birth of a New Republic

Yesterday, on 30 July 2015, Yakub Memon, who was convicted over the 1993 bombings in Mumbai, was sent to the gallows. Memon’s hanging came in the midst of unprecedented circumstances and several twists and turns that have played out over the past week. HC Tiwari/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
31 July, 2015

In the book Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right, edited by Wendy Doniger and Martha C Nassbaum, historian Mushirul Hasan talks about the first issue of the Encounter—a literary magazine founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol—that was published in 1953. Hasan cites an article with the following note: “Between a past reduced to practical impotence but offering a resistance to depth, and a future only skin–deep, India’s present seems to lack substance.” Sixty-two years later, set against the context of the hanging of Yakub Memon—who was convicted over the 1993 bombings in Mumbai— yesterday, the image that this grim pronouncement paints, bears a striking resemblance to the India of today.

Memon’s hanging came in the midst of unprecedented circumstances and several twists and turns that have played out over the past week. On Tuesday, 28 June 2015, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on Memon’s plea against the death warrant he had been handed, following which a three-judge bench dismissed his plea and upheld the death sentence on Wednesday. Immediately after, a fourteen-page mercy petition written by Memon was delivered to Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India, who—during a two-hour long meeting—was advised by the home ministry to reject it. Memon’s petition was rejected at around 10.45pm. His lawyers along with Delhi-based lawyer and activist, Prashant Bhushan went to the residence of the Chief Justice of India, HL Dattu. Three judges agreed to convene in the Supreme Court to hear the review petition into the wee hours of the night, and ultimately rejecting it by early morning on Thursday. To say that these proceedings were unusual would perhaps be an understatement, and the effect of the subsequent pandemonium could be witnessed through the stir it caused on social media.

However, even as cacophony took over the public space at large, a sepulchral silence continued to rein over 7, Race Course Road. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chooses to speak only on matters that would be better left to his junior colleagues in the cabinet. These are matters that are everyday, routine, and more importantly, “safe.” But while he refuses to comment on issues that are grabbing the headlines, his social media acolytes are more than willing to do so. They are happy to rant about what they consider the real issues of the moment—be it the recent controversy surrounding the External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje over their murky connection to Lalit Modi, the former commissioner of the Indian Premier League; the scores of mysterious deaths around the massive Vyapam scam; or now, the raging controversy over awarding the death sentence to Memon. These flag-bearers of Hindutva and vociferous supporters of Modi are also distinguished by their violent opposition to views that are contrary to their own. An attempt to engage with them, results at best, in being branded a “pseudosecular”, and at worst, in being threatened with acts such as murder or rape.

Between the deafening silence at the top and the constant bullying on social  media at the metaphorical bottom, we are coming to embody a republic where name-calling and chest-thumping have taken over from reasoned debate, discussion and disagreement. We are becoming a people who do not wish to hear the other speak. In fact, it may no longer be an exaggeration to suggest that the tomb-like silence at the top is feeding the incessant, unrelenting commotion below. Both ends of the spectrum, so contradictory and yet complementary to each other, are moulding a new republic that is intolerant and ready to strike down dissent in all spheres of life.

It is in this backdrop that Teesta Setelvad—the activist who spearheaded the cause of the victims of the Gujarat riots in 2002—has been hounded by investigative agencies under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation at the centre and in Gujarat. It is also in this backdrop, that the students at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), who have been protesting the appointment of the under-qualified Gajendera Singh Chouhan as the institute’s chairperson, are told to return to their classrooms or face suspension. This new republic has resulted in Greenpeace—an environmental non-governmental organisation—being threatened by impending closure after being squeezed dry of funds by the government. In the meantime, individuals who dare to disagree with the government’s policies on a public platform may not be faced with an intervention by the state, but are faced with a barrage of vile abuse online.

In that familiar vein of intolerance, dissenters who voiced their opposition against the death sentence awarded to Yakub Memon were denounced as anti-nationals. Last weekend for instance, Bollywood actor Salman Khan, was bullied by the noisy and self-righteous vanguards of the nation into retracting his tweetsthat questioned the impending execution. He wasn’t the only one. Over the course of this week, almost, anyone who articulated unease at the judgment was routinely marked out as a “Muslim sympathiser” and advised to move to Pakistan.

This repeated cycle of jarring outcry has managed to subdue the subtle and complex intricacies underlining cases such as Memon’s—that raises serious questions about whether the punishment delivered to him is proportionate to the crime he is accused of having committed. The legal stance taken in this case becomes suspect when one takes into consideration the fact that the main accused—Yakub’s brother Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim—are still absconding. Are we then, simply yielding to the seduction of appeasing the “collective conscience of the nation?”

The peculiarity in Memons’s case stems from the fact that he had chosen to travel to Delhi from Pakistan—where he and his family had been in hiding since the blasts—on 28 July 1994. He had come back with the intent, as the sequence of events seems to suggest, of aiding the investigating agencies in their task. The evidence that Memon provided during the investigation proved to be crucial in proving Pakistan’s links to the blasts. However, if Memon had made this journey with the expectation being shown leniency, he was to be proven wrong. As his death sentence was read out by a Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (Preventive) [TADA] judge in 2007, Memon cried out, “ Forgive him lord, for he knows not what he does.”

Nearly eight years later, that sentence was taken to its completion. As this long-drawn saga began reaching its unhappy conclusion at the crack of dawn yesterday, we put on a veritable display of triumphant sanctimony, content to leverage the convenient and revengeful tactic of punishing those who have been deemed guilty by their association with the real criminals.

In the recent days, there has been a whole range of opinions penned by jurists, intelligence experts and former judges who have offered their perspective on Memon’s death sentence. B Raman, a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat and one of the founders of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) who was intimately connected with the case, argued against the hanging of Memon, in an unpublished column from 2007 that was posthumously published by on 23 July 2015, “'I was disturbed to notice that some mitigating circumstances in the case of Yakub Memon and some other members of the family were probably not brought to the notice of the court by the prosecution, and that the prosecution did not suggest to the court that these circumstances should be taken into consideration while deciding on the punishment to be awarded to them. In their eagerness to obtain the death penalty, the fact that there were mitigating circumstances does not appear to have been highlighted.” Heading the Pakistan Desk at R&AW during Memon’s return in 1994, Raman revealed that he was flown to Delhi in a government plane from Nepal.

In a similar vein, foreign policy and security affairs analyst Manoj Joshi wrote: “Don’t get me wrong on this, I support the death penalty – for rapist-murderers, child killers, terrorists and even acid-throwers. But I go with our Supreme Court’s caveat, that it should be reserved for the “rarest of rare” cases. Yakub Memon, who could be executed on July 30th for his role in the Bombay blasts of 1993 does not fit that criterion. Punishment in a civilised democracy must balance between retribution on behalf of the victim and the possibility of the rehabilitation of the criminal. And, of course, it must meet the requirement of proportionality, in other words, the punishment must fit the crime.”

As we approach Independence Day celebrations on 15 August, we should be worried about the contours of the new republic as it is shaping before us. The high-pitched war cry of nationalism and the easy denouncement of critics as “anti-nationals, Maoists, foreign agents,” should cause both anger and anxiety. Instead of being intolerant about casteism, inequality, classism, denial of human rights, we are training our guns on dissenters. Soon, the prime minister will speak to the people from the podium at the historic Red Fort. Grand announcements will be made on this occasion for self-congratulation. Yet again, Modi is likely to skirt around the “unsafe” subjects that are now under public scrutiny. Nor is anyone likely to force him to speak

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.