Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist whose boyish face came to embody the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was hanged in the western Indian city of Pune early morning on Wednesday, just a week before the four-year anniversary of the Nov. 26 attack that killed 166 people and injured 300. Kasab was the only terrorist who had been captured alive at the scene of the violence. The grainy image of the young man, a gun in his hand and a backpack slung casually over his shoulder, has become an icon of the attack.
Kasab’s death sentence was carried out at 7:30 a.m. in extreme secrecy to forestall any retaliation by terrorist groups; even the executioner was reportedly unaware of the identity of the man he was about to hang. The news started flashing on Indian television channels an hour after the hanging was over. Reports have since come out that Kasab was transferred from a Mumbai jail on Tuesday night, where he has been lodged for the past four years, to Pune’s Yerwada Jail. Kasab’s death sentence had been pronounced by a lower court in Mumbai in 2008 and was subsequently upheld by the Bombay High Court in 2011 and India’s top court in August 2012. Earlier this month, his mercy plea — his last chance to stay his sentence — was rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee. “It was a very somber duty that we had to perform,” Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said in a press briefing on Wednesday evening. “It could have developed into a simmering sore in our country.”
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The hanging was, indeed, welcomed in many quarters, as euphoric reactions from citizens, victims and politicians alike flooded television channels and social-networking sites. Many applauded the ruling Congress Party for its tough stance on terrorism. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh tweeted, “Finally Kasab hanged.” Devika Rotawan, a 13-year-old who was shot in the leg during the attacks, said she had personally watched Kasab “fire away at the Victoria Terminus and he was laughing remorselessly. All terrorists should meet this end.” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi hawkishly told reporters that the hanging served as “a stern warning to the enemies of India, especially those across the border who want to terrorize India.”
Whether Kasab’s hanging will prove to be such a potent deterrent is a matter of much debate. As the initial cheers faded, India was almost immediately beset with questions of what, apart from a sense of reprisal for the victims and their families, the execution would accomplish. Kasab was among 10 men who carried out attacks on key Mumbai landmarks on Nov. 26, 2008, including two hotels, a railway station and a Jewish center. Many worry that unless the real masterminds of the attack — who are still hiding in neighboring Pakistan — are brought to justice, Kasab’s hanging will achieve precious little. “This man came to die four years ago. His life for the last four years was an incidental footnote in the trajectory of international terrorism,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. “What he has done and what has been done to him … has no impact whatsoever on the trajectory of terrorism or on the balance of power between the various players, including the nonstate actors and state sponsors.”
Indeed, some say Kasab’s hanging may even invite more violence from terror groups. Within hours of his death, a senior commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks, told Reuters that its former foot soldier is a “hero” whose death will “inspire other fighters to follow his path.”
If the worst were to come to pass, is India better prepared today than it was in 2008 to handle a domestic terrorist attack? At least some in the government, including former Home Minister and current Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, assert that it is not. “Have we done enough to build capacity since the Mumbai terror attacks?” Chidambaram told a gathering of top police officials last year. “The answer is yes and no.” Chidambaram, after he took over as Home Minister following the 2008 attacks, revamped the country’s security architecture by plumping up the police forces, arming them with sophisticated weapons and establishing the National Investigation Agency, a robust investigation bureau aimed at coordinating national efforts against terrorism. “There have been some marginal changes in police capabilities and capacities and in certain cities or areas responses might be marginally better but that doesn’t meant that the cities are more secure,” says Sahni. “The amount of vulnerability remains the same … The people we are talking about, with their ideologies, the hanging of a man is not going to have any kind of dampening or freezing effect on them because these are people who are willing to die and kill.” Khurshid said no specific, nationally coordinated measures were taken to secure municipalities before or after today’s execution, saying that precautions were left up to local authorities. “Before anybody could have reacted, the matter was over,” Khurshid said.
That may be, but the larger threat looms large. Though Islamabad’s Foreign Office spokesman Moazzam Khan said Pakistan was “willing to cooperate and work closely with all countries of the region to eliminate the scourge of terrorism,” the Indian Foreign Minister said cooperation was not as forthcoming as India would like: “It’s been a long time. From any point of view, patience would run out in any country. He says India has submitted a “wish list” to Pakistan authorities, including requests for information on individuals India believes masterminded the attacks, but Pakistan has as yet not delivered on that intelligence. Indeed, it was only a few weeks back that Islamabad admitted, based on the testimony of five Pakistani government detectives, who testified in the ongoing Nov. 26 trial in Pakistan, that perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks were trained in Pakistan. “It’s not an issue that time can make us forget,” said Khurshid. “There has to be some delivery on this issue … A lot will now depend on what we see Pakistan do.”
— With reporting by Krista Mahr / New Delhi