In Mumbai on Aug. 29, activists of the Shiv Sena party distributed sweets. Which is what you usually do when there's been a birth in the family, or a marriage, or some other good news. Elsewhere the same day, the head of their party, Uddhav Thackeray, demanded a public hanging. Not what you usually do when there's been a birth in the family or such like.
Turns out that both of these were reactions to the same bit of news: India's Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence a lower court gave Mohammed Ajmal Kasab.
Kasab is the only survivor of the gang of armed thugs who swarmed ashore and attacked Mumbai in November 2008, killing more than 160 people. He was captured and—despite loud calls to flay him alive, lynch him, tear him apart, and the like—given a lengthy trial. It ended where we all knew it had to: he was found guilty and sentenced to die. Routine, predictable stuff, really. But for me, the trial was a thing of pride, a reminder of a country's faith in justice and the rule of law. It marked us as different from terrorists who kill indiscriminately.
The reminder is a good thing, because that faith is too often tested. In November 1984, mobs roamed the streets of Delhi, intent on slaughter, many of them instigated and led by powerful politicians. In days, they had killed 3,000 Sikhs. Twenty-six years later, nobody has been punished for what I consider India's greatest crime—if it makes any perverse sense to choose. In late 1992 and early 1993, mobs killed about a thousand in Mumbai, the majority of them Muslim. Again, powerful politicians led the mobs, egged the murderers on. One was even caught by the Army at the height of the violence, roaming in a jeep crammed with gangsters and weapons, including an unlicensed gun. Again, 20 years on, nobody has been punished. Not only was the man the Army caught never punished, he even won election to Parliament afterward. (My MP, to my disgust.)
Justice? People like me believe it's like the Loch Ness monster: widely spoken about, but nobody has seen it for years. And if that's what justice has been reduced to, we worry for our country. We fear the anarchy that must inevitably lie ahead.
Which is why we welcomed Kasab's trial. Even though every one of us knew he was guilty—after all, we actually watched him doing his worst—here was justice at work, as it must always be, in the shape it must always take. That it also stimulates demands for public executions is another matter.
But, as we found out on Aug. 29, justice was at work elsewhere too.
In the state of Gujarat, in February and March 2002, mobs killed more than 2,000 people. One such mob went to the lower-middle-class Muslim ghetto of Naroda-Patiya in Ahmedabad. Like in Delhi and Mumbai before, this mob was instigated and led by a powerful politician. This time, it was a woman. This time, it was a doctor. Maya Kodkani, a practicing gynecologist, was also an elected member of the Gujarat state assembly. Witnesses saw her distributing swords to the blood-crazed mob, urging them on to slaughter.
In a few hours, they killed upwards of 90 people. In a season of massacres, if it makes any perverse sense to choose, this was the supreme one.
Killing done, Dr. Kodkani went back to her practice and to her elected office. In 2007, she won election again and now became Gujarat's minister for Women's Development and Child Welfare. This is one of those times that I must swear, like Dave Barry is often constrained to do in his humor columns, that I am not making this up. Not that there is anything remotely humorous in the effort to comprehend this repulsive truth: overseeing the welfare of Gujarat's children and its
women's development for a period a few years ago was a lady doctor who, a few years before that, had led the murder of 90+ Gujaratis, including 34 children and 32 women.
But yes, justice was at work too. A case was filed against Kodnani and several dozen others over the Naroda-Patiya massacre. In 2009, the Gujarat government—the same government Kodnani was serving—actually filed an affidavit in this case, averring that Kodnani "was the leader of mob … and allegations against her is [that] she was instigating the mob to commit crime and therefore she was playing the main role." Also, "she is a minister in the present government, so there are ample chances of tampering with prosecution witnesses by way of giving threat."
Makes you wonder: if the Gujarat Government knew all these things about Kodnani, why was she made minister anyway? Were they thumbing their noses at the people of Gujarat, at the rest of us Indians? And this little capsule history—elected representative leads a massacre, joins her government as minister, her government tells the court she might use her position as minister to intimidate witnesses—has it happened anywhere else in the world?
On Aug. 29, Justice Jyotsna Yagnik of a special Gujarat court found Kodnani and 31 others guilty for the Naroda-Patiya massacre.
Their cases offer up plenty to debate: the death penalty itself, the coming to power of criminals, and more. All that will happen over the weeks and months to come. But meanwhile, I'm struck by the attitudes toward these two people. There's universal hatred for Kasab, but plenty of support for Kodnani, even after her conviction. Plenty of people who say what she did was justified. No, the Shiv Sena has not handed out sweets to celebrate her conviction, nor has its chief demanded she be publicly hanged.
All of which is why the juxtaposition of these two cases is fortuitous. Because perhaps it will finally make us ask: what is the difference between the crimes these two people committed? What is the difference between these two people, period?
I see none.
No, I see one difference: one of them was never a minister.
Postscript: On Aug. 31, Justice Yagnik sentenced Kodnani to 28 years in prison and delivered similar severe sentences to the others who were found guilty. It remains to be seen whether these sentences will be appealed, and how much time they will eventually spend in prison. After all, the man the Army caught in Mumbai was also convicted and sentenced, but spent not a day in jail.