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Yakub Memon to be hanged, but what about Bhullar and Rajoana?

The death sentences of the other two have been commuted to life because they have political backing.

 |  IST  |  10-minute read |   24-07-2015
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In less than a week, on July 30 at 7 am at the Nagpur central jail, Yakub Memon will hang until he is dead, bringing a 22-year-old sordid story to an end. Convicted for playing a key role in Mumbai’s serial blasts in March 1993, in which 257 were killed and more than 700 injured, Memon was charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Act (TADA) for causing acts of terror, which included the plotting and funding the conspiracy. He was accused of sending some Mumbai youths to Pakistan to train in terror activities, even arranging air-tickets for them as well as buying vehicles in which to plant the bombs in Mumbai.

Memon will pay with his life for his crime in a few days, but watching from different parts of the country – and thanking the Lord that they are not standing in Memon’s place – will be Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, sentenced to death in 2001 for conspiring to kill the Congress leader Maninder Singh Bitta in 1993; Balwant Singh Rajoana, a Babbar Khalsa International terrorist currently on death row in Patiala jail for conspiring to kill former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995; seven people convicted in the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, currently lodged in a Tamil Nadu jail; as well as former BJP MLA Maya Kodnani, found guilty of murder and arrested in 2009 for leading a mob in Gujarat’s Naroda Patiya in February 2002, in which 97 people were killed.

There are several similarities as well as some differences in the stories of all these convicts. All of them have killed or conspired to kill many people, or at least some very important people. Save for Maya Kodnani, now on permanent bail on health grounds, the death penalty is common to all the convicts named above.

Memon, Bhullar and Rajoana are sorted into a much more exclusive category because the mercy petitions by all three to the President have been rejected for one reason or another, in recent years.

The reason Memon belongs to a class of his own is that he is the only one who will be hanged for the crimes that he has committed. The death sentences of the other two have been commuted to life.

So as the hours and last minutes of Memon’s life clack-clack towards the inevitable, it seems that some old concerns and even older fears are rearing their head. The cycle of retributive violence that every caste and community has willingly participated in, as far back as the partition of India in 1947 as well as more recent blood-letting in Delhi and Hashimpura and Mumbai and Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar, seem to emerge unbidden in the recesses of the mind.

It is said that in the wake of the Supreme Court’s July 21 dismissal of Memon’s curative petition -- a last resort measure that desperate convicts sometimes resort to, especially after presidential mercies are rejected -- security precautions are being tightened, including in Delhi where prime minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet live and work and where Parliament will be in session on July 30. That is the day Memon is scheduled to hang in Nagpur central jail.

Meanwhile, wading into a debate that is becoming fraught with political and religious undertones, AIMIM leader and member of parliament from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi told Aaj Tak on July 23 that “different measures are being applied” to different kinds of convicts, although all of them are on death row.

The truth, as Owaisi pointed out in the Aaj Tak debate, is that Bhullar and Rajoana are still alive because they have the political backing of the Shiromani Akali Dal. That is an open secret in Punjab, but it needed a Hyderabadi to bare it.

Speaking at a rally in Hyderabad, also on July 23, Owaisi said, "The killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh have the backing of political parties in Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Which political party is backing Yakub Memon? Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab has gone to the extent of pardoning Balwant Singh Rajoana," Owaisi said.

Pointing out that several hundred people had been killed in the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, Owaisi said that none other than the Srikrishna Commission had stated that the horrific Mumbai blasts of 1993 were a reaction to the vengeful demolition of the Babri Masjid.

A quick rewind of recent history throws up the following : Bhullar was sent back from Germany to India, where he had fled in 1994, on the express condition that he not be hanged. But the Indian government reneged on that promise and gave him death. Soon his mercy plea was also rejected by the President.

But as the outcry against Bhullar’s hanging grew in Punjab, the Punjab assembly passed a resolution which amounted to the fact that if Bhullar was hanged it would amount to a travesty of justice. None other than Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah pointed out at the time that, perhaps, the J&K assembly needed to do the same with Afzal Guru, who had been given death for planning and executing the attack against Parliament in 2001.

Of course Guru was executed in 2013, without even giving him a chance to file a last-minute curative plea in front of the Supreme Court.

As for Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, the case here gets curiouser and curiouser. All seven convicts were given death for their role in the assassination of a former prime minister, but then Rajiv’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, visited the sole female convict, Nalini, in 2008, and “pardoned” her. Rajiv’s widow and Congress president Sonia Gandhi personally pleaded that the death sentences should be commuted to life.

"Meeting with Nalini was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss that I have experienced," Priyanka, who was 19 when her father died, said at the time. "I do not believe in anger, hatred and violence and I refuse to allow it any power over my life."

Politics and Tamil pride took over, soon after. Not to be left out of the forgiveness game, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa in 2013 said she would free the convicts. She invoked the state government’s prerogative to do so since the convicts had served more than 14 years, the judicial equivalent of a “life” sentence.

A nervous UPA government, in its last months in power, responded by saying that since the case had been pursued by the CBI, the state government had no right to free Rajiv’s killers.

"The release of the killers of a former prime minister of India and our great leader, as well as several other innocent Indians, would be contrary to all principles of justice," then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had said, in 2014.

Chief Justice H L Dattu confirmed that position a few days ago, on July 23, then went on to gratuitously add : “In the death sentence one is dead and gone and people also forget about that person as public memory is short. But life sentence is like slow poison. We want them to be alive and suffer and realize the crime they committed and understand how the victim’s family felt.”

Tell that to Yakub Memon, spending his last hours and minutes in Nagpur central jail even as he puts together yet another mercy petition to Maharashtra governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao.

Meanwhile, state public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who must be credited for not only sending Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab to the gallows – although he later admitted that he had lied, “in the national interest”, when he said that Kasab had wanted to be served "biryani" as his last meal – has been defending his successful pursuit of Yakub Memon to the hangman’s stand next week.

That bloodthirsty sentiment in fact was in clear evidence on July 21, when in response to senior advocate Ram Jethmalani’s plea for mercy for Murugan, one of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar told the five-judge Constitution bench led by chief justice H L Dattu, “Our former Prime Minister was killed in a conspiracy hatched outside this country in which foreign nationals were involved and the conspiracy was executed by these convicts. What mercy is to be seen or shown?”

Ujjwal Nikam as well as several in the BJP have argued that Yakub Memon’s death by hanging is an application of the “rarest of rare” doctrine introduced by the Supreme Court in 1993.

But the truth, as the Bhullar and Rajoana and Rajiv’s killers cases show, the Supreme Court itself is applying its own doctrine arbitrarily. As for the government, it is clear that the application of the “terror” tag makes it easier for some governments to take the eye-for-an-eye approach – even if it makes the world blind.

Owaisi points out that all Indian Muslims supported the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, as this was a foreign terrorist who had preyed upon the motherland. But in the wake of the hanging of Afzal Guru – who was not even allowed to file a curative petition – Kashmiris say their sense of betrayal has become even stronger.

And now it is Yakub Memon’s turn.

Owaisi also pointed out in his Aaj Tak discussion on July 23 that it is not as if India’s Muslims don’t believe that Memon was not a key conspirator in the Mumbai 1993 riots, and that he must be made to suffer appropriate punishment, including death-by-hanging, if that is what the Supreme Court has deemed.

“But why the double standards between Memon and Rajoana and the others” Owaisi asked, giving voice to thousands of people asking the same question.

Several people have asked another question, as to why Memon returned from Pakistan in August 1994, only a year or so after he and his pregnant wife and other members of his family fled a few days before the March 12, 1993 blasts in Mumbai. Yakub’s older brother, Tiger Memon, the key conspirator, planner and executor of the blasts and aide to Dawood Ibrahim, had left Mumbai already.

In newspaper interviews and reports over the years since that first exclusive interview by Madhu Trehan for India Today in 1994, Yakub Memon has been often asked why he returned to India?

Why, indeed?

Yakub Memon has never given a direct answer to that question. Once he told the Times of India that his brother, Tiger Memon, had warned him that there was no need to “be a Mahatma” and return home. Using a Hindi word of abuse (“ch*****ya”) Tiger had told Yakub not to be an idiot of the top order.

Rumours that there was a deal between Yakub Memon and the intelligence agencies have swirled thick and fast over the years. And now it seems, former intelligence operative B Raman, who died from cancer some years ago, has returned from the dead to retell the tale.

Writing in Rediff.com in 2007, Raman, who headed the Pakistan desk in the Research & Analysis Wing, India’s premier foreign intelligence agency, said he  coordinated the operation to bring back Yakub and other members of the Memon family from Karachi.

In July 1994, weeks before his retirement, Raman said Yakub was informally picked up in Kathmandu with the help of the Nepal police, “driven across Nepal to a town in Indian territory, flown to Delhi by an aircraft of the Aviation Research Centre and formally arrested in Old Delhi by the investigating authorities and taken into custody for interrogation. The entire operation was coordinated by me,” Raman said.

But Ujjwal Nikam and others have always stated that Yakub Memon was picked up from New Delhi railway station – Yakub swears he has never been there, and doesnt know what it even looks like.

So will the truth be buried with Yakub Memon’s impending death? That seems to be the most likely outcome. The brutal truth, as we all know it, is that dead men tell no tales.

Writer

Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra @jomalhotra

Senior Journalist & President, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), India.

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