Death by Conspiracy
After almost a decade-long lull in state executions in India, two followed in quick succession recently. Both the capital punishments were handed out by the Supreme Court of India on the legal charge of “conspiracy”. The first “conspirator” to be executed was Mohammed Ajmal Kasab in November 2012. Kasab was the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 164 people and wounded over 300. There were almost 80 charges against Kasab who is believed to be a Pakistani national, the primary one being “conspiracy to wage war against the Government of India.” The 389-page Supreme Court judgement dwells at length on the conspiratorial element of the Mumbai attacks with statements such as “The conspiracy was as deep and large as it was vicious” and “this case has the element of conspiracy as no other case.” The judgement outlines some rather far-reaching objectives of the Mumbai attack conspiracy: “The conspiracy, in furtherance of which the attack was made, was, inter alia, to hit at India; to hit at its financial centre; to try to give rise to communal tensions and create internal strife and insurgency; to demand that India should withdraw from Kashmir; and to dictate its relations with other countries” (pg. 338). It remains unclear to me how the singular incident of the Mumbai attack, gruesome as it was, could condense within itself such a diversity of far-reaching objectives but perhaps it is in the very nature of the allegation of “conspiracy” to include within its ambit various – and as Andrew and Hugo point out, often contradictory – beliefs. Kasab’s death penalty conviction was not particularly surprising given the images that were beamed of him all over the world, toting his gun and indiscriminately shooting down people in Mumbai. There was, in his case, incontrovertible evidence of, at least, the criminal conspiracy to murder.
The second execution of Afzal Guru in early February 2013 is much more contentious. Guru was the prime accused in an attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in December 2001. Not as well known as the spectacularly chilling Mumbai attack of 2008, in this incident five armed men drove into the Parliament compound on the morning of December 13. In a gunfire that ensued, they killed 8 security guards and a gardener. All five of the attackers were also killed on the spot. Through a series of highly suspect moves, Afzal Guru who was a resident of Srinagar, Kashmir was tracked down by the Indian police and declared a key conspirator of the Parliament attack. The procedural lapses and the thin and contradictory evidence used to prove and charge Guru with “conspiracy” is evident in the Supreme Court judgement itself. I will leave aside this judgements detailed discussion on the law of conspiracy – its definition, essential features and proof (Paragraph 12) – for another day. At the moment, its worth pointing to an excellent analysis by the Booker prize winning author and activist Arundhati Roy on how the hanging of Guru constitutes a stain on India’s democracy. As Roy points out here, the judgement notes “as is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.” Yet, in a shocking move it overlooked this lack of concrete evidence of the guilt of Afzal Guru and the numerous other questions about the attack that remain and went on to award (if that is the word) capital punishment in order to assuage the “collective conscience” of a nation that had been shaken by this attack on its central democratic institution. “Conspiracy” as a legal category with its easy power to confer death and its fraught history in post-colonial settings such as India, then, challenges our liberal imagination of the operation of systems of justice within (supposed) democracies.