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A hanging in Thackerayistan

Sunday, 25 November 2012 - 12:47pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Many of you might scoff and say, well what do I have to worry about, the death penalty is for terrorists and other bad people. You anti-intellectual: go read Kafka and Orwell, and then resume scoffing.

Since joining DNA in January 2011, I have come around to the fact that I like living in Bombay. It’s not something you realize one fine morning; Bombay is not the warmest of cities, it stinks (literally), and it costs an arm and a leg. Also, for someone who lived in the South for four years, Bombay is disappointing in its range of bookshops; you’d think it prided itself on some kind of smug anti-intellectualism (like some of its newspapers). Yet you find yourself easily slipping into the rhythms of this polyrhythmic city. It becomes home.

Perhaps this notion of home makes people say things like "I’m not for the death penalty, except in Kasab’s case". This is an illogical statement. Either be against the principle or for it; exceptions are for rules, not principles. Then there is the old pragmatic argument, backed up by the entire evidence of human history, that the death penalty never stopped a crime. Third, there’s what our mothers taught us: two wrongs don’t make a right. Within that motherly wisdom is an abstract, political warning: giving the machinery of the state the power to take life is a slippery slope.

Many of you might scoff and say, well what do I have to worry about, the death penalty is for terrorists and other bad people. You anti-intellectual: go read Kafka and Orwell, and then resume scoffing.

Yes, many of you feel outraged; after all, Kasab broke into your house, the one called Bombay, along with other terrorists in the dark of night and held it hostage for days, in the process killing both the rich and the modest. You feel someone has to pay the highest price possible. If it was the case that someone had to be taught a lesson and public anger had to be assuaged, then why do it in secrecy? Why not a public execution in Wankhede Stadium? No, that would that make us too much like the Taliban’s Kabul government of the late ’90s. So, basically, the only thing that differentiates us from the Taliban is that we do our dirty work in secret.

Some Bombay-ites have even said, on their social media walls, that Kasab’s execution sends "the right message". Hmm. The only message I see to other jihadis is that they are assured of martyrdom if they attack Bombay again. So the execution wasn’t a deterrent but perhaps material for recruitment; we turned Kasab into a poster-boy for jihadis. Good job.

In any case, this outrage about Kasab rings false, seeing the acquiescence Bombay-ites gave to the other man who departed this past week, Balasaheb Thackeray. If you go to New York, another of this planet’s great cities which is somewhat comparable to Bombay, you are greeted by the Statue of Liberty, who tells the world on behalf of America: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…" Thackeray, to the rest of India, sent the opposite message: "Stay out of my house!" Maybe that’s why Liberty is a lady while Thackeray was a crotchety old man; he was the opposite of Liberty. Like the Taliban.

You could argue that Thackeray was just posturing. But political posturing is the sort of thing that the UPA-2 does: thinking that hanging Kasab is going to garner votes during the next elections (though the voters seem to have already moved on), or allowing Thackeray to have a funeral with state honours and then acting as if it frowned upon such a decision. This hollowness will not elude the voter.

No, I think the Thackeray mind-set is genuine. Soon after I arrived in Bombay, I met Raj Thackeray at his Shivaji Park residence. The first thing he asked me was: "Why are there are so many Bengalis in journalism?" I informed him that I was not a Bengali but a Bihari. (To his credit, he didn’t bat an eyelid.)

To be fair to those who want no truck with Thackeray but still feel Kasab got what was coming, I too experienced a numbing moment during my first ever visit to the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel. The latter is such a grand, iconic structure that the horror of 26/11 becomes as overwhelming as the loss felt during a visit to NY’s World Trade Centre in the years immediately after 9/11. For Kasab to have come here, to our home, and done this was inexcusably evil. But then, what is more evil than taking life, no matter who does it?

And perhaps Bombay-ites can’t help these feelings, this silent acquiescence of Thackeray and approval of execution; perhaps it’s in their DNA. After all, the Gateway was erected for different reasons than Lady Liberty. It is time this great city got itself better symbolism. But if it doesn’t, then don’t worry. We who live in Bombay are used to the noise and the filth and the smell, and the anti-intellectual justification for it all. We just look the other way.

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