The State Playing God and Magician – Thoughts after Yakub Memon’s Death: Sharib Ali

Guest Post by Sharib Ali

With a finality that only history possesses, Yakub Abdul Razak Menon, an accused in the Bombay blast case, has transformed for many over the last few days, including me, into just Yakub. His name pronounced with a deep felt sadness that has come to characterize so many of our days. Days leading to terrible, terrible nights.
It is indeed sad, when a criminal -a sauve 20 year old looking for a way out- is, in death, turned into a rallying symbol of injustice. Flowing white beard, and a bloated body, suddenly turned around into an idea draped in flowers, garlanded, and marched on the shoulders of thousands of men through narrow streets- in complete silence. There were whispers, though, in the sweltering heat of bodies. But the pact was made. There would be no sloganeering. The state was there- to keep peace, no less. And it did what it does best: lined the streets with policemen. The policemen were out there defending a strange paradox: That it is right to kill to punish those who kill, so that others are deterred from killing. Stithi niyantran mein hai, still, they said. The rest, were silent.

As many times before, the line between criminals and martyrs has been deliberately blurred in the fragmented imagination of our new republic. To an extant that all collective meaning is almost entirely lost. What remains, however, is a question to be asked: can any state take that kind of silence? Hold it within the celebrated paradox of its GDP? A silence so deafening in its deeply shared sense of persecution?
A silence of thousands who had come to the funeral, almost pulled, all the way from Mira road, Kalyan, Dongri etc. Young and old were drawn to the funeral of someone whom they had never known, whose existence just didn’t matter (to many), and who (many might have thought) was no good to start with.
How was it that this spectacular affirmation of the shared predicament of their lives, came to be offered in response to the death of a person who was accused of terrible things?
And how did the state manage to prepare the grounds for this gesture – for this wonderful act. The process is so stupid and tragic at the same time, that it leaves the blood curling (Something so stupid and tragic at the same time{just to keep the flow. Otherwise, go ahead with ‘the process is…}). Perhaps only Beethoven could have pulled off something similar. After all, he is reported to have said, ‘Friends, applaud, the comedy is over’. And then he died.
But why are we sad tonight? Like so many others. Are we feeling what Yakub’s family is feeling? It doesn’t seems so. Or are we feeling –  (as an ABVP fellow attempting to disrupt a candle light protest against Yakub’s hanging at TISS  in Mumbai pointed out, with what he must have thought was irony)  – like those who lost their families in the blasts?
There is a possibility that the two trajectories of grief that marked Yakub’s family and the victims of the 1993 bomb blast would have met at some point or the other. They have both probably traversed similar circle s- and, here, don’t let the media fool you.
As Jyoti Punyani pointed out, the only redeeming factor of the whole episode is that so many of the best of us have stood firmly against it. And we are saddened not only because of Yakub’s (and Yakub’s family’s) personal suffering, but by the injustice that confronts us, especially when it comes wrapped as justice itself.
It’s a nagging idea of how, every time, as a state we shed blood, we mark a departure- departures that are real in nature, from where there is no turning back., from all the things that we say we believe in. Blood, I suppose still has value. And when blood is served on an altar of justice, you know, as a people, it’s time to mourn. For somewhere, something is deeply wrong in the way we are doing things. We are saddened at the appearance of this realization- and the jubilation that we see all around us. The persistent chants ‘kill kill’, where our bloodlust has been telecasted live over the last few days. And celebrated. The night (or early morning), when Yakub was hanged will go down in my memory as the time when our most persistent fears confronted us. In the public spectacle surrounding the hanging of Yakub, we are beset with doubts: who is mad? Could it be us ?
The Magician: anger, and prejudice
The civil rights activist P. Sebastian, who passed away recently, had pointed out to us, how, what took place in 1992- in the demolition of a long forgotten mosque- was a break in the pact that the state made with its Muslim citizens. An almost apocalyptic departure from what was promised in the founding of the state – the idea of equality before the law, of freedom, peace, and a sense of collective life. In the following riots, K.G Kannabiran had something parallel to say.
Speaking in the first person, as an imaginary man whom he chose to call Salman Khan (no relation to the movie star of the same name)  What Kannabiran said (and here I paraphrase him)  –  when the state abrogated its duty to protect its citizens, when two thousand of my mother’s community were killed over a matter of days; when the state, in its absence, participated in the horrendous violence that burnt a city; I grew afraid. To protect myself, I picked up a gun and kept it safe in my locker. Just in case, you know. I never used it.

“Tell me”, said Kannabiran, posing as an imaginary lawyer for an imagined Salman Khan, “what exactly, is my crime? How am I supposed to protect myself when the state is in absentia?”
In the long aftermath of the Bombay Blasts (which were a response to the killings of 92) however, the state has not been  absent. ‘Justice’ was served, they say. In the death of Yakub, the blasts were relived and commemorated as a national tragedy. The ‘attack on the parliament’ was similarly commemorated, when Afzal Guru was hanged. History, like always, was exiled to a later date, lost within the legalities of it all. It is no surprise that in the moment of their death both Afzal and Yakub became symbols of two entirely opposite discourses, their bodies violently hanging in between: of the states attempt to legitimize the discourse of Muslims as terrorists, and a minority’s sense of the state’s prejudice against it.

The state’s pathological disorder: killing Yakub

Lets turn, briefly, to Savoj Zizek to understand this prejudice.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina stuck parts of the United states and destroyed major parts of the coast, . A greater tragedy took place after the event: a disintegration of the social order, especially in New Orleans, populated to a large extent by African-Americans, erupted into an orgy of violence, rape and looting. The media reported it widely, and this was echoed even in official reports. (Perhaps it is time for us to take note of the parallel circumstances of African Americans in the USA and Muslims in India, especially when it comes to figures for incarceration etc.)
There, even Superintendent Eddie Compass of the New Orleans police department told reporters  saying ‘the tourists are walking down there, and as soon as these individuals see them, they are being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets’.
A majority of these report later turned out to be false, including the police officer’s statement about ‘tourists’ being preyed upon and raped. What was true, however, was that there were some incidents of looting. Looting did begin after the hurricane and it ranged from base thievery to foraging for the basic necessities of life.
Place the parallels and ask what Zizek asks: what was it that turned the limited reality of crimes that took place after the hurricane into ‘the spectre of an explosion of black violence, of tourists killed on streets that had slid into anarchy, in a superdome rife with gangs raping women and children? What was it that made the Nazi discourse on Jews ‘untrue’ even if the rich Jews in the Germany of the early 1930’s ‘exploited the german worker, seduced their daughter, [and] dominated the popular press?’
Answer: the state’s conception of the violence is a pathological ideological response, since, ‘what motivated these stories was not facts, but racist prejudices. The discourse of terrorism in India thrives exactly on that- irrespective of reality of crimes by Muslims or others. And the hanging is a commemoration, so that finally you could sit back and say-‘you see, Muslims are really like that, violent jihadists under the thin layer of civilization. Let’s hang them!”
It needs to be said that Yakub’s hanging was motivated by prejudice, not by facts. The rest – the legality of it all, the hiding behind sections, Justice Dave’s invocation of the Manu Smriti on how a king should punish, the evocation of the collective conscience by judges the deployment of 35000 policemen, the primetime debates where blood was repeatedly demanded- all these are footnotes to how prejudice has been raised and fed like a beast, how it has been brought inside our homes. We are now being asked to worship this beast.
The beast is not done yet. The magicians trick is not yet complete. As in hundreds of terror cases across the country, there is something sinister that has happened, and is happening. Visible in the videos of the Gujarat riots and the Babri Masjid that have formed the crux of the “incriminating material” that the prosecution has forwarded to support its cases of conspiracy- of how a community is waging its war, and why. In case after case it is the same: allegations of young men holding secret meeting in the privacy of their homes, in mosques, or sometimes in isolated graveyards, distributing images of the demolition of Babri Masjid, or ‘horrific videos of Gujarat riots’. Pick up any conspiracy charge-sheet out of hundreds over the last 10 years and you will find the same motif – the confiscated hard disks contains the same material.  The magazines are the same, the inflammatory articles of the same, and the inflammatory speeches outside mosques and in alleged SIMI meetings are the same. All are attempts, in police speak,‘ to disseminate the information referred above to cause communal hatredness and assertion prejudicial to national integration…in order to incite the feelings of other castes to wreck their vengeance on Hindu peoples…”. And that’s just from the Belgaum conspiracy chargesheet of 2008.

The trick is just about to get completed. It is here that the state as magician takes the stage. And transforms, in a brilliant sleight of hand, the material reality of violence against a community, acts of national shame- into evidence of their guilt. Take a bow. And hang a few.
Showing the middle finger to the State
Can states manufacture faces of pure terror to hang them? Is there a nagging similarity between Yakub Memon and Dzokhar Tsarnaev- the 19 year old, pimple faced kid who was just given death for the Boston bombings of 2013?
There is a poignant moment in the trial which, suddenly, gives us a glimpse into what ‘state prosecution’ has become today. The state as prosecutor, its voice hovering, in an immense pretense of collective conscience.
In the 2013 boston marathon bombing, two Americans of Chechen origin- the Tsarnaev brothers – were convicted of the crime. Though the elder brother was killed during the investigation, the younger brother, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, all of 19 year old at that time, confessed to helping his brother, and was convicted of all charges.
In the sentencing phase, the jury had one task: to decide whether Tsarnaev should be spending the rest of his life in a maximum security prison or be put to death. Tsarnaev’s entire defence rested on his young age and the influence that the elder brother had on him- the premise on which his defence lawyers sought to dissuade the judge from awarding him the death penalty.
In the most crucial phase during sentencing, with the federal prosecution pushing for the death penalty, they produced a picture in the courtroom that drew collective gasps from all- Tsarnaev showing the middle finger to the surveillance camera in his cell, his face zoomed in, grotesque, at once creating an image that was dehumanizing and monstrous. Rage and hatred mixed in a grainy photo and directed at the viewer. The argument was simple, and the image was supposed to do what the crime couldn’t- convince the jury that even three months after such an atrocious act, Tsarnaev lacked any remorse or any other emotion that made him human. He was evil and he needed to be put to death.
A full day after the photo was paraded in the courtroom, when the defence examined the clip it turned out to be something else entirely. Instead of a calculated scorn directed at the camera, the 37s clip showed a bored Tsarnaev mildly amusing himself by using the surveillance camera as a sort of mirror- patting at his hair, and holding several gestures including the V sign. The middle finger was the most fleeting of them all.
The significance is enormous. The prosecution deliberately hid the video. Instead it culled from it- in bad faith- an image of Tsarnaev as an evil terrorist. It manufactured what it wanted to believe and wanted to hang him for it.
What happened with Yakub over the last 20 years was somewhat similar. And it is fitting that the one to lament was B. Raman himself who had coordinated the operation to bring Yakub back. He maintained the crucial co-operation of Yakub in the investigation, as well as his arranged arrest- mitigating circumstance- seems to have been hidden by the prosecution in their urge to secure death penalty.

The State as God
What is it, that is so deeply saddening about a people who are delirious with joy in such an act of killing? For, if you can kill those who kill, can you rape those who rape? And how, ultimately, as Talal Asad has aked us, do you threaten with death, those who seek to embrace it?
The state is trying to play God, in such atheist times. Killing a man on the day of his birth. It is fitting irony that the last words of Yakub to his wife were-‘ I have faith in God’. A marked shift from what he has been saying for 20 years: ‘I have faith in India’s judiciary’.
But this, too, shall pass. As shall, slowly, departure by departure, an idea of us.
Sharib Ali is researcher of terror cases. He is with Quill Foundation, Delhi.

3 thoughts on “The State Playing God and Magician – Thoughts after Yakub Memon’s Death: Sharib Ali”

  1. No words, just pain…it is like reliving the final countdown on yakub’s death. Though there has been a dance of death led by the Indian state in Chattisgarh and one has listened to detailed accounts of it in absolute disbelief and numbness but its still so painful to take yakub’s death by hanging. What did the state achieve through this? may be more brutalization in society at large and fear and anger for a section of this country. It tried to act as God but failed precisely because it can not redeem or undo its act of killing yakub. Sahrib Ali is right, In his death yakub memon became yakub; his alleged act being lost in the overwhelming nature of unjustness of his death sentence.


  2. “..Justice Dave’s invocation of the Manu Smriti……..”
    And now, it turns out from a press report that Justice Dave is among those judges who figure in the list of Gujarat Judges who benefited from allotment of plots of land from Gujarat Govt.when Narendra Modi was CM of Gujarat. A matter in which two retired High Court Judges have filed a petition seeking that the allotment should be declared illegal, quashed, and any structures built thereon should be demolished. I hope justice is done in this case as well as it was supposedly done in those other famous matters by Justice Dave’s bench.”


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