The Politics of Life and Death

“What was at issue was not whether the prison environment was too harsh or too aseptic, too primitive or too efficient, but it’s very materiality as an instrument and vector of power it is this whole technology of power over the body that the technology of the ‘soul’ – that of the educationalists, psychologists and psychiatrists- fails either to conceal or to compensate, for the simple reason that it is one of its tools. I would like to write the history of this prison, with all the political investments of the body that it gathers together in its closed architecture.”

-Michel Foucault in his book Surveiller et punir Naissance de la Prison (Discipline and Punish) published in 1975.

The Overture

Life imprisonment, death sentence, penalty and other forms of punishment by many judicial systems of the contemporary world clearly establishes the idea of justice. Justice as we know has two parties, the person who violates the law and the person who is a victim of it.

The Mumbai blasts on March 12, 1993 is one such case. It was a Friday and a series of twelve bomb explosions took place in the city. 250 dead and more than 700 injured. The blasts were carried out by gangster and organised crime lord Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar and Tiger Memon and his younger brother Yakub Memon, his subordinates. Dawood escaped the country and so did the rest. But, Yakub was nabbed by CBI in New Delhi (contested) in 1994 and was caught with certain evidences which would later put him to trouble.

Along with 100 other accused, Yakub Abdul Razak Memon too was declared a convict by the Designated Court under TADA Prevention Act of 1987. Yakub was accused of criminal conspiracy, funding & carrying out a terrorist attack, illegal possession of arms & explosives and murder. He was sentenced to death and life imprisonment.

The Supreme Court of India also denied the appeal of Yakub Memon against his conviction on March 21, 2013. Yakub’s attempt at reversing the death sentence failed even after open court review petition and a death warrant was issued to him on July 21, 2015. Even, fresh writ petitions and a mercy petition to President Pranab Mukherjee were declined and Yakub’s fate was sealed on July 30, 2015. It was also his 53rd birthday.

The Act of Killing

Michael Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish, speaks how torture in prison and punishment evolved as system to gain power. In the first chapter named Torture, he theorises how physical body is a subject of punishment and punishment very clearly distinguishes the powerful and the powerless.

Foucault was equating the idea of a judicial system to the idea of powerful and powerless. The case might have been true then, for such was the situation in French and European political affairs. However, the political discourse over justice and punishment, especially death penalty continues to bring out the contrasting views, whether it is truly justice or an assertion of power.

An article co-authored by Rashmi Rajput and Vivek Deshpande in The Indian Express dated July 31, 2015 read “And They Hanged Yakub Memon”. In the pretence of reportage, the report falls into the melancholic details of a convict’s life. The headline blatantly and openly endorsed the innocence of the convict and pushed the weight of his death on to the judiciary’s shoulder.

“If they are punishing me for the sins of my brother, then I accept this verdict. But if they are punishing me because they think I was guilty, then it is wrong. I am innocent.”

The article not once reiterated the fact that Yakub Memom was involved in the 1993 bomb blasts. It took an ideological detour with a facade of reportage. Instead, it selectively took quotes to justify its perspective.

An essay titled “Yakub Memon’s execution” appeared in the Frontline dated September 18, 2015. A.G. Noorani author of the essay, a historian and lawyer writes-

“On that day, Yakub Memon was executed. The same day last year, Maya Kodnani was released from jail. Just three years ago, Ms Kodnani was sentenced to prison for 28 years for her role in an attack in Gujarat that left at least 94 people, all Muslims, dead during riots in 2002.”

It is not false that the 1993 bomb blasts came as reaction to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid of Ayodhya. But, the author who blames the frenzy Karsevaks in Ayodhya for rioting should also equally give Yakub and his fellow brethrens the credit for the ruthless killing of more than 250 people in Mumbai by carrying the out the twelve serial bomb blasts.

The cover story of Frontline dated August 21, 2015 begins with the quote of Yakub Memon after the final judgement given by the Supreme Court.

“OH my lord—forgive this man for he knows not what he does. Let me out of this place,” shouted Yakub Memon when the judge, P.D Kode, read out his death sentence on July 26, 2007.”

The article by Anupama Katakam again paints the picture of the convict as a person completely filled with redemption. The media in an attempt politically gratify their innuendos fell in a trap of overlooking the heinous crime that Yakub had committed. A mere acknowledgment of crime from the best editorial boards and newsrooms were completely in absentia.

The above discourse was also hugely debarred from the pockets of certain media. Swarajya, a magazine dedicated to the liberal-ring wing thinking in India published an article by Sudipto Das. The opposite views also fell into the trap of polemics by branding the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyer and others, the only reason being they had contradictory view.

“Mani Shankar seems to have a penchant for such things like glorifying terrorists. He saw the Charlie Hebdo attack as an obvious backlash to the west’s war on terror. And he is not alone, perhaps, in undermining an act of terror as an “obvious backlash”.  

The article further takes the argument of equating and debating that Babu Bajrangi’s involvement in the Gujarat riots was not as grave as Yakub’s involvement in Mumbai.

T.V. channels like Times Now and the social media drove completely against Yakub Memon. Social media ran campaigns for his execution and public figures like Ratan Sharada, Arnab Goswami, R.Jaganathan spoke for the judicial decision.

The Harmony

What the media again failed to understand in this case was to look at the case in its pure form of jurisprudence. It overlooked the case itself and the body that governed it. The rhetoric of politics took over and the case was once again driven by the polemical ideas of certain ideologues and their perspectives. It also engaged with the mass opinions of every person on social media who had a view on the case. The media either looked at demagogues who were appealing for his head based on emotions or endorsed the superfluous writers who in their own regard defended Yakub’s clemency. They, like Foucault also were knocked down by the powerful-powerless debate failing to see how traumatising the event actually was for the common man. The case was another example of how a public damage was turned into a systemic flaw for decades and was then again part of the political harmony.



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