City City Bang Bang, Columns

Why Justice Needs to Be Blind

It has taken 17 months but the verdict is out and most of India has heaved a sigh of relief. Kasab is to die for his role in 26/11. But far from providing any sense of finality, a new debate is raging these days. Should the sentence have to wait its turn to be carried out, considering that could take a minimum of 12 months and perhaps much more? That does not seem to correspond with the outpouring of anger that a lot of people feel towards the sole surviving terrorist responsible for the brutal massacre of so many innocents. In fact, there are people who argue that he should be executed immediately and publicly. Already, Kasab’s trial has tested the patience of this group and the reports of his ‘enjoying tandoori chicken’ while undergoing the trial have served to aggravate the nagging sense of frustration and anger. Given that his crime was so public and heinous, the trial itself has seemed like a farcical and cruel spectacle on which crores were being wasted.

On the other side, we have voices that argue that killing Kasab will reduce us to the level of the terrorist. Of course, he must be punished, but killing him would only serve to continue the chain of violence. Civilisation will triumph, this argument goes, if we were to show mercy. For some, this verdict becomes another reason to argue against the death penalty itself as being barbaric and anachronistic.

In some ways, Kasab’s death is by itself, a trivial issue. Having entered India on a suicide mission, his death was a forgone conclusion. That he lived was an accident, and had he perished as all his other accomplices did, we would never have heard of him as indeed as we haven’t of the others who were killed. The only real issue here is how we choose to react to Kasab and what it says about our sense of justice.

Kasab represents the only means we have of responding tangibly to what happened 17 months ago. An entire nation watched in white knuckled rage as a small group of armed killers went about butchering people randomly. They struck at the heart of the Indian financial capital and made us look ridiculously helpless. We seethed in impotent anger, having no means of striking back. After a few frustrating weeks of rattling sabres against Pakistan and lashing out at politicians, we settled into the bitter aftermath of rage, tongues acid with the lingering sense of defeat. And as the trial dragged on, the absurdity of trying to prove what we all saw and could not forget gave our ire a raw edge that kept spilling over.

Now that the judgment has come, which way should we go? Perhaps this is the time to go back to the idea of justice and how we have come to frame its practice in our lives. We step outside the human frame and play God when we deliver justice and the knowledge of the enormity of our presumptions colours the way we enact justice. We create a set of rules that constructs a willful blindness to the emotional context of the crime in question. Justice does not, at least in concept, distinguish between the rich and poor, high and low, man and woman and so on. It invents an arithmetic of carefully calibrated violence, that seeks to create a set of countervailing consequences for those that violate the laws we have formulated.

Justice is blind because it needs to be; otherwise it would see too much. It needs to be detached from too much context. Just as it does not spare the guilty whatever their station in life, it does not punish anyone more than what is prescribed. We can only kill Kasab once. The problem in this case is not whether Kasab hangs but that even if he does, that is not good enough for us. What we are baying for is beyond the means of a court to deliver. We want a primitive form of reciprocal violence and this is not a form of justice that civilised societies understand and are able to practice. We want blood soaked revenge while the court only delivers its more sterile and epilated cousin- a form of bureaucratised justice.

Our anger needs to be expressed. This is one of those times where intemperate words and bloody violent thoughts are natural. That is the only catharsis that is available to us. When we rail at venal politicians at declare that ‘these rascals should be all shot’ we don’t really mean it literally. We need the comfort that the violence in these words provides us, but we don’t need to enact this anger in any other form. To convert this rage into any form of action is misguided, because apart from everything else, it is doomed to fail. Justice, in this case more than any other needs to be resolutely blind and do everything by the book.

This is not the time to argue about the validity of the death sentence or try and make a symbol of civilisation out of Kasab. Exercising discretion of any kind, whether it is by way of added violence or mercy, is an act of playing God. Instead this is the time to follow the letter of the law. This is what the law has been designed for- to protect us from evil, not only from without but also from the darkness that lurks inside each of us. We can give ourselves the right to take action against those we call offenders only because we do so in a detached way. Justice delivered with emotion becomes a primitive form of bloodletting. The law allows us to separate words and feelings from actions. We can rail, we can bay for blood, we can send anguished and angry letters to columnists, but we should not change the law in the slightest way for Kasab. That is the only way. It is not satisfying, but then in a situation like this, there can be no satisfaction.