EPW – Vol – L No. 33, August 15, 2015 | Jyoti Punwani

The hanging of Yakub Memon betrays the trust of the Indian state in his return of the wealth of information he had provided against the perpetrators of the Bombay bomb blasts of 1993.

Jyoti Punwani ([email protected]) is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer.

The flower-bedecked body being taken out of the ambulance brought home the reality—this was the man who’d come back to his own country, expecting to live as an Indian. This lifeless body was that of Yakub Memon, the man I’d never met, but whose luckless story I had been tracking ever since the death sentence was first pronounced on him in 2007.

I had not believed he would be hanged—just as he himself hadn’t.  All through his long and unfair imprisonment, until the very last day, he had believed he would go home, once the facts of his own role and his return from a protected life in Pakistan became known to the judges. Well, he did come home for sure—but as a corpse. That’s what his government had given him in return for the wealth of information he had provided  against the perpetrators of the first terrorist attack in the country, against his own brother and the ISI—information they couldn’t have got from anywhere else. This was the government’s way of repaying his trust, which made him bring back his family with him. His mother, who had also been thrown into jail, had to see him go to his grave.

“We offered him the great justice of India,’’ recalled Shantanu Sen, ex-CBI official. Our justice didn’t turn out be so great after all. In a cruel twist, Yakub Memon’s 53rd birthday was fixed for his execution, and the Supreme Court treated it as some hallowed date, preferring to hear his last petition at 2.30 am, even though that meant keeping him in suspense even as he was being readied for his execution. Why couldn’t the hearing have been fixed for the next day?

It’s not as if adjournments are unknown in the apex court. Hearings on the implementation of the Srikrishna Commission Report into Mumbai’s 1992–93 riots, which triggered  the March 1993 blasts, began in 2000. The petition is still pending; the last actual hearing was in 2008.

For me, Yakub Memon was the face of the 12 March 1993 blasts.  As a journalist, I didn’t follow the blasts. They were a simple, cowardly act of revenge against innocent Hindus by people who had taken Pakistan’s help.  Everything was black and white.

The December 1992–January 1993 riots, on the other hand, were far more complex. As the Srikrishna Commission’s hearings progressed, it became clear that these had not been Muslim–police or Muslim–Hindu riots as perceived in the popular imagination and the media. The hearings brought out, for the third time in two decades, the position of Muslims in the financial capital of the country.

When the 1970 Bhiwandi riots took place, and the Madon Commission documented linkages between the cops and the Shiv Sena, I was in school. When the 1984 Bombay–Thane–Bhiwandi riots occurred, I covered them and saw these same linkages. But now, in 1992–93, I could witness a sitting high court judge establishing the role of the government, the cops and the Sena with a patient thoroughness no journalist could match. Staying with the riots seemed important.

When the first arrests started being made of persons who claimed to have played peripheral roles in the 1993 blasts, their lawyers approached me to write about them being falsely implicated. When otherwise helpful editors refused to publish their accounts, I didn’t pursue the matter. This had, after all, been an act of religiously motivated terror. Who knew who was innocent?

When respectable Memons who could have had nothing to do with the blasts started complaining bitterly of being targeted just because of their surname, I sympathised, but didn’t feel motivated to write. Tales of torture in the Mahim police station were rife, including accounts of women who were threatened that they would be stripped if they didn’t reveal the whereabouts of their husbands; but I didn’t even try to meet these families.

For me, the blasts became a story only in 1999, when a copy of Yakub Memon’s letter to the chief justice landed on my desk.  Handwritten, it was a tale of a man driven to despair, yet unwilling to give up hope that his version would one day be heard. This was no fanatic—he’d started a chartered accountancy firm with his childhood Hindu friend. One sentence in capital letters in that long letter stood out: “WHERE WAS THE TIME TO HATE?” he asked, describing his life till the blasts.

The letter shook me, but I didn’t know what to do with it.  The blasts trial was on; who would publish it? I kept it away, thinking his lawyers would surely bring out his story in court.

Alas, they didn’t. After his sentence was pronounced, I managed to get the Times of India to publish key excerpts of his letter, but of course, that created no ripples. The story came out officially only 21 years later.

Even then,  it could have still worked for him. But the system was far too skewed against this “traitor,” as Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi called him. Would a traitor choose to return with his family to his country to face trial? A man who retained his faith in the judiciary till the very last moment—a traitor? Obviously, his surname was all that mattered to Rohatgi and those instructing him.

One only hopes that Yakub Memon knew that the country’s intelligentsia—including ex-cops—didn’t see him as a traitor, that they kept speaking up for him till the very end.

His voluntary and completely unnecessary surrender is the key to viewing Yakub Memon. Some argue that this can’t be a mitigating factor; a murderer who surrenders remains a murderer. But didn’t Swami Aseemanand’s judicial confessions of having planned the Samjhauta Express, Hyderabad and Ajmer bomb blasts, redeem him then? The difference is the Swami took back these confessions made  before two different magistrates on two different occasions a month apart; Yakub Memon stood by his word. It was his tragedy—and ours—that our government didn’t.