Maar diya jaaye ki chod diya jaaye

Originally published for the company website

When it comes to Kasab, this is a no brainer you would say. Maar diya jaaye. One of the few terrorists in the world who was caught alive, Ajmal Amir Kasab has now been in jail for around 18 months. And in this period he has been a living, breathing, unscathed reminder of the horrors of the most dramatic terror attack in the history of the world. As I write this, the Mumbai police is in deep discussion with journalists of the city to provide for unhitched and secure media coverage. Security has been increased near the Arthur Road Jail complex and by Monday there will be many more road diversions and restrictions around the area. Newsrooms are abuzz with discussions on how to carry the story, who would follow it and who are the talking heads to consult about this trial.

Everything about Kasab has till now generated a lot of curiosity. He was the one man the nation could punish for not just his acts but for the failure of important security agencies. He was the embodiment of the nation’s frustration, the living proof of why we no longer felt safe in this country. And so the brash behaviour of this 21 year old became the topic of great discussion. ‘Look at how fearlessly and remorselessly he was shooting those people at CST’, ‘He is the one who killed our brave officers’, ‘Look at how he mocks the judges at court’, these were oft repeated sentences showing our collective hatred of one man who reminded us time and again of what we lost and how we failed on 26/11. We burnt effigies, staged plays, made Ganpati pandals and did whatever we could to act out our anger towards him and the ideology he represented.

Since day one every report has been about what is going on in Kasab’s mind, what did he eat, what was he wearing, was he laughing, was he frowning, did he understand the question, has he picked up Marathi, any and every information about the kind of person the aam aadmi is never going to become. We even had people commenting on how well kept he looked, how he was ‘handsome’ (yeah right) and there was also the youngster who declared live on FM radio how she found Kasab cute and would like to meet him (Stockholm syndrome or its variant?). Notoriety after all is not exactly the opposite of popularity, its just the other side of the same coin.

The trial itself went through a lot of twists and turns. First there was no lawyer and the late Shahid Azmi had said that Kasab should be hanged without trial after declaring him a state enemy. Then a little known Anjali Waghmare came in, was spooked out by the Sena and enter Abbas Kazmi, who was later sacked for inconsistencies. And all through this time there was the push and pull between India and Pakistan about who was Kasab. There were the various confessions and retractions and allegations and counter allegations. And despite the heinous crimes, it seemed that Ajmal Kasab had also become a prime time entertainer for our voyeuristic pleasures. Every story about him fed the curiosity of a public trying to decode the mind of a terrorist. The only ones who hated every bit of it were understandably, the victims. Many of those from the lower strata of the society wondered why 31 crores were spent on him, when some of them are still waiting for the lakh or two of compensation sanctioned by government authorities.

On Monday, though it might seem to be the beginning of the end. A verdict shall be pronounced and the question Maar diya jaaye ki nahin would hopefully be answered. But the saga seems to be far from over. In a country where there is a huge gap between the sentencing and the actual punishment, this could just be the beginning of another long drawn process. The questions might shift from whether to hang him to when to hang him, where to hang him and even is there an executioner available? If there is another appeal, then the process could even get longer.

But these questions seem irrelevant to many Mumbaikars. The bigger question as always is whether this would be an exemplary verdict, which would discourage any such attacks in future. Doubtful. Or maybe the mundane question of the layman is more important, ‘Madam Kasab ko phaansi hone ke baad Arthur road ko jo one way banaya tha voh wapas se two way hoga ki nahin?’

The storm after the lull

Piece originally published on our company website

November 2008 was a dull month as far as news was concerned. The week starting 24th seemed especially so. I was down with a bleeding infection in my leg, so finally on the 26th I decided to take the day off. It was such a lean day that another colleague also took an off and it didn’t seem to matter.

I was sleeping under the influence of medicines when a source alerted about some firing in Colaba. Oh another mafia thing this must be, I thought as I forwarded the information to office and went back to sleep.

A few minutes later another source frantically called about some blast near Mazgaon. His voice was cracking with fear. As I scrambled to get more details, I felt a fear that this was going to be something ominous. Being from a small city, till now blasts and other mishaps were things I had only seen on TV. But suddenly it seemed that I was going to be out in the middle of something like that.

I feared that this could be more ominous. I called up office, though I didn’t know what assistance I could provide as I was barely able to walk. I was asked to report the next day at the crack of dawn. A feeling of desperation that I couldn’t get to work because of an ailment and also some fear as to what exactly was going on, kept me awake most of the night.

There had been firing all over. Two blasts. But it wasn’t until the hotels were under attack that it was clear that this was something really big.

It was the storm after the lull.

The first thing I remember about the morning of the 27th was waking up to the news of Hemant Karkare’s death. It was 4 in the morning and it seemed unreal. Just a few days ago while following another story I had joked about how Karkare seemed to be cagey now and didn’t answer phone calls. And he was at that time the most talked-about officer. I rushed to office and my first assignment was to gauge the mood on the streets. Were people scared or were they going about their daily business?

Mumbai seemed virtually deserted that day. Never were the major roads so empty. And I remember being the only person from Churchgate to Mahalaxmi in the ladies compartment. It was eerily empty.

For the first time, the famed resilience seemed to have crumbled. People were not just scared but completely confused about what was happening. TV sets were blaring everywhere and people glued to them like they are glued when there is an Indo-Pak match.

The same night I was sent to Nariman House. South Mumbai residential areas are generally deserted on normal nights, but this day it was scary. As I tried to locate Nariman House several locals asked me to take detours through various lanes as the bullets were flying about. The area where Nariman House is, is a maze of narrow lanes and only someone who knows the area well could have found that place out. Even residents nearby didn’t know that it was an Israeli centre. Finally I took position right across the house, near a bank whose windows had been shattered in the firing. We were very close and every time I turned to the camera, I would get this irrational fear ‘What if a bullet finds its way close to us?’ after all we had our camera lights on. But people of the area seemed to be unmindful of such fears.

At any point in the night there were around 100-200 people who were standing close to the spot, curious onlookers that the police had to fight off. There were atleast 50 of us media professionals too, from various countries scrambling for details, ducking bullets and ricochets and dodging off overly curious people. But there were also the locals who were coming at frequent intervals with tea and biscuits for the forces and media professionals.

Suddenly in the morning the police seemed to be acting strictly against anyone coming close to Nariman House. Barricades were being put up and drunk onlookers were being lathi-charged to clear them off the way. We wondered if some senior official or politician was coming to visit.

And then there was a whirring sound. After a night of scattered firing, the forces had decided on a final assault. A chopper started hovering over the building and there was deafening cross fire. We were going live with most of it though we were cautious about keeping the camera frame tight and moving constantly so that the exact location of the cops on ground would not be revealed. We tried not to give out numbers or directions. The onlookers cheered.

Standing there and witnessing the assault, one couldn’t help but feel proud of our men in uniform. It was the most dramatic visual of the entire tragedy.

Yes the media was criticised a lot for airing it too. But I still don’t have the answer to whether it should have been shown or not. TV is mostly about the here and now so one could say it could be shown, but there were other decisions, too, that could not be made in the 20-odd minutes while the helicopter air-dropped commandos. Those 20 minutes will stay with me forever, they were the first signs of hope that Mumbai though scarred, will overcome this too.

It took another day for all the operations to end and the hostages to be liberated. And it has taken us forever to try and forget the horror of what we saw then. But life moves on in Mumbai even as court trials and diplomacy take their own time to come to conclusions. A fragile fast-paced life, with no guarantees of what awaits you in the next moment – a lesson 26/11 taught me.