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Kasab’s execution was India’s best kept secret since the Pokhran nuclear tests

By Syed Nazakat and R. Prasannan

Union Home Secretary R.K. Singh missed a heartbeat when an acquaintance phoned him in his Delhi home on the evening of November 20 and said “good luck”. A short while earlier India’s Deputy High Commissioner in Islamabad, Gopal Bagley, had driven to the Pakistan foreign ministry and met the director-general for South Asia, Zehra Akbari. R.K. Singh knew that Bagley had gone there to convey the decision that Ajmal Kasab, the sole survivor among the 10 terrorists who attacked Mumbai in November 2008, would be hanged the next morning.

Had the news leaked? “Never had I seen him so worried,” an aide later told THE WEEK. There were reasons. Bagley, a man of short stature from the 1992 batch of the Indian Foreign Service, had taken two documents to pass on to Akbari, a tall lady officer from Pakistan’s 1983 foreign service batch. One was a communication addressed to the government of Pakistan from the Indian foreign office, a sort of covering letter to the other document. The main document was a letter from the superintendent of Yerwada prison in Pune, Maharashtra, addressed to a woman by name Noorie Lai of Faridkot. Through that letter, the prison officer was informing her that all the legal procedures regarding her son’s four-year-old crime and his prosecution had been completed under the Indian law; that the President of India had rejected his mercy petition; that the sentence of death by hanging, pronounced by a special sessions court and upheld by the higher courts, would be executed under the warrant of a sessions judge the next morning; and that the condemned prisoner had expressed a wish that the information be conveyed to her.

What happened at the brief meeting between Bagley and Akbari later developed into a minor diplomatic row between the two countries. The Indian foreign office claimed that Akbari “had refused to accept the communication”. “Since those missives were not accepted by the [Pakistan] foreign office, by fax we indicated the information to them,” said India’s new External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid later. “Therefore, our obligation to inform them adequately was fulfilled. We also had in our possession a particular address given by Kasab and we did convey [by courier] to that address as well the decision that had been taken.” Pakistan, on the other hand, claimed that Akbari had received the communication.

Indeed, strange communications had been going on between India and Pakistan. A few days earlier, Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik had met his Indian counterpart Sushil Kumar Shinde on the sidelines of an Interpol meeting in Rome. The flamboyant Malik had found Shinde a man of “easy manners” compared with his predecessor P. Chidambaram, as he had put it to his aides. Having got carried by the bonhomie, Malik had asked Shinde if he could visit India prior to the anniversary of 26/11 to finalise the visa agreement. Shinde, without thinking twice, had agreed.

And then on November 19, the day before Bagley called on Akbari, another communication had come from India: Could the interior minister be kind enough to postpone the visit? His Indian host would be too preoccupied with the opening of the winter session of Parliament. Pakistan had agreed. It was only now that the real reason for the strange request dawned on Akbari.

It was not the guilt of having been part of a lie that was bothering Home Secretary Singh at that moment when the ‘good luck’ phone call came. The hanging of Kasab was perhaps India’s best kept official secret since the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998. About 20 people―from the exalted head of the republic, who had signed the order rejecting the mercy petition on November 5, to two clerks in the justice department of the home ministry―had been aware of it. Had the news leaked from any one of them? Or from the Pakistan end?

As it turned out, Singh was worrying needlessly. The caller, an acquaintance, was wishing good luck to the government in general which was expected to face a stormy session in Parliament over its economic reforms.

There were few chances of the news leaking deliberately from any of the 20 people who were in the know. But the worry of Intelligence Bureau chief Nehchal Sandhu was that it could leak inadvertently while some of them were ensuring that there would be no adverse fallout after the news broke. On Sandhu’s directive all media interactions by home ministry officials in the days prior to the execution were discreetly cancelled.

R.P.N. Singh, minister of state for home, who had taken over a fortnight earlier, had planned a get-together with journalists. That was cancelled. Khurshid was to fly out to Teheran, his most important foreign tour after taking charge of the external affairs ministry. He quietly called up the Iranian ambassador, Dr S. Mehdi Nabizadeh, and asked him to convey to Teheran the need for finding an alternate date, possibly in January. The Iranians assumed that Khurshid did not want Teheran to be his first big meeting when West Asia was boiling over with Israel-Palestine tensions.

Even lawyers and law officers attached to the justice department and the Attorney-General’s office were requested to cancel their media engagements, if any, a week prior to November 26. They were told that the government was keen on a “more constructive engagement with Pakistan” and did not want too much of hoopla around the 26/11 anniversary. “Some of us got puzzled since there was no such directive in the previous years, but we thought we were trying to build an atmosphere for better relations,” said a law officer.

The file recommending that the mercy plea of Prisoner 7096 be rejected had gone from the office of the home secretary on October 16 to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. On November 5, the President formally rejected the mercy plea and forwarded the file to the home ministry. After initialling it, Singh kept it in his locker, where it remained for two days awaiting the arrival of Shinde from Rome. As soon as Shinde arrived in his office on November 7, Singh opened the locker and carried the file to the minister.
Operation X commenced the moment Shinde signed it. First, Singh sent a top secret communication to the Maharashtra home secretary, informing him of the President’s rejection of the mercy plea of Prisoner 7096, and directing him to make arrangements for obtaining a black warrant and executing the sentence. Next, Shinde called a few top officers of the justice department and security agencies, where the importance of secrecy was stressed more than the logistics, which would be taken care of by the Maharashtra government.

“We considered every possibility,” said an officer. All the meetings in the next few days were about what-ifs. Some even feared that there could be an attack on the prison itself. There were even references to the killing of [suspected terrorist] Mohammed Qateel Siddiqui inside the Yerwada jail.

Kasab had perhaps been the most ‘protected’ person in India, even more than the Prime Minister. His security had been strengthened after the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) intercepted a phone call from Pakistan on January 29, 2009 (two months after his arrest) that indicated that some Mumbai mafiosi might be hired to kill Kasab in jail. Since then, 150 commandos of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) had been guarding the Arthur Road jail where he was lodged. A special bomb-, bullet- and chemical gas-proof corridor connected his cell to the special court where the special judge M.L Tahaliani had tried him. “There were two clear security risks associated with Kasab,” said Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary of the R&AW. “One was that we were vulnerable to hostage or plane hijack. We could have then been forced to release him in exchange for passengers. Second, there was a possibility of terrorists trying to kill him.”

In such situations, an intelligence officer observed, “we work on a need-to-know basis. Those who need not know, however high they are, are not informed.” Shinde claimed later: “Secrecy had been an important aspect of the whole process. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi were not told about Kasab’s hanging date.”

Kasab was informed on November 12. He did not want to make a will or final testament, but requested that his mother, Noorie Lai, be informed. Singh conveyed it to Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, whose office took it to the Indian high commission in Islamabad. But the decision was to delay the communication till the eve of the execution for fear of a leak. It was this wish that Bagley was carrying out when he called on Akbari at the Pakistan foreign office on the eve of the execution.
Meanwhile, in Mumbai, there were other concerns. Arthur Road jail didn’t have any gallows and the nearest was the old Yerwada prison in Pune, which had housed illustrious souls like Gandhi and notorious murderers like Raman Raghav. “There was a security concern about how to shift Kasab from Mumbai to Pune,” said an officer. “The Diwali festival and the deployment of the police force across Maharashtra in the wake of the illness and subsequent death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray raised other issues.”

At one point of time, they thought of airlifting Kasab. The state government was sceptical about the use of helicopter, calling it risky. Moreover, there were procedural problems. It needed special permission from the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security to carry weapons and armed commandos on a civilian helicopter. In the end, it was decided that a core team of police officers, including Inspector-General Devan Bharti, and commandos from Force One (raised after the 26/11 terror attack) would take Kasab by road.

It was also realised that the high security presence for Diwali and around the Thackeray condition was a blessing in disguise. Any movement amidst such large deployment would not draw much attention. Finally, a convoy of seven vehicles, with armed police personnel, whose cellphones had been confiscated prior to the movement, drove Kasab down the Mumbai-Pune Expressway in the shadows of the night of November 19. They reached Yerwada three hours later. The 150 ITBP men were all in the dark. They continued to guard Arthur Road jail not knowing that their ‘protectee’ had been moved out.

In Delhi, Home Secretary Singh called a final meeting of the few in the know on the evening of November 20, the day before the execution was to be carried out, to check whether everything was in place. After others left, he asked Joint Secretary (judicial) J.L. Chugh to check whether all procedures were being followed in letter and spirit―whether the condemned prisoner was being medically examined before the hanging, about his last supper, his last wish, last bath, last prayer and recording of utterances of last words. He even checked whether there had been any request from the family for a last visit!

It was then that Singh received the call of ‘good luck’ which made him miss a few heartbeats. The next morning, around 7.45, Singh was informed that the sentence, pronounced by a court of fair trial on May 6, 2010, and confirmed by the highest court in the world’s largest and most liberal democracy, had been carried out.

A day later, Minister R.P.N Singh was allowed to have his postponed chat with the media. “It is the triumph of the Indian judicial system, which gave him enough legal aid to defend himself,” he said. “We have shown to the world and a neighbour that the Indian legal system has given a full opportunity to even a terrorist. Even a terrorist was given the opportunity to file a mercy petition. We see everyone as equal. The law is the same for everyone.”

Therein lies the noble irony. Four years ago, Kasab’s handlers had chosen November 26 as the D-Day of their crime―the day that India’s enlightened legal fraternity celebrates as the Law Day. It was on this day in 1948 that the people of India adopted and gave to themselves the world’s most liberal constitution. It gave a fair trial even to Kasab.

with Kallol Bhattacherjee

(Dec 2, 2012)

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