An imagined interview with Ajmal Kasab
Having worked through the top echelons of the Indian government and after biting my nails for three months, the government finally acceded to my request for an interview with Ajmal Amir Kasab, the terrorist captured alive during 26/11. The meeting came barely days before his trial was to have begun.
As an idea, such an interview was the equivalent of making an elephant pass through a needle hole, but still worth a try, I thought. During the process of obtaining permission, I was asked to also explain why I wanted to interview Kasab in the first place.
The letter from the ministry of ****, which bore typical turns of bureaucratic phrases, succinctly stated: “Your request to meet accused in the Mumbai terrorist attacks Ajmal Amir Kasab cannot be granted for reasons of security and national interest. However, the government would want to know why you are desirous of meeting him. You are hereby directed to state your position in writing to Mr **** in the ministry of **** within seven days upon receipt of this notice.”
The last line of the letter came as a flicker of hope, a sign I did not miss. I had to explain forcefully, I thought, the reason why I was keen on meeting a terrorist. I would want to challenge India’s most hated prisoner to a theological contest. This was what finally paved the way.
The riders, which the government’s permission came with, barred me from making public the numerous conditions I was required to meet. But one of the conditions I could write about was that I needed to run my piece past the government. I did, and the authorities miraculously didn’t recoil at what came out of the meeting.
Cut to Arthur Road Jail, Mumbai. The gates were flung open sharp at 9 a.m. I am oath-bound not to mention the exact date or paint a picture of the interiors of the jail and the jail officials who led me to Kasab’s dungeon, where he was seated on a mat.
It was a very small chamber, is all I can say. But it wasn’t hellish either. I mean, provided one got to eat and defecate, one could remain physically healthy. What such solitary confinement could do to one’s mental health, I do not know.
As the small iron door was opened, Kasab blinked but did not move. He was surely surprised, I could make out, by this unscheduled and untimely opening of his cell door.
A senior official who accompanied me as my chaperon introduced me briefly and told Kasab he was under no legal compulsion to oblige me.
I was now confronted with one of the 10 terrorists who had embarked on deadly raids across India’s financial heart on November 26, 2008, claiming 166 innocent lives. For me this was going to be no ordinary tête-à-tête. Here’s what I did not know: it was to be the same for Kasab.
The man looked fresh and his face had a fine line streaking across the left cheek, something that usually appears when one sleeps tight and skin is pressed against the bed in a particular position for a long period.
Kasab was still seated on the floor and leaning against the wall, unmoved. If expressions were anything to go by, this sudden break in monotony had made him visibly happy.
My first words to Kasab: “Since you have agreed to talk, please be clear that in my opinion, you are a terrorist. I am here to challenge you to an Islamic debate. If you can prove to me that your path is Islamic and right, I will help you. But if I prove to you that your path is un-Islamic and wrong, then you will have to help me. You will have to help me by making an appeal to all jihadis to shun violence.”
Kasab’s first words to me: “Assalam-wa-alai-kum.”
“What did you say? Can you come up again?” I reply back.
“Assalam-wa-alai-kum,” Kasab says, again.
“What does it mean?” I ask him, as he looked surprised that I had not replied back with a “wa-alai-kum assalam” as is traditionally said.
“It’s surprising you are a Muslim and don’t know what assalam-wa-alai-kum means. It means ‘peace be upon you’,” Kasab quips.
“You must be joking,” I tell him. “How can peace be upon me when you come in with Ak-56s and bags full of bombs and kill our people who have done nothing to harm you?”
I then ask: “Have you studied in a madrassah?” “Yes, but I dropped out early?” comes the answer.
“So you haven’t learnt the Quran, its commentaries, meanings and various interpretations? You are uneducated, even in the Islamic sense.” I tell him.
“Yes,” pat comes the answer.
I quote Kasab Chapter 5 of the Quran: “Whosoever takes an innocent life, it is as if he killed entire humanity and whosoever saves a life, it is as if he saved entire humanity.”
A gruffly Kasab then tells me: “But isn’t India an enemy of Islam and Muslims?”
“No” I tell him. “Could Muslims have become Presidents of India if that were to be so. Do you know there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan?
Kasab’s jaws drop. Then over the next two hours, argument after argument followed. About 100 interpretations of the Quran were showed to him. Every argument landed on him like a bombshell.
The terrorist was astonished to learn the findings of a worldwide Gallup Poll of Muslims I showed him, though he made me swear in the name of Allah that such a survey was indeed conducted.
I told Kasab that the survey, conducted by the Gallup polling agency over six years and three continents, sought to dispel the belief held by some in the West that Islam itself is the driving force of radicalism. (For the Gallup survey, go here)
I also told him the survey proved that the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemned the 9/11 attacks, and “other subsequent terrorist attacks”.
I also told him that according to the survey “about 93 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven per cent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews”.
So many Muslims can’t be wrong, I told Kasab.
The terrorist by now was a shadow of his earlier self.
He refused to make an appeal to jihadis himself to give up violence but instead asked me to do so on his behalf.
“Please tell them that Allah doesn’t allow killing of innocents. I was wrong. Tell your government to sentence me soon enough. I will die of loneliness if not anything else. Also, please tell your government to provide me non-vegetarian food at least once a week.”