The life sentence handed down to Abu Salem in the March 1993 Mumbai blasts case, in which 257 people were killed, underlines the curious quality of incompleteness to the story that ushered terrorism into mass discourse in India. It is not that the key perpetrators, Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar or Ibrahim Abdul Razzak Memon, have evaded justice; bar Inderjit Singh Reyat, none of the killers of the 329 passengers on board Air India’s Kanishka, after all, was ever punished, just as the planners of 26/11 move in plain sight. It is not that the sheer scale of the outrage surpasses our imagination, either.
Though the 1993 bombings remain the most lethal attacks ever on Indian soil, measured by fatalities, India has become used to similar, grim numbers: The 2006 bombings claimed 209 lives, and 26/11 164. The slow place of the judicial process does not surprise, either: In one not unusual case, Abre Rehmat Ansari, charged with a 1993 bombing in Jaipur, was convicted in 2012, and others have been acquitted after spending even longer in prison.
The fact that the convictions continue to roll on, like a strange perpetual motion machine, with Ansari being convicted two years after co-conspirator Yakub Memon was hanged, speaks only of the dysfunctions of the Indian judicial system, and the curious character of the case, which allowed suspects to scatter across the globe. The real quality of incompleteness to this case, though, comes from the fact that there has never been a full coming to terms with the events of 1993, either at the level of politics or public culture. The bombings of 1993 did not occur in a vacuum. Their context, as the trial documents record, was the savage communal violence which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
That violence, in turn, led the organised crime cartel of Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, feeling the need to safeguard its legitimacy among Mumbai’s Muslims and increasingly dependent on the patronage of Pakistan’s intelligence services, to act.
The point here is not only that the perpetrators of the communal violence that preceded the bombings have not been punished, but that the lessons of those tragic years have not been learned. The carnage which Abu Salem helped execute was part of a cycle of hate; it has, of course, in turn, kept the wheel of violence turning, making civil society ever-more fragile. The point of justice is to punish, but also to learn. And to that second end, Abu Salem’s conviction has brought us no closer.