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The unending Faridkot mystery

November 21, 2012

Ajmal-Kasab-reu-670
Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab. — File Photo by AP

LAHORE: Ajmal Kasab, the ‘baby-faced butcher’, arrived on the scene in November 2008 and even though he was executed in a Pune jail about four years later on Wednesday, his image and his stereotype threatens to live on without being fully probed.

The criminal investigation or a lack of it apart, no serious study to understand his coming about has yet been undertaken and none is likely if the conventional and convenient methods of investigation continue to be obsessively applied.

Ajmal Kasab was the lone survivor among the 10 Mumbai attackers. In late November 2008 intelligence leaks to Indian media claimed he was a Pakistani hailing from a village named Faridkot. A search was launched by media in Pakistan and many Faridkots beckoned out of their unnoticed existence on the map. Finally, after a series of blanks, a tip from Okara in central Punjab said Ajmal Kasab’s family might be living in Faridkot village bang on the Kasur-Depalpur road, not far from Depalpur town.

An investigation by a Dawn reporter confirmed that Amir Kasab, identified by Indian media as the father of Ajmal, had indeed settled in Faridkot many years ago after arriving from nearby Haveli Lakha, and that among his children was a son who had left home some time ago.

Two Dawn journalists arrived in a neat-looking Faridkot lane in the first week of December, 2008. They were looking for the Kasab home and were met on the way by a man of medium build, clad in shalwar kameez. “Do you know someone from the Kasab family? Are they home?,” the man was asked.

“I am Kasab,” he replied. Then quickly and mechanically, he took out his identity card from his chest pocket, as if he had kept it handy for an impending identification. “Amir Kasab,” the card read.

In a few seconds, the journalists were inside Amir Kasab’s house. A pale-eyed woman sat on a charpoy, introduced to the visitors as Ajmal’s mother. Two younger women who stood by were identified as Ajmal’s sisters. Also around and visibly intrigued by the visit was a young boy in winter school uniform. He was said to be Ajmal’s younger brother.

A few hours earlier, the same journalists had found the details in the Indian media’s breaking stories on Ajmal Kasab a bit too difficult to stomach --- an example of how intelligence agencies used media to forward their own interests, how too much information gave a story-teller away. It was a story they were desperate to disprove, ready to suffer the embarrassment that awaits pursuers at the end chasing a red herring. In these stories, the attacker was painted as a poor runaway boy who, after wandering through Lahore, had met his jihadi handlers in Rawalpindi. However, in the poor and well-kempt courtyard of the Kasab family that afternoon, the probing journalists found some striking similarities between their surroundings and the bits reported in Indian media accounts of Ajmal’s confessions.

The reports said Amir Kasab was a snacks-seller in Faridkot, and now a handcart stood in one corner of the yard, stacked with steel plates and glasses washed and ready to serve. Amir said he sold pakoras in the village, a collection of quite spacious brick-houses against a background of richly cultivated fields and smoke-emitting factories that had been under-projected in the media leaks.

Much more devastating, the master of the house admitted the pictures flashed in media were his son’s. “Initially, I did not own up to this. But now I know that this is my son,” he said.

Then he sobbed and his wife’s face disappeared in the chador she had on her. The younger lot of the family looked on, as did the small crowd that had gathered inside the house, probably neighbours not all of whom were comfortable with the content of the unfolding conversation.

There were a few points which Amir Kasab adamantly denied. The media had implied that he had taken money against Ajmal’s services to the ‘handlers’ of the Mumbai attack --- an accusation that has been repeated after the execution now. “He had asked me to buy Eid clothes for him. When I refused he got angry and left,” Amir’s simple explanation said.

That was apparently the only exchange between the Kasab family of Faridkot near Depalpur and the media. Over the following hours, the village was besieged by journalists faced by a local nazim and his men determined to prevent any further prying into their lives, even if it required manhandling the nosey journalists.

One reporter working with a British paper located the Kasab name on an electoral roll. Yet, no clue was available to the whereabouts of Amir Kasab and his family. They had simply vanished from the scene.

The first reaction in Pakistan back then was to disown Ajmal Kasab. Now, amid a debate as to who should claim his body, people in Faridkot are still reluctant to admit he belonged to their village. It needed some persuasion before a couple of them shared a few bits of information with Dawn on Wednesday.

One villager said Amir Kasab and his wife had briefly been in Faridkot a few times. From among those who did acknowledge the Kasabs had once been Faridkot residents told Dawn their house had since been “rented out”. The current occupants say they have been living there for three and a half years.

The house looks the same as it did in December 2008, but an animal shed has since taken up some part of the courtyard.

The advice given by elders to the locals has been to not discuss Ajmal Kasab with anyone. A local imam masjid reportedly used the mosque’s loudspeaker to tell his audience to stay away from the affair. It is this shield of silence that greeted journalists in Faridkot as they converged on the village again looking for stories to mark Ajmal Kasab’s hanging in distant Pune.

In the days following the Faridkot revelation in 2008, Pakistan and India remained locked in a tense exchange over the identity and origins of the Mumbai attackers. Pakistan was initially reluctant to admit that Ajmal was its national as the Indian side demanded action against the “Pakistan-based” perpetrators of the terrorist act.

Then, on Dec 10, 2008, Mahmood Durrani, adviser to the prime minister, did finally accept that Ajmal was a Pakistani citizen — a disclosure that cost Durrani his job. Around the same time, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif told journalist Kim Barker of evidence which suggested that Ajmal did indeed belong to Faridkot. As the facts emerged, in time, Islamabad did shift from an outright denial to insisting on a distinction between the “state actors” and “non-state” actors, under pressure from India and the West to investigate and try Lashkar-e-Taiba men accused of masterminding Mumbai attacks.

Away from the trials and governmental standoffs, the phenomenon called Ajmal Kasab has received but only superficial attention and that too by and large from journalists working by short deadlines. The prosperous fields, the smoke-emitting mills and Amir Kasab’s own not-so-poor status have not prevented observers from looking at it from the classical poverty angle.

There is a book written by an Indian journalist which “dedicates several chapters to highlighting the Pakistani paradoxes that gave birth to Ajmal the terrorist” placing Faridkot “in an imaginary terrain existing at a distance from… civilisation”.

Task done? No need to explore any further and find out other linkages between Ajmal Kasab and his act, reasons such as enshrined in the thesis about clash between civilisations? It is this single-track approach that lends greater mystery to the affair, in the name of simplified reading and where discussion is stunted and an earnest probe is put on hold, denial comes easy. In the hush-hush of whispers Faridkot remains largely undiscovered beneath a pile of nationalist to administrative to faith-based excuses.