Hindu-Muslim feelings raw as India awaits Yakub Memon hanging

Mr. Memon is the brother of the key suspect in the deadly 1993 Mumbai stock market bombing. After more than 20 years in jail he is scheduled to be executed July 30. As of Tuesday, only a grant of clemency from the Indian president is left for appeal. Many Indians consider him a political scapegoat. 

Tsering Topgyal/AP
Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) activists carry placards with photographs of 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon during a protest outside the Maharashtra House demanding abolition of death penalty in New Delhi, India, Monday, July 27.

India is absorbed, as the clock ticks, with the fate of high-profile death row inmate Yakub Memon, scheduled to be hanged on Thursday for his role in the 1993 Mumbai stock exchange bombings. 

With a final rejection today by India's Supreme Court, Mr. Memon's execution tomorrow seems set. 

Mr. Memon was convicted in 2007 for helping to raise funds for the bombings, some 13 blasts that killed 257 people and was itself retribution for riots months earlier by Hindu's against Muslims that left 900 people dead, most of them Muslims, and became a huge story in India for much of the 1990s. 

For some, the rarely invoked death penalty is deserved justice for participation in a notorious crime. Others see Memon as a scapegoat being exploited by those who want to profit from ongoing ethnic and religious hatreds.

To be sure, Memon’s case is controversial for reasons that reach far beyond the death penalty: It runs deeply into Hindu-Muslim divides and is reawakening sentiments from a period that witnessed the rise of communal tensions and the emergence of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party now in power under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. [Editor's note: An earlier version misstated Mr. Modi's job title.

The Babri Masjid case

The Mumbai bombings themselves came as payback for the destruction four months earlier by Hindu mobs of the 454-year-old Babri Masjid, a mosque said by legend to be built on top of an ancient Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh state. Hindus claim Ayodhya as the birthplace of one of their gods, Rama.

The Babri destruction was the first violent provocation by Hindu hardliners in years and shocked the Indian mainstream. The event led to riots in most major cities and the death of nearly 2,000 people. It is also widely seen today as the launch point of a broad new Hindu nationalist movement known as the Sang Parivar.

In the subsequent Mumbai bombings, Indian investigators accused two top wanted underworld gangsters, Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, of being the key conspirators behind the blasts. They also accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency of helping the attackers.

But neither suspect has ever been found. And in 1994 Yakub Memon, the younger brother of Tiger Memon, an accountant by trade, gave himself up, or was arrested – the stories clash -- in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Today a two-judge court heard a plea by Memon's to stay the execution. But only one judge agreed. The matter is now with the chief justice of India.

Power of mercy? 

This week, a letter signed by hundreds of prominent Indian citizens including well-known jurists, authors, and Bollywood figures called for a grant of mercy. While India cannot tolerate acts of terrorism, it read, “as a nation we are committed to equal application of the power of mercy and values of forgiveness, and justice.”

The election of the BJP in the late 1990s brought communal tensions to a head, but under the Congress Party during the 2000s, those eased. Since the re-election of the Modi-led BJP, strains have reemerged, and while the Memon case itself is not a watershed, it is garnering attention.

A number of Muslim groups and civil society legal groups object to the death penalty and charge an anti-Muslim bias. They, along with prominent members of the opposition Congress Party, say the BJP government is pro-Hindu, and point to a relative absence of Hindu extremists brought to justice in cases of communal bloodshed.

Asaduddin Owaisi, head of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Muslim group, asked directly this week, “Why have not perpetrators of the demolition of Babri Masjid been convicted and will they also be given capital punishment as that is the original sin?”

The ruling Hindu BJP retorted that it is "various groups," not the government, that is trying to turn the death sentence into a religious issue. 

If it goes through, Memon’s hanging will be the third in India in the past three years. Along with the letter calling for mercy, other leading figures are calling on the Indian president for clemency. The president has rejected 24 clemency pleas since he assumed office July 25, 2012.

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