By Praveen Swami
Nov 22 2012
Behind the growing numbers of Jihadi rank and file lies a life of rural despair, which makes understanding Quassab’s story that much more important
Quassab, the world came to call him, “the butcher”: butcher not because he shot dead 55 women, men and children, Hindu and Muslim at short range with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, but because it denoted his underprivileged southern Punjab caste. For millions of Indians, the man caught on closed circuit television cameras as he walked through the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus on the night of November 26, 2008, became the face of evil. The images don’t tell the story, though; at least not the important one — the story of how banal his evil was.
The man with the Kalashnikov didn’t kill because he wanted to change the world, or sought revenge or fame or money or even something resembling a cause. He killed because spilling blood was the only thing in a fifth-rate, inconsequential life that held out some prospect of power and agency and, as bizarre as it sounds, a life of some dignity.
Extinguishing Quassab’s life does not change the fact that there are thousands of young men just like him — which makes understanding his story that much more important.
The grind of poverty
Born on July 13, 1987, at the small village of Faridkot in Pakistani Punjab’s Okara district, Quassab was born into a landless peasant family. The seven major clans of the Punjabi Quassab caste claim descent from the great Bhatti or Khokhar tribes; like their caste counterparts in Rajasthan, however, they have been on the wrong end of property. Muhammad Amir Iman, Quassab’s father, was last known to run a snack-cart, selling dahi puris in the village. His mother, Noori Tai, was a homemaker — mother of four other children, 29-year-old Afzal, 26-year-old Rukaiyya Husain, 18-year-old Suraiyya and 15-year-old Munir.
Like so many other poor South Asian families, the Imans lavished their meagre earnings on educating their oldest son. It didn’t pay off. Having finished his primary education, Afzal Iman moved to Lahore, where he lived in a tenement near the Yadgar Minar and worked as a labourer. The Imans could not, however, afford to educate their second son, an indifferent student, past the fourth grade. Ajmal Quassab dropped out of the Government Primary School at Faridkot in 2000 when he was 13, and went to live with his older brother. He never settled in a trade, and would frequently shuttle between Faridkot and Lahore.
Then, on a visit home in 2005, Quassab had a bitter fight with his father. “He had asked me for new clothes on Eid that I couldn’t provide him,” Mr. Iman told the Karachi newspaper Dawn in a December 2008 interview. “He got angry and left.” No longer welcome in Afzal’s home, he stayed at the shrine of saint Syed Ali Hajveri until he could pick up some work. He began working as a labourer and by 2007 his work brought in Rs.200 a day.
Quassab, unlike his older brother, had big dreams. He soon began spending time with small-time criminals in Lahore. Along with a friend, a one-time Attock resident named Muzaffar Lal Khan, Iman decided to launch a new career in armed robbery. On Bakr Eid day in 2007, he told the Mumbai Police, the two men made their way to Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi, hoping to purchase weapons.
To a different school
In the market, though, the two men saw activists for the Jamaat-ud-Dawa — the parent organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) — handing out pamphlets and posters about its jihadist project. After a discussion lasting a few minutes, both men decided to join — not because of their Islamist convictions but in the hope that the jihad training they would receive would further their future life in crime.
The story tells us not a little about the world of Pakistan’s ever-growing jihadist rank and file. In a nuanced 2009 essay, the Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa wrote of the rural despair that underpinned jihadist recruitment. “A few years ago,” Dr. Siddiqa wrote, “I met some young boys from my village near Bahawalpur who were preparing to go on jihad. They smirked politely when I asked them to close their eyes and imagine their future: ‘we can tell you without closing our eyes that we don’t see anything’.”
From the Fathul Jawwad, jihadist leader Muhammad Masood Azhar Alvi’s disquisition on four Koranic verses dealing with jihad, it is clear jihadists understand the opportunity the countryside offers them. The text is designed for a peasant audience. “The light of the sun and water,” Azhar writes, “are essential for crops; otherwise they go waste. In the same way, the life of nations depends on martyrs. The national fields can be irrigated only with the blood of the best hearts and minds.” The jihadist movement promises something better than the earthly paradise Pakistan’s corrupt elite deny the poor entry into: “as we fly in aeroplanes in this world, the souls of martyrs, entering into the bodies of green birds, fly in Paradise for recreation.”
“Having no alternative ideology like Marxism or Liberalism or even language symbols which may challenge the feudal stranglehold,” social scientist Tahir Kamran has explained, “… militancy remains one of the few ways to counter it.”
Life in the Lashkar
Mumbai police officers first questioned Quassab on his hospital bed, just hours after he was captured. He was asked, in a videotaped interview, why he had come to Mumbai. The police officer didn’t quite catch the mumbled answer. “Shabaab,” he asked incredulously, misunderstanding the reply to be a Urdu word with special connotations in Mumbai street-talk, “you came here for women”? “Shahadat,” the injured terrorist answered slowly, “martyrdom.” Pressed further, though, Kasaab couldn’t explain just what that was. It had something to do with paradise.
Quassab’s worldview had been shaped by the Markaz Taiba, the LeT’s “learning centre” for new recruits. Films on India’s purported atrocities in Kashmir, and fiery lectures by preachers, including Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, led him to believe that the Lashkar’s cause — the greater glory of Islam, as the organisation presented it — was worth giving his life to. Yet, a senior police official involved in the investigation told The Hindu, Quassab couldn’t recall or name a single ideological tract or religious book that had influenced him. He had no sense at all of the LeT’s dogma. Instead, the officer suggested, the atmosphere in the jihad camp gave him the sense of family he had lacked for much of his life.
Following two 21-day training stints with the Lashkar in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Quassab returned home for a two-month break after his indoctrination at the Lashkar base camp. He found a respectability within his community and family that had eluded him most of his life. Where Quassab had earlier been seen as a burden, he was self-sufficient — and bore the halo of religious piety. He was, in other words, finally the man his family had hoped he would become.
Later that year, Quassab was chosen for the Lashkar’s advanced training at a camp near Manshera, a course the organisation calls the Daura Khaas. Finally, he was among an even smaller group selected for specialised marine commando and navigation training given to the fidayeen unit selected to target Mumbai.
Lakhvi’s final instructions, Quassab said, were to begin firing at the train station at peak hour, take hostages and then shepherd them up to the terrace where further instructions were given. Those instructions never came. Quassab and his fellow-attacker, Muhammad Ismail, failed to locate a way upstairs — and were then intercepted by police officers Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar and Ashok Kamte. Though the three officers were killed, Quassab was injured and the hostage-taking plan collapsed.
Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, a LeT commander now being tried in Pakistan for his alleged role in the attacks, promised Quassab that his family would be rewarded with Rs.1.5 lakh for his sacrifice. A credible Pakistani journalist contacted by The Hindu said the family had received somewhat more than that — but that its fortunes hadn’t changed significantly. The Hindu has no way of independently corroborating the information.