Mumbai: A symbolic conviction
What does the conviction of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab really mean? Nobody had expected the only surviving gunman of the audacious 2008 Mumbai attacks to go scot free. Intense public pressure and media scrutiny had ensured that the trial would not grind on indefinitely. Justice usually plods along at a snail's pace in India - the trial for the July 1993 bomb attacks in Mumbai, to take one example, took 15 years to deliver a verdict.
At one level, the conviction is more symbolic than anything else. For most Indians who appear to have given up hope on its sluggish judicial system - this gives hope. For relatives of the victims, it may come as a closure of sorts to the Mumbai tragedy. One of the perpetrators of the most sensational attack on Indian soil has come before India's justice system - and has been convicted.
But I think the conviction means most to people like 11-year-old Devika Rotawan who was shot in the leg by Qasab at a railway station on that fateful night, but survived to tell the tale. Devika and her father, Natwarlal, and brother, Jayesh, were waiting to take a night train to Pune when the mayhem began.
Her spirit undiminished after 65 days in the hospital and half-a-dozen surgeries, the feeble, but sparky girl turned out to be a key witness and identified Qasab in the court.
"I told the judge," she had told me sitting in her one-room shanty home in a pale green frock, "I saw this man. He shot at me. I still have pain in my leg."
A carrom board, a few plastic chairs, a trunk, a cooking gas cylinder and a few utensils appeared to be the family's only obvious possessions. Some of the compensation money she had got from the government was being used to treat Jayesh, who was sick.
Devika told me how she was proud to be a main witness, how she had been wooed by news networks, and showed me a scrap book of press clippings about her. Her humour hadn't left her despite the pain. "You know what," she said, "Qasab has become very scrawny these days."
The conviction also means a lot to the policemen who intercepted and arrested Qasab at a checkpoint on the night of the attack. I met one of them, Inspector Sanjay Govilkar. He was hunched over his desk at a police station when I paid him a visit. The 42-year-old officer had written a book on lifestyle disorders with a picture of a weary looking Bollywood actor on the cover. The book "explained physical stress and tension suffered by people working in shift duties."
A bullet from Qasab's AK-47 had grazed Mr Govilkar as his colleague Tukaram Omble had fallen on the gunman and smothered him even as he was riddled with bullets. "I am not so intelligent," Mr Govilkar told me. "I thought if we catch him alive, we will get evidence. So we did not shoot."
Mr Govilkar attributed Qasab's arrest and his survival to the divine and to karma. "One of my astrologers told me after the incident that at the age of 40, there was a chance of my meeting a sudden death. But it didn't happen because of my good deeds," he said.
Not much has changed since Qasab was held by Mr Govilkar and a posse of brave Mumbai policemen. It is a humbling reminder of the times we live in that the conviction came after a weekend of alerts about an imminent terror attack on Delhi's crowded markets.
Relations between India and Pakistan - the gunmen were allegedly trained across the border, and the peace process ground to a halt after the attacks - remain frosty despite a couple of brief, formal recent meetings between the two sides. So the verdict, as security analyst Ajai Sahni says, is "of academic interest...It will have no impact on the trajectory of terrorism in the country. It will also not bring about great transformations in the security system."
So has India learnt the lessons of Mumbai and secured itself better? It is difficult to say.
The government has set up a National Investigation Agency to strengthen internal security. (14 cases have been assigned to the agency for investigation and prosecution, and charge sheets have been filed in two, says the interior ministry). Four federal commando hubs have been set up in different cities to "ensure quick and effective response to any possible terror attack." (Commandos had to be flown in from Delhi hours after the attacks in 2008.) The government says it is tightening coordination between different intelligence agencies hobbled by slow bureaucracy, and strengthening coastal security.
But the weakest link - the ill-equipped, ill-paid, ill-trained police force - remains as weak as ever. Securing a country of one billion people in crowded, poorly-planned cities is a daunting task anyway. So India remains vulnerable to terror attacks.
Unless you listen to Devika Rotawan, who told me, "I want to become a policewoman to protect my country and kill the terrorists. Why do they kill innocent people?"