What It's Like To Be In A Room With David Headley

Published: February 12, 2016 22:14 IST
He hates India. He mocks our grief. He smirks at our loss. And he couldn't care less that he was one of the insidious terror brokers that killed 166 people in Mumbai. Yet, David Coleman Headley is "helping" India by testifying as an approver in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

Headley, via video from an undisclosed location in the US, is commanding headlines. The 55-year-old has claimed that his old masters, Pakistan's intelligence agency the ISI, and Hafiz Saeed's Lashkar-e-Taiba, were behind 26/11. He has alleged that Ishrat Jehan, like him, was a Lashkar member.

But lost in all the attention to what he is disclosing is the conduct of a man who clearly still subscribes to the ideology of hate.

Sample this. Ujjwal Nikam, the special public prosecutor, began Headley's questioning on Monday with the simplest of questions: his name. Nikam, however, mispronounced the terrorist's middle name as "Coley-maan". And to everyone's amazement, Headley condescendingly responded by mimicking the prosecutor. "Yes, my name is 'David COLEY-MAAN Headley."

Nikam asked him to confirm if his passport number was 097536400. Nikam - like many in India tend to do - pronounced 'zero' as "jheero". And Headley again smugly imitated: Yes, "jheero, jheero".

When he was asked to identify Ajmal Kasab, the lone Pakistani terrorist caught alive in the 26/11 attacks, Headley did so with a photograph and added an honorific phrase, saying, "Rahmatullah Alaih" (May Allah's Mercy be on Him). Islamic scholars explain this is always said in respect only to a great soul.

The 26/11 trial is serious business. It's no laughing matter. Moreover, this is not about mocking Nikam. This is about what Nikam represents - the State. India.This is a court which is dealing with the murders of 166 innocent lives. This is about the emotions of thousands and thousands of family members and friends of those who died, or have lived with life-altering injuries. This is about how Headley aided state and non-state actors in Pakistan to continue waging a proxy war to "bleed India through a thousand cuts."

And yet, Headley has the audacity to laugh at us while deposing in our own courts.

This is what it's like to be in a room with David Headley.

The screen in court is placed on the left of the judge on a wall. Headley wears a pale gray jumper and is visible along with his team of three lawyers who sit at a round table. His mismatched eyes - one blue, the other brown- are not clearly seen.

When he speaks,  the court-room, filled with about 50 reporters, lawyers and police officials, listens attentively in silence  so as to catch every word. His English has little evidence of an American accent.

He may be telling the truth.That's for the court to decide. But the message he sends across is: I don't care.

And why would he? By agreeing to plead guilty in a US court to his role in 26/11, he entered into a plea bargain agreement. And as part of that deal, he has to turn "approver" to help other governments. Otherwise, in all probability, he would have been given the death sentence.

Till he was hanged, Kasab felt no remorse. Truth is: nor does Headley.

US District Judge Harry Leinenweber, who sentenced Headley to 35 years, observed that he didn't have faith that Headley was a changed man as he had claimed when he pleaded guilty.

"During the Rana trial, Headley was asked if he was remorseful for loss of life and I remember he said something like: 'They are Indians, they are responsible because Pakistanis were killed in Kashmir.'... it is this mindset that is obviously the most troubling," the judge had remarked.

Headley's seven earlier trips to Mumbai were aimed at destroying the city. His latest, thankfully, keeps him from doing physical damage. But he is not a changed man - or a reformed terrorist.

(Tejas Mehta is Bureau Chief, NDTV)

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