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An estimated 5-minute read

Why Kasab's birthday is impossible to know: an analysis by Schrodinger’s cat

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The story that the 13 July 2011 Mumbai blasts coincided with the birthday of Azmal Kasab – the terrorist who was sentenced to death for his role in the 26/11 2008 Mumbai terror attacks - appears intuitively likely when imagining how hypothetical terrorists might think. A Google search for “Kasab birthday Mumbai blast” yields far more than 100,000 hits and counting, including India’s biggest newspapers.

The Twittersphere is divided, however, with claims and counter-claims doing the rounds that his birthday is alternately 13 September and 13 July, fuelled by the potential for conspiracy theories and a latent fear of sectarian violence caused by untrue rumours. Wikipedians can not make up their mind on when Kasab was actually born either and The Washington Post has just documented the controversy and speculated on possible reasons.

First off, the fact of whether it is Kasab’s birthday or not should not matter. The attacks were an atrocious act designed to sow fear, discord and hate.

But irrespective of whether the terrorists’ timing was intentional, running with the Kasab birthday bomb story, which may or may not be true, plays into terrorists’ hands by bringing into the centre of the picture Kasab: arguably the most hated man currently residing on Indian soil.

In truth both sides of the birthday debate are both right and wrong at the same time.

Case 1: Kasab’s birthday is 13 July – the same day as yesterday’s bombs

A 20 June Wikipedia update – the last one before yesterday’s attacks – stated Kasab’s birthday as 13 July, citing a Hindu article from December 2008 – a profile piece of Kasab that did not explicitly include a source for the date.

The same 13 July date was also reported in February 2011 by the Times of India, citing Pakistani census data.

Late yesterday, The First Post was apparently the first media outlet to document the controversy and published a PDF of an “enquiry form” of the “Anti Terrorist Squad, Mumbai” dated 29 November 2008, in which Kasab’s birthday was typewritten into a form as 13 July.

The First Post confirmed via Twitter that it was in possession of a PDF copy of the document that it had uploaded and which can be assumed to be authentic.

Case 2: Kasab’s birthday is 13 September - not the date of the bombing

The Indian Express published a story on the date of Kasab’s purported 13 September birthday in 2009, citing “jail records”. The article speculated in a somewhat macabre manner whether Kasab would be allowed to receive a cake on his birthday in jail. Kasab’s lawyer Abbas Kazmi, when asked by the paper, said he was not able to confirm or deny his birthday as being 13 September at the time of going to press without checking the records.

On 25 May 2010 the Hindustan Times purported to publish a partial transcript of a 40-page confession to additional chief metropolitan magistrate R V Sawant-Waghule given by Kasab on 20 February 2009, which stated: “My name is Mohammed Ajmal Mohammed Amir Kasab. I was born on September 13, 1987.”

Barring major errors or misreporting by both the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express in misreading the “jail records” or “confession” they each respectively cite, the above articles seem to make a pretty convincing case for Kasab’s birthday being in September.

I have emailed the original Hindustan Times reporter and Kasab’s lawyer Kazmi for further confirmation but have not yet received a reply.

Judging the media's burden of proof

Giving both the July and September articles the benefit of the doubt and assuming everything was reported truthfully according to the evidence, it is most reasonable to conclude that Kasab’s birthday can currently not be established beyond reasonable doubt.

It is very likely that there is an error in one, or more of the documents when they were created in jail, by the magistrate or by the Mumbai anti-terrorist squad. After all, neither of the documents is a passport or a birth certificate, and a 9 (September) and a 7 (July) are easy to misread by bureaucrats or policemen when transcribing in a hurry, possibly from handwritten notes.

On a balance of probabilities, 13 July may currently be a slightly stronger candidate for Kasab’s birthday, buttressed by the publication of the First Post PDF document and the absence of primary source documents for the other case.

But until we can find out what the “confession” and “jail records” seen by the HT and the Express say, a very large and reasonable doubt remains about what Kasab’s real birthday was.

Right now Kasab’s birthday is both in September and in July at the same time, exactly like Schrödinger’s hypothetical cat is both dead and alive at the same time - a thought experiment used to illustrate physics' aptly named uncertainty principle.

Few news stories can or should ever be held to the same standard of proof as in a criminal or even civil court of law: a balance of probabilities at best is often all there is time for. And under today's tragic and stressful circumstances it is no surprise that the media rapidly jumped onto the 13 July bandwagon.

But in this case journalists and editors also pounced on the birthday bombs story because it was too strong a headline not to. And with that another proverbial cat is now well out of the bag.


Update 3:07am: TOI appears to have taken its Kasab birthday article offline - the comments remain, as do thousands of other articles

Update 9:44am: The TOI now has run a more cautious piece: Blasts took place on Kasab's birthday? The problem papers face is that since a large number of MSM have run with it, not to run with the story at all in a big paper takes some editorial guts. Thanks Mumbaikar for pointing out that the Wiki edit wars have apparently come to a truce.

Update 9:59am: The Indian Express and IBNLive are both plomping down that 13 July is the wrong date. The Indian Express argues that it was a hoax, worryingly citing evidence on Twitter and Wikipedia (should the Express not have a copy of an original document somewhere?). IBNLive acknowledges the confusion and accepts that it can not confirm the right date of birth at the moment

Update 15 July 17:56: The Wall Street Journal reports that the head of the anti-terrorism investigation in Mumbai during the time of Kasab's capture authoritatively confirms Kasab's birhtday as September 13. So there. Seems like fairly good evidence that the PDF the First Post published had a typo in it... But who knows - maybe Kasab doesn't remember his birthday properly or he just made it up...

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Like +0 Object -0 Mumbaikar 14 Jul 11, 09:27
Well put, I fully agree.

By the way, the Kasab Wikipedia entry now has both dates as his birthday en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajmal_Kasab

Best wishes to all and their loved ones.
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Like +0 Object -0 Guest 14 Jul 11, 10:23
Isn't the important point whether the terrorists thought it was his birthday? They would have probably used Wikipedia or the internet to check his birthday, where it was mostly given as 13 July before the attacks.

Until the terrorists are captured and interrogated, how will we know?
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Like +0 Object -0 Milinda_RMLNLU 15 Jul 11, 21:45
Thank God I read this before I had to sift through all these stories.. The frivolity of some of the aimless stories brought up by the media distracts us from the issue of concern. Who cares whether it was his birthday or not? What needs to be taken up is the matter of the blasts..
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Like +0 Object -0 Guest 31 Jul 11, 00:03
What a silly article. Kian, your understanding of physics is even worse than your understanding of law. Schrodinger's cat indeed. A case of verbal diarrhea more likely!
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Like +0 Object -0 kianganz 31 Jul 11, 00:11
Dear legal physicist #4,

Please do explain how the uncertainty principle is an inappropriate analogue to use in this case?

Until Schrodinger's hypothetical box is opened his cat is both alive and dead state at the same time. Only once the box is opened, the cat is EITHER alive or dead.

Same for Kasab's birthday it would seem - until conclusive evidence of his birthday is obtained (i.e., the equivalent of opening of a box or the act of observing in quantum terms), the month that he was born should be treated as similarly unknowable by journalists.

Please do share if this does not correspond to your understanding of physics, cats, law or journalism.

Warm regards
Kian
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