It was bad enough that Ajmal Kasab, the only Pakistani captured after the 2008 attacks in Bombay, was stealthily hanged without a public debate last November. It is far worse that the Kashmiri Afzal Guru was hanged on the morning of 9 February 2013 following his highly questionable conviction over the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.
Many eminent lawyers, scholars and journalists have written extensively, pointing out gaping holes in the entire trial and appeal process as well as the rejection of petitions to the president of India on Afzal Guru’s behalf. They include senior lawyers Nandita Haksar and Indira Jaisingh, writers Arundhati Roy, Praful Bidwai and Nirmalangshu Mukherji and the late K.G. Kannabiran, a former president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
Journals such as the Economic and Political Weekly and this website have periodically shed light on the case and established that the way Afzal Guru has been treated is a complete travesty of justice. Not only articles in journals and newspapers but books too have been written on the subject, including December 13: Terror Over Democracy by Nirmalangshu Mukherji (2005) and 13 December, a Reader: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament by Arundhati Roy (2006) detailing the role played by Delhi police officer Rajbir Singh in putting together the case, the acquittals that followed in the Delhi High Court (including that of S.A.R. Geelani, lecturer in Arabic at a Delhi college), the challenges in the Supreme Court and its confirmation of the death sentence for Afzal Guru despite the questionable nature of the evidence produced in the case. A website dedicated to the case has collected some of the pertinent writings: https://www.justiceforafzalguru.org/
The Supreme Court said: “The collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru.” It was, to say the least, unfortunate that a court of law decided to pander to its assumed notion of “collective conscience” rather than abide by points of law.
The ignominious role played by the national media in the wake of the 13 December 2001 parliament attack has also been well documented by Nirmalangshu Mukherji and others. The media seems to have eaten out of police officials’ hands instead of asking tough questions. As Sukumar Muralidharan of the International Federation of Journalists has pointed out, members of the profession failed to do what they ought to have at least after the High Court verdict – investigate the claims of the police and revisit the case they had not yet examined.
Afzal Guru’s execution is the second time after Ajmal Kasab’s on 21 November 2012 that the government has carried it out stealthily, ignoring the need to share the appeal process with the public, the lawyers for those convicted and their families. The execution of Dhananjoy Chatterjee on 14 August, 2004 following his conviction over the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in 1990 followed a public discussion.
In many of the now steadily shrinking number of countries that retain the death penalty, long delays such as in the cases of Afzal Guru and Chatterjee would automatically have led to commutations. Nearly 150 countries are abolitionist in law or in practice, meaning that they have not carried out execution for many years or observe a moratorium.
Rather than moving in that direction, the Indian government has been riding roughshod over people’s aspirations. Following the massive nation-wide upsurge in the aftermath of a gang-rape (and eventually murder) in New Delhi on 16 December 2012, the government set up a committee headed by former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma, with Justice Leila Seth and former Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam assisting. But when the committee offered a detailed set of recommendations within a record time of a few weeks, recommendations which were widely praised by women’s organisations and lawyers’ collectives, the government stealthily put out an ordinance, circumventing the need to face parliament and draft a detailed bill.
Then when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi came calling at the Sri Ram College of Commerce on 6 February 2006, Delhi Police sided with Hindutva elements and rough-handled those protesting against his visit. And hours after Afzal Guru’s execution, the same police again sided with the Saffron elements, arresting several peaceful protestors.
Meanwhile, the same day as the execution, in another part of India, namely Bangalore, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators against the evictions of 1,500 families from a shantytown were met by a few hundred policemen, who proceeded to make arrests. The police are siding with a company owned by the son of a former senior-most police official of Karnataka.
A respected reporter in Mangalore, Naveen Soorinje, who exposed a Hindutva attack on young people enjoying a birthday party last year, continues to be in prison even after the state cabinet withdrew the charges framed against him. There again, there are persisting allegations of police collusion with Hindutva elements.
Indian politicians have to realise that if they ride roughshod over democratic norms and ignore the rule of law today it can backfire on them when their opponents come to power and imitate their cynical actions.
Moreover if they think hanging Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru is easy, they need to figure out how to respond to those who ask why not Balwant Singh Rajoana (for the 1995 assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh) and Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan (for the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi). The Akali Dal, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has appealed against any move to hang Rajoana. The fury of Sikhs worldwide would certainly be too great for the Indian state to bear. The Tamil Nadu state assembly has gone on record in demanding that the three Tamils be spared.
With obvious electoral gains in mind, the Congress government has gone after soft Muslim targets. And the BJP is happy to make vociferous demands for the hanging of Muslims accused of terrorist acts while calibrating its stance in other instances.
How long will the people of India turn a blind eye to such cynicism? Instead of whipping up and pandering to mob demands, the Indian state ought to be pursuing peaceful development by fostering coexistence. But that would need a modicum of wisdom currently sadly lacking in the rulers in New Delhi.
N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes a blog: https://walkerjay.wordpress.com/