Afzal Guru: Ends of justice and of politics

The government took a longer time to hang Afzal Guru than it did in Ajmal Kasab's case but, ultimately, the ends of justice have been met in both instances.

So, have been the ends of politics. It will be pointless to see these executions in isolation, like those of ordinary murderers. Since terrorism and insurgency are essentially political acts, their impact on the national political scene is obvious.

Where Kasab was concerned, the implications of his hanging were simpler since he was a foreigner, a Pakistani sent by a rogue state to burn and kill. As such, his death was not expected to create any problems for the Indian state.

Afzal Guru's case was different. Although he carried out acts of terrorism similar to those of Kasab at the behest of the same inimical foreign power, he was an Indian citizen. His trial, sentencing, mercy petition and execution could not but have a political fallout. The government, therefore, had to move with far greater caution than it did in the Pakistani's case.

The government's difficulties were compounded by the fact that there are organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which are known for their anti-Muslim worldview. Not surprisingly, they have been trying to score political points by interpreting any delay in the execution as pusillanimity on the government's past for fear of antagonizing the Muslims. The former BJP president, Nitin Gadkari, even taunted the government with treating the convict on death row as a 'son-in-law'.

Then, there were others on the opposite side like the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his daughter, the People's Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti, who have been favouring a stay on the execution. There were also gadflies like Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy who wanted a stay.

The fact that curfew has now been imposed in Kashmir underlines the government's uneasiness about how the militants in the province will react to the death. That the legislative assembly once considered calling for abrogation of the sentence is noteworthy in this context.

It is patent enough that politics played a part in the decade-long delay in carrying out the sentence handed down by the Supreme Court in 2002. If the BJP spent its time accusing the government of Muslim appeasement, the government was unsure of the timing of the execution.

It goes without saying, however, that it was being over-cautious. Any fear that the Muslims would resent the hanging despite the belief in some quarters, including lawyers, that Afzal Guru did not get a fair trial, was unfounded. The reason is that it has long been evident that terrorism does not enjoy any support among the vast masses of Muslims in India.

Even in Kashmir, it is only a few small groups who are anti-Indian and that, too, because they are aided and abetted by Pakistan. There are, of course, political elements in Kashmir who make a political career out of criticising India. But, their influence on the ground is limited, as the elections in the state have shown.

The government, therefore, need not have taken such a long time to hang the convict, not least because he was part of an operation aimed at eliminating the country's political leadership. It is worth remembering that the attack on parliament in 2001 brought India and Pakistan to the verge of war.

The execution could have taken place in 2006 when the sentence was scheduled to be carried out. But the government developed cold feet after then Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad sought a postponement.

Now that the deed has been done, it is worth considering the lessons from the case. The first one is that it is pointless delaying the inevitable. Once the Supreme Court has given its verdict, it should be carried out within a few years. True, the paraphernalia of mercy petitions cannot be ignored, however heinous the offence. But, once the clemency pleas are considered and rejected, as in this case, no time should be lost in sending the prisoner to the gallows.

Otherwise, the accusation will stick that the government has been guided by political considerations. Since it is a charge which cannot be avoided whether the court order is promptly followed or not, there is no point in wasting time, especially by a government which is often accused of not knowing its mind.

In this particular case, after taking a decade to take a decision, the government is still likely to face the charge that the hanging is a political ploy to deprive its opponents a propaganda plank in the run-up to the state elections this year and the general election in 2014. It has even been suggested that the government may bring the general election forward to this year.

Since political motives are seen in both the prolonged delay and in the present decision, the futility of procrastination is obvious.

(09.02.2013 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at 

Amulya Ganguli

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