Exclusive to The Gulf Today
Whichever way one looks at it, the secret hanging of Afzal Guru, the lone convict in the parliament attack case, who was under the shadow of the gallows for more than a decade, is a sad commentary on Indian democracy.
While people swayed by right-wing groups, which have been baying for blood, applauded the action, civil society activists questioned the fairness of the trial, the timing of the hanging and the message that it sends out.
The case was a sequel to the December 1999 attack on Parliament House by five gunmen, said to be Pakistanis. All of them were killed by security personnel, who lost five men in the action. Four civilians were also killed but none of about 100 parliamentarians who were in the building was hurt. A massive military build-up on both sides of the India-Pakistan border followed, raising fears of a nuclear conflict.
According to the investigators, the attack was plotted by Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based Kashmiri outfit, whose founder, Maulana Masood Azhar, is among the 20 persons whose names figure in dossiers New Delhi has given to Islamabad. Pakistan says the evidence India has provided is not sufficient to prosecute them.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which habitually takes a hard line on India-Pakistan relations while in the opposition, has been particularly hawkish on the Parliament attack case. The attack had taken place when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was in power. Azhar was one of the hardcore militants its government had released from prison earlier to secure the safe return of the passengers of an Indian plane which was hijacked after it took off from Kathmandu.
Afzal Guru was a Kashmiri militant who had surrendered to the security forces. Later he moved from the valley to Delhi and was engaged in business there. The charge against him was that he had conspired with the attackers and helped them to get arms and shelter. He claimed he was framed.
He did not get a counsel of his choice to represent him in the trial court. All six lawyers whose names he had proposed refused his brief, some of them out of fear. He dispensed with the services of the court-appointed lawyer, saying he was not presenting his case fully.
While disposing of Afzal Guru’s appeal against his conviction, the Supreme Court conceded there was no direct evidence to show he belonged to any terrorist group or was a party to any criminal conspiracy. However, it held, circumstantial evidence unerringly pointed to his collaboration with the attackers. It said the collective conscience of the society would only be satisfied if capital punishment was awarded.
Presidents APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil left office without taking any decision on the mercy petition filed by Afzal Guru’s wife Tabasum. Pranab Mukherjee, who took office six months ago, rejected the mercy plea on February 3 clearing the way for the hanging.
Afzal Guru is the second person to be hanged in three months, the first being Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani gunman who was captured alive during the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. As in the case of Kasab, the execution procedures were completed in utter secrecy and the body buried in the jail compound.
Afzal Guru’s family and lawyer were not informed about the date of his execution. Kashmir was placed under curfew, cyber links were cut and secessionist leaders placed under restraint to check protests. Still there were protests, some of them violent, and the valley observed three-day mourning.
Congress party spokesman Rashid Alvi said the hanging sent a tough message to the world that India would not tolerate terrorism. He appeared to be oblivious of the negative message implied in the short-circuiting of established procedures.
Human rights groups in the country and abroad were sharp in their criticism. “The secret, shameful and surreptitious manner (of the hanging) is most unbecoming of a democracy,” said Yug Mohit Chaudhry, lawyer and campaigner against death penalty.
Many analysts saw Afzal Guru’s execution, rejecting calls for reprieve, as an attempt by the ruling Congress to take the wind out of the BJP’s sails ahead of parliament’s budget session beginning this month and the general election due next year. They noted that Kasab was hanged just before the last session.
“It’s extremely tragic if Indian democracy is going to survive on executing someone or the other before every parliament session,” said Vrinda Grover, a prominent lawyer and activist.
Clearly the hanging has put the clock back.
The author is a political analyst of reckoning