A letter from the Union Home Ministry rejecting the mercy petition of Mohammed Afzal Guru — who was given the death sentence by the Supreme Court in 2004 for his role in the attack on Parliament in 2001 — to the President's secretariat for a final decision has been received cautiously by the Congress. Officially, the party has backed the government's line, but party secretary Praveen Davar — who also edits Supreme Saviour, a journal promoting the Congress ideology since 1946 — has gone on record saying the President is not bound by the Home Ministry's advice.

Party functionaries are clearly divided on the issue, aware of the possible political fallout if President Pratibha Patil endorses the Home Ministry recommendation. A senior party functionary told The Hindu: “The party was not consulted on the decision, but it is the practice in the Congress to support decisions taken by the government.” But another senior leader pointed out that the hanging of Afzal Guru would have repercussions in the Kashmir Valley, and stressed that the situation there be studied before taking a final view.

Already, reports from the Valley suggest that the People's Democratic Party (PDP) has appealed to the President “to take into consideration the universal disapproval of the death penalty and also the highly fragile situation in the State [of Jammu and Kashmir].”

In Delhi, party spokesman Manish Tewari responded guardedly to questions on the rejection of Mr. Guru's mercy petition. “A mercy petition kicks off after the judicial pronouncement and involves a very serious application of mind by the Executive and the President, who does have institutional discretion,” Mr. Tewari said, adding, “But if the Executive and the President come to a certain determination, no one has the right to play political football with that.”

Mr. Tewari was referring to the fact that the United Progressive Alliance government has been under pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the rest of the RSS family to hang Mr. Guru ever since the Supreme Court sentenced him to death, while parties in Jammu and Kashmir have taken the opposite view.

In his statement, Captain Davar, a retired Armoured Corps officer, who saw action in 1971, but quit to join the Congress in 1980, has written, “Though the Home Ministry has recommended that the Rashtrapati Bhavan should reject the mercy petition of Afzal Guru, she is not bound by its advice. Let [the] President exercise her discretion independent of any influence or pressure.”

Some other functionaries in the party, too, are also of the view that extreme caution must be exercised in deciding on the mercy petition, given its possible fallout not just in Jammu and Kashmir, but elsewhere in the country — they also point to the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. If one view is that hanging Mr. Guru would deprive the BJP of an election line, the other is that it would send out a wrong message to the minorities, especially as many civil rights activists feel that justice has not been done in this case.

Simultaneously, another Congress functionary told The Hindu that nobody would be able to say that Mr. Guru had been plucked out of the list of those on death row for the extreme sentence, as in recent months, other mercy petitions had been rejected by the government and subsequently endorsed by the President.

Indeed, Minister of State for Home Mullappally Ramachandran told the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday that President Patil had recently rejected the clemency petitions of three killers of the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi — Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan — whose death sentences were confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2000. Earlier, in May, the President had rejected the mercy petitions of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar of Punjab and Mahendra Nath Das of Assam following a recommendation from the Home Ministry.

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