‘Al vida’, said Afzal Guru to his executioner, who had himself bid him good bye with the same words a few seconds earlier. And then as the executioner pulled a lever, Afzal’s frame hung from the gallows.
“He was dead in a minute, though”, as per the jail norms, the body was kept hanging for a full half hour, said an official who witnessed the hanging. Thereafter Afzal’s body was taken down from the gallows and buried with full religious rites near Jail No. 3, right next to the grave of Kashmiri separatist Maqbool Butt who too was hanged in Tihar.
“But there is a difference between the two. While Butt was a separatist leader, Afzal never spoke about secession of Kashmir from India. In fact, he used to tell us that he had been unnecessarily dragged into this. In fact, he actually believed in ridding India of corruption," the official added. He spoke to The Hindu on condition he not be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
While right-wing activists across the country celebrated Afzal’s execution, in the jail itself there was no celebration. Rather, the staff appeared glum. “He was a pious soul and was extremely well behaved. Even as he was being taken to the gallows, he greeted the jail staff he knew by their first names. The only thing he requested before the hanging was that ‘mujhay ummeed hai aap mujhay dard nahin karaogay’ (I hope you will not cause me pain). And he was assured by the executioner, who himself was overcome with emotion as he kept looking into his eyes as the black cloth was drawn over them, that it would be a smooth journey. And so it was."
Contrary to some media reports, Afzal was told of his impending execution on the actual morning and not the previous evening.
“The only thing he had in the morning was a cup of tea. But that is because he was not offered any food. Otherwise, he was so normal that he would have had that too.” Initially Afzal was wearing a pheran, or Kashmiri gown. He later took bath and changed into a white kurta-pyjama and offered namaz.
"There have been about 25 executions in Tihar and senior officials [here] have witnessed the last 10, but never have they seen a man so calm and composed on learning the news of his impending death."
In the last couple of hours of his life, Afzal had the company of some jail officials. And he narrated to them his thoughts about life and death. "He spoke of universal brotherhood and oneness of the mankind; how no human being is bad and how the soul in each one was a creation of the same God. He believed that if you moved on the path of truth, that was the biggest achievement."
In fact, Afzal was so calm in the morning that he even penned down some of his thoughts, put the date and time on the paper and signed it.
When asked by the jail staff about his last thoughts of his family, on who would take care of them, Afzal said "it was God who looks after each one of us and so would be the case now".
"His strength came from his spirituality. He was a learned man; as well versed in Islam as with Hinduism. Often, he would tell us about the similarities in the two religions. Some time ago he had read all the four Vedas. How many Hindus have actually done that? You normally rejoice at the end of evil, [but] when a pious soul goes away, it leaves behind a tinge of sorrow," the official said.
Recalling, how all through Afzal was "joyful" as also "cool and calm", the officials said in the past they have seen people shiver at being told about their being taken to the gallows. "But here it was just like what we had heard about people going to the gallows smiling."
Another difference between Afzal and others who were executed for terrorist crimes terrorists, the official said, was that while almost all others had made religious or political cries before being hanged, Afzal just walked the last 100 steps from his cell to the gallows as he normally would and went away wishing those around him.