U.S. Embassy official on the Congress ‘dilemma' over Afzal Guru's execution

The issue of executing Mohammed Afzal Guru, sentenced to death in the 2001 Parliament attack case, “may bring to light longstanding animosity between President [A.P.J. Abdul] Kalam and Sonia Gandhi,” states a cable sent by the United States Embassy in New Delhi to Washington in 2006. It added that this was so “especially as a member of her own party, [Jammu and Kashmir] Chief Minister [Ghulam Nabi] Azad, has argued on Afzal's behalf” — a possible reference to news reports that Mr. Azad had pressed for clemency to be granted to the convict.

Sent on October 20, 2006 by Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, the cable (82638: confidential) goes on to conjecture mischievously that “if President Kalam believes Sonia won't grant him a second term next summer, he may choose to push the issue into the forefront again at a crucial moment.”

Accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, the cable highlights the “significant electoral dilemma” the Afzal Guru issue posed for the Congress, just ahead of the “crucial” elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in early-2007. It quotes unnamed party sources as telling the Embassy that if “the UPA grants a pardon for Afzal or stalls his execution, the Congress Party will be portrayed by BJP leaders as weak on national security. If, however, the President lets him hang, some fear Congress may lose support from their traditional Muslim vote block on a national scale.”

The cable records the difference in the manner in which Kashmiri Muslims and the rest of the Indian public reacted to Afzal Guru's possible execution. It says that for Srinagar's Muslim population, it “highlights concerns about the fairness of the Indian justice system and failures in India's longstanding program to demobilize and reintegrate surrendered militants [such as Afzal Guru]”… For much of the public, commuting his sentence would demonstrate India remains weak in the face of attacks emanating from Pakistan.”

Kashmir factor

It quotes Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front Chairman Yasin Malik as telling a Consulate political officer that many “Kashmiri Muslims feel sympathy for Afzal” and that his only crime was “buying a car.” (Afzal Guru was not a member of the team that attacked Parliament but had bought the Ambassador car which breached Parliament's first line of security.) “How does this warrant a death sentence?” Mr. Malik is said to have asked. However, Mr. Malik's comments were at variance with many moderate Kashmiri separatist leaders in the Valley. One Hurriyat leader told the Consulate's political officer that his faction was “remaining as quiet as possible because they do not feel strongly that Indian should pardon Afzal.”

He said “moderate members of the Hurriyat are unable to express this view publicly, given the mood in the Valley and the threat from terrorists. He claimed that the controversy over Afzal Guru had led to a loss of support for moderates such as himself among Kashmiri Muslims, “especially [among] a small but growing cadre of Kashmiri youth who are being educated in extremist madarassas springing up across Srinagar with Pakistani Jamaat-i-Islami party funding.”

The cable suggests that the “easiest option for the Congress may be to delay Afzal's execution for years to consider his appeal for clemency.” This is exactly what has happened. In February 2011, Home Minister P. Chidambaram clarified in Parliament that Afzal Guru's mercy petition, filed on October 3, 2006, had not yet been forwarded to President Pratibha Patil.