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Updated: February 11, 2013 03:15 IST

Unlocking the secrets of a secret execution

Nitya Ramakrishnan
Comment (26)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Afzal Guru's son Ghalib, wife Tabassum, and mother Ayesha Begum coming out of Rashtrapati Bhavan after meeting President Abdul Kalam in this Ocober 2006 file photo. Photo: V. Sudershan
The Hindu Afzal Guru's son Ghalib, wife Tabassum, and mother Ayesha Begum coming out of Rashtrapati Bhavan after meeting President Abdul Kalam in this Ocober 2006 file photo. Photo: V. Sudershan

We should worry when a constitutional republic is insecure about letting a man in chains say his final goodbyes

Afzal Guru was hanged in the early hours of February 9. The date of execution was fixed only the previous day, but the authorities chose no quicker means of communication than Speed Post to inform his family in Sopore of the final decision. The clear intention was that they should not be able to meet him one last time. In fact, the idea seemed to be that no one should know, react or protest. Afzal himself was given no chance to challenge the President’s rejection, though it is open to judicial review. Kashmir was under curfew.

A constitutional republic that is insecure about letting a man in chains say his final goodbyes is something that we all need to worry about. Is a state that resorts to secret executions out of fear of demonstrations and protests capable of dealing with the many serious challenges that face this republic? The clampdown in Kashmir and the ill-treatment of unarmed protesters at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar suggests that the greater threat to our democratic polity is posed by the state itself. A vibrant civil rights movement that interrogates the criminal justice system and the death penalty is both necessary and desirable. In trying to respond to a morally bankrupt opposition, and a media campaign of surpassing banality, this government has only revealed its weakness. A state that is paranoid about democratic opposition, but will succumb easily to demands for abridging due process concedes the first round to the terrorist.

Justice synonymous with death

A long tradition of binding the collective to standards that keep it from being on a par with a common criminal has grown not out of any sympathy for crime but out of the wisdom that only in such a way can our collective aspirations be fulfilled. It is not Afzal’s wrongs that must determine whether the Indian republic follows its traditions. Unfortunately, that is what the discourse has been reduced to. Justice has become synonymous with death, and any other punishment is seen as tantamount to letting someone off. Victims of the Parliament House attack are entitled to respect and sympathy, the anger of their families can be understood, but no responsible administration will exalt anger to policy. Enough has been said and written over the years against the death penalty, and yet it remains on the statute book. I can only say that an atmosphere in which penalty is equated with justice is one which will breed more violence. The blood lust that has been demonstrated in the media coverage is sufficient to make the point.

A view has gained ground that our time-honoured norms are soft and conducive to crime. Judicial precedent that frowned upon keeping prisoners for long years on death row and then executing them is today upturned. What can be more degrading to our dignity than diluting our principles to get even with a prisoner, whatever may have been his crime? Scarier still is that our thinking elite is barely aware of the consequences of doing so. Can India be justly proud of saving the Parliament House from terrorists when its might quails at allowing the prisoner’s family a meeting, a personal funeral?

Narrative that causes concern

Afzal, during the trial, did some remarkable things. Once, he interrupted the proceedings to say that a prosecution witness was, in fact, speaking the truth when he said that Afzal had gone along to buy his car. This was the car in which the intruders were supposed to have entered the Parliament complex. Afzal also spoke frankly of his militant years in Muzaffarabad and his voluntary surrender to the Indian authorities. His narrative of how the authorities dealt with him after his return should cause us all concern, if even part of it is true. Though he had set up a small medical equipment business, the army and the State Task Force (STF) wouldn’t just let him be. They kept picking him up, detaining him for long spells of torture, demanding money for his release and so on. It was during one such stint in the STF camp, that he was introduced to Tariq, who in turn got him to bring Mohammed to Delhi. The rest is history, though somewhat blurred history. Afzal gave names of STF officers who were privy to this operation. I would think that the possibility of some truth to this is of much greater significance to national security than Afzal’s life or death in prison. Our misfortune is also that it is easier to attack a soft target than face uncomfortable questions. Why a man who had voluntarily renounced militancy should turn back on the decision is a question that needs to be asked, and the answers will reflect adversely on the Indian state. I have no idea whether anyone in the government took note of Afzal’s allegations.

Faith in the system

Afzal’s cousin Shaukat was convicted and sentenced to death by both the trial court and the High Court. The Supreme Court had not heard the case yet in November 2004, when I met Shaukat’s old father in Sopore. For all the old man knew, his son was going to the gallows. He was a man of few words, and said just this: “No one came to us when Shaukat was arrested, but I saw that a fight was being put up for him in Delhi. Local politicians descended on me after the death sentence was announced but I threw them out. I believe that justice, if it has to come, will come from Delhi. India has a working system of justice that one cannot hope for in Pakistan”. A year later, the Supreme Court acquitted Shaukat of all charges but one. In such a case as this, the Supreme Court ruled out police-recorded confessions and questioned the wisdom of having them in the law at all. In many ways, the verdict restored sanity to a legal system that had been subverted over two long decades by altering due process in the name of fighting terrorism. That is the kind of justice that evokes faith in people like Shaukat’s father and works to stem alienation. That is also the kind of restoration that is destroyed by a state that must stoop to hush-hush executions to prove its strength.

(Nitya Ramakrishnan is a senior lawyer. She defended Shaukat Guru and Afshan Guru in the Parliament attack case from the trial court up to the Supreme Court.)

This article and a couple of others "The case against Afzal", "A
perfect day for democracy", "Unanswered questions are the remains of
the day" and "The role of Pranab Mukherjee in Afzal Guru's hanging" -
all make a very compelling case on the lack of a fair trial and water-
tight evidence against Afzal Guru, but more importantly reek of a
conspiracy aimed at distracting the general populace with made-up
arguments laced with jingoistic nationalism.

"We should worry when a constitutional republic is insecure about
letting a man in chains say his final goodbyes" - is a chilling
statement - it highlights the silent violence prevalent in the air
right now! The blood thirsty calls for hanging and celebratory nature
of reactions post the event are a grim pointer to what we as
individuals and as a society are becoming.

Ernest Hemingway said "The world is a fine place, and worth fighting
for" in For Whom The Bell Tolls. I can't help but wonder at the irony
in that statement!

from:  Nikhil Damle
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 11:05 IST

Capital punishment or death (by hanging) is a primitive way of
punishing. One, the accused most often does not get time to
reform. Secondly it does not act as a deterrent. It smacks of
vengeance which is not a very moral or pleasant attitude.
In this case, here was a man who was so badly wronged that he
wanted to punish the law makers. This may have been misused by
some to make him a terrorist. His jail wardens were convinced
that he had repented and reformed. His behaviour at the time of
going to the gallows was clear and loud enough to suggest that
he had reformed. He seemed to be a true believer of the Law of
Karma and accepted his punishment with grace and dignity.
Could the MHA not get this feedback before rejecting his mercy
petition. All in all, in this case, too many things were wrong. This
is the result of putting an ex-policeman as the Home Minister.
Action should be taken to scrap capital punishment from our
CrPC. May good sense prevail.

from:  S N IYER
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 10:13 IST

Couldn't agree more. This, however, raises a question. Why Mr. Nitya Ramakrishnan didn't volunteer to represent Afzal Guru?

from:  Jyotirdipta Sen
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 00:14 IST

This article make me remember one of speech of P.Sainath on "Nero's Guest".

from:  made in india
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 22:38 IST

Finally a non-sentimental, real, grounded article. Thank you. Of course
as we hope to move towards being an enlightened republic these questions
need to asked and answered. No matter how big the challenges. Whether it
be terrorism from any religion, communalism, or just plain injustice and
inequity in the society at large.

But I really wonder, not out of doubt but out of a real desire to know,
who represented Afzal Guru in court? Why didn't you?

from:  Neha
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 22:10 IST

If a State can withhold/ban a screening of movie for few disgruntled elements fearing backlash, such a sensitive execution cannot be made public, adverse to the safety of JK/India as protests would happen. All the due process were followed which took more than a decade. It is sad that the family could not get to see him but for the larger interest of the nation, what the govt did was right.

from:  Krish
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 20:41 IST

shubhangi You are right.

from:  Mohammed Khader
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 20:22 IST

Really , these two lines by the author leads to some serious
pondering:

"We should worry when a constitutional republic is insecure about
letting a man in chains say his final goodbyes.
Can India be justly proud of saving the Parliament House from
terrorists when its might quails at allowing the prisoner’s family a
meeting, a personal funeral?"

The Indian constitution celebrated its 60 years in functioning but of
what use if its thought process is moulded by vested public opinions
and not by senses?

It's well accepted that the Indian sovereignty was attacked and we
lost Indians in the attack but the case was not deemed to be rarest of
rare as it was based on circumstantial evidences and if it is accepted
that the overwhelming public sentiments were responsible for his death
,the government's decisions of communicating his family and not
allowing them his company in the last minutes can't be justified at
all, shame on them .

from:  mohit kumar
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 20:20 IST

This article coupled with the article published by the HINDU by Arundhati Roy, raises some relevant questions. It gives the impression that the Govt went ahead with the execution to meet the objections of the opposition during whose regime this incident occurred. It appears logical that the opposition were prejudiced in their demand to cover up their failure of prior intelligence and since it happened during heir regime. If we can consider a review being done in the two other cases being heard by the SC, was this case not also deserving a review? It may be true that the process of law was followed, but it appears a life sentence would have been adequate. It is high time our law makers remove the death sentence from our books. What is more shameful is the manner in which the family were denied to meet him before the final act and worse still not informing the family in time. This smacks of total disrespect to life and a inhumane act of omission.

from:  S.N.Iyer
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 20:13 IST

A punishment, atleast in theory, is awarded to give the sinner a chance to regret. Once he is given a befitting punishment and he is done with it, he is, again in theory, as good as any one else. So in Afsal's case the dead body should not to be treated as that of a "terrorist" (which nobody cared to conform beyond doubt). He and his family is entitled to last rights like any other citizen of this nation. When you deny it, my Question is What is the difference between a terrorist and a goverment that represents a nation, it's people, you and me? This is not like India, this is not the tradition i'm proud of. Let Mahatma smile out of currencies, but i'm sure he will feel ashamed.

from:  rahul
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 17:36 IST

Extremely well-written article. It is scary to be part of a society that
is satisfied with "punishment" rather than seeking the truth.

from:  Deepika
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 17:28 IST

Reading this and other articles makes me thing that a great injustice
has been done.

But on the other hand, may be the message is that playing with the
fire of terrorism by collaborating with terrorists in howsoever a
tangential fashion may lead you to the gallows when the terrorists
have to have "plans" to attack Parliament.

Though I remember when this happened that day and it was playing out
on live TV, the cynics hoped that the terrorists would succeed and
neutralize a few of the corrupt politicians.

The only reason I choose to differ from those cynics is that these
worthies in Parliament -- no matter how many rapes and murders they
have committed -- have been voted there by the people of India.

Ultimately, in a democracy, the Buck. Stops. With. The. People.

from:  Sachi Mohanty
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 16:53 IST

Dear Nitya Ramakrishnan,

Thank you for writing this incisive, thought-provoking article that should make us introspect about which way we are headed... Very well articulated and balanced in making your point.

from:  Uma Sudhir
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 16:26 IST

A very clear and comprehensive detailing of the whole incident.
Are we really doing justice to anybody by these knd of cowardly acts.
I fail to understand this phrase "collective consious".Can you please
explain ?
worst of it all was not to let his family meet him before he breathed
his last?why and who did take this decision to deprieve his near and
dear ones a last look at him.
We all can understand that political decisions can go wrong but then
so wrong is very difficult to reconcile with.

from:  shubhangi
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 14:40 IST

Why didn't this senior lawyer - Nitya Ramakrishna - defend Afzal Guroo at the trial court instead of now claiming that he was not given a legal representation of his choice after SC had confirmed the death sentence?

from:  mamdhata
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 14:14 IST

Ms. Ramakrishnan may try to talk about justice. But she should remember
that Afsal caused by fidayeens to die to further his cause. That is one
single reason that he should not lived a day more than the dead
fidayeens , leave alone the nine people whom they killed .

from:  raghavan
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 13:28 IST

Excerpt from Nitya Ramakrishnan's article:

"...................Can India be justly proud of saving the Parliament
House from terrorists when its might quails at allowing the prisoner’s
family a meeting, a personal funeral?"
**********************************************************************
Akin to dropping an extra string of saffron into my kanamadhu or
payasam, that is your article. This key sentence caught my eye in
which you summed it up. I didn't need to read any further.

from:  Purandhar Setlur
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 12:04 IST

If the Home Minister had announced the death of Afzal Guru, it would
have been cancelled. There are wheels within wheels and not all of them
go in the same direction.

from:  Raja
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 11:37 IST

I value the sentiments of the author. Afzal Guru is the product of human failure in containing intolerance and bigotry. He did not look to be criminal but a victim of circumstances. While the process of law needs to be respected, even though it is unpalatable to the liberal, he ought to have been given the benefit of doubt.

from:  A.Xavier
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 11:12 IST

What a thoughtful column ! The fact that the columnist defended some of the co-accused
detracts not a bit from its objectivity and eloquence. Large parts of the media, especially the
news channels, seceding from scepticism and liberal values should concern us all.

from:  ashok
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 11:11 IST

You know what, this so called justice systems' mere existence is to provide justice to the victims of such atrocities. In such cases, the moral righteousness of looking in to the alleged perpetrators are all well and good but once convicted law should be allowed to take it course. Remember our life sentence is 10 years (even though 14 it comes down to 10 at the end of the day), unlike some other developed nations who have more elaborate definitions for life sentences.
So when you clamor with terms such as justice, respect and the lot, it would not do much harm to look at those terms with in the confined space of our justice system.

from:  Nirmal
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 10:31 IST

Ms. Ramakrishnan, why did Afzal not get the same legal representation
Shaukat got ?

from:  suresh Krishna
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 07:35 IST

we are not a matured democracy even after 60 years.It is yet surprising that public perceptions and opinion decide the level of punishment a culrprit should receive.I do not understand, why through route of legal trials, capital punishment be awarded instead of at least life imprisonment.

from:  Atis
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 07:01 IST

True....to draw an analogy...Bhagat Singh was hanged by the insecure British Empire to make sure he is not treated as a martyr...are we going down the same path? I am not comparing Bhagat Singh to Afzal Guru...but do remember one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter...fair trial or not...secret executions are not correct that too in a mature democracy...whatever the reason be

from:  Harsha
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 05:53 IST

A splendid timely incisive article by Ms. Ramakrishnan. The blood lust displayed by the
media is shocking as was the silence of the "leaders" on this hasty act. The government
has become an authority unto itself. Intolerance to dissent and attacking soft targets
are the first steps that lead to an autocracy. It's scary. We should ask ourselves one
simple question, "IF Afzal Guru WAS innocent (as he was not found guilty beyond
reasonable doubt), what will stop his son from becoming an extremist? From his view,
Justice has been denied. The state has failed them, both in preventing his dad from
relapsing into extremism and providing him with justice"

from:  Kartikeya
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 02:02 IST

Author: "We should worry when a constitutional republic is insecure
about letting a man say his final goodbyes"

Don't you think our soldiers and innocents that these terrorists kill
had a chance even to say love you and good bye? Did you ever write about
it? Does Afzal really deserve to say Goodbyes when he is responsible of
stealing it from many others?

from:  Varun MC
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 01:28 IST
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