Monday, February 11, 2013

Afzal Guru Hanged II: Issues

[This follows from Should we celebrate, and Court ruling.]

Some people have asked me why I am bothered by the hanging of Afzal Guru.   In fact, was it not long overdue, they ask? Because it has been nearly seven years since the Supreme Court verdict gave the death sentence.  Why should there be an objection when the law of the land is actually enforced?

Afzal Guru was convicted for his involvement in the attack on Indian Parliament that took place in 2001 which was widely telecasted by all TV channels in India.  He was sentenced to death by Supreme Court in 2006, and he was hanged on 09 February 2013.  When the news came out that he was hanged in a ‘secret’ operation, many Indians celebrated the event, the way they had earlier celebrated the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving Pakistani terrorist who attacked the city of Mumbai killing many innocent people, an attack which was also widely telecasted by all TV channels, including many international channels. 

Over the last two days, many TV reporters and newspapers have called this hanging a ‘closed traumatic chapter’, and said that India can now move on.  Most panelists on the TV agreed with each other on the outcome.  If there was a disagreement it was mostly about the timing.   Many bemoaned that India waited too long, while some said that it was carried out now only to gain political mileage for the UPA government.

Before Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist, was hanged, a cartoonist belonging to India Against Corruption (IAC) made a cartoon in which Ajmal, as a dog, was seen peeing on Indian Constitution.  Meanwhile, BJP and the Sangh Parivar were hounding the UPA government for being lenient on these terrorists

The message is clear across the landscape of India.   The fact that India does not hang its terrorists is a sign of its weakness, it inefficiency, and its ineptness.   A strong country would immediately hang them or just shoot them, like how Israel or USA disposes of its enemies.  A country like India, which is weak, because of its pseudo-secularism, because of its coalition politics, because of its liberal intelligentsia, dithers on carrying out the justice. 

So, naturally, when India takes the ‘bold’ step of hanging these convicted people swiftly, without giving prior notice, as a covert operation, there is instant jubilation and congratulation.   It is seen as a bold act, a decisive act, an act of confidence.  

Politics of hanging

Hangings in India, like the public executions during medieval times, and like gladiator games of ancient times, have been reduced to satisfy people’s sullen moods, carefully crafted to send the people of land an image of happy, strong and content kingdom.  Given the favorable response the Indian Government is getting from its people for such hangings, we need not be surprised if it starts creating terrorists so that one of them is hanged every six months.  

And it looks like the current government has cracked the formula – carry out a secret execution and then make a brave public announcement next day giving out the proud details, like how the body was interred within the premises, like how they took the prisoner in a secret van, etc. 

The current hanging, and the previous hanging of Ajmal Kasab, has evidently rallied the mood in India. For few days, Indians have forgotten their woes and celebrated in unprecedented unity, which only comes rarely when India wins a cricket game against rival Pakistan.  The hanging brought various political parties onto a common platform, the news anchors and the panelists agreed with each other overzealously, and the common people were content and happy knowing they were citizens of a proud nation whichkills people who kill people to show killing is wrong’. 

And to the UPA government which was earlier seen as being meek towards Pakistan, which was accused of appeasing Muslims in India, which was seen as pseudo-secular, seen as a government headed by many non-Hindus (Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, etc), these hangings have helped in changing that perception.  By hanging two Muslims, one Pakistani and one Kashmiri, within a span of six months, they have taken BJP head on to win the people’s applause and appreciation.   Some analysts have already said that Afzal Guru was hanged only to checkmate Modi. 

When did the hangings of criminals in India started to bring in such political rewards? What does that show about us as Indians?  Have we become those barbaric societies of medieval and ancient kingdoms who can be pleased with such executions? 

The fact that such hangings are now discussed in the terms of political gains show how low we have stooped as a society. 

Some of the readers have asked me to explicitly voice my concerns.   Because they are confused! They ask me why I am concerned when the law of the land has taken its course.  Since Supreme Court has clearly upheld the verdict, shouldn’t Afzal Guru be hanged as per the law? They also ask me if I am muddling the current issue with another issue – that of opposition to capital punishment in principle. 


My concern with the current hanging of Afzal Guru can be captured in these two sentences.
  1. I am opposed to meting out punishment to satisfy ‘collective conscience’.
  2. I see a problem when circumstantial evidence is used to mete out death sentence.
Modern judicial system, based on rule of law, is based on premise that ‘all are equal’ before law.  This means that whether the criminal is a king or a pauper, the judicial system will treat him the same.  That is the reason why our lady law is blindfolded.  The law won’t go about saying, ‘hey, he is a politician, so let’s give him a harsh punishment, or that he is very rich, so let him go scot free’.   No matter who commits the crime, the verdict is same. 

In the same vein, it does not matter who the victim is.  Whether it is the Prime Minister who is assassinated or if it is the common man, the punishment cannot change.

Rule of law dictates that the judge should keep the verdict unbiased, away from the prejudices of a majority or the whims of a king.  Just because people are baying for the blood outside the courtroom or on television, he should not mete out the strongest punishment.  He should not be swayed by public opinion, or the coercion of Chief Minister.  He should not reduce the punishment or increase it just because one MLA or one religion seeks it.

If harsh punishment is meted out to ‘satisfy collective conscience’, it sets a bad legal precedent.  Now, can we acquit someone just because many people believe he is innocent?  Right now, mother of YS Jagan has collected 2 crore signatures requesting the state to go easy on YS Jagan who is languishing in a jail.  Should we release him to ‘satisfy the collective opinion’ of 2 crore people? 

Hanging is legal, but…

While the hanging is legal, because it follows the law of the land, because it was done as per the verdict of Supreme Court, it does not necessarily mean that we cannot challenge legal procedure and interpretation of the law itself.  Let me give an example.  Though Abraham Lincoln emancipated blacks through his famous amendments, Jim Crow laws were incorporated by many states to segregate blacks.  For nearly 100 years, those laws were used to discriminate and disenfranchise blacks in United States.  Many people criticized the laws and the legal procedures which imposed this segregation.  Blacks challenged it through powerful movements.  Eventually, through a series of landmark decisions in 1950-60s, these interpretations were reversed, where ‘equal but separate’ Jim Crow laws were deemed unconstitutional.  Protesting against the Supreme Courts verdicts when they are not reasonable is the prerogative of a thriving democracy.  

Therefore, I am entitled to this criticism.

Capital Punishment

Some people ask me if my entire opposition stems from the fact that I am opposed to capital punishment. 

It is true that capital punishment is being done away by most countries because it is considered an archaic and inhuman instrument which does not necessarily conform to the modern ideas.  Even if we were to continue with death sentence in India, we were supposed to reserve it for ‘rarest of rare’ cases, and it should definitely not to be used to ‘satisfy collective conscience’ and when the evidence is circumstantial. 

Isolated incident

Some people ask me to let go and not make a fuss because it is an isolated incident, especially when it has made so many people happy.

There are no isolated incidents in law.  They set precedent for the next case. And before we realize, it becomes the general law of the land.

We all have a reason to fear from such legal verdicts.  ‘Satisfying collective conscience’ can be used to kill any enemy - either it is political enemy or the corporate enemy.  POTA was used more to settle scores with opposition than to nab the real terrorists.  

Also, ‘exculpating through popular opinion’ can be used to exonerate politicians, like how Gujaratis exonerated Modi because he won the elections, or how Manmohan Singh exonerated his own government’s actions of UPA I citing the electoral win of UPA II, or like how now YS Jagan’s mom believes she can get his son out of jail by getting 2 crore signatures. 


  1. I disagree with the arguments. Attack on the parliament is a attack on sovereignity of India and on the heart on nation. Imagine if the terrorists entered the parliament. Though the evidence against afzal is circumstantial supreme court debated on it for long time and then came to conclusion. Many a times evidences maynot be direct, thats why we have courts, police. You must remember the death sentence was not given by a local court but the highest court in india after due deliberations Why this fuss when law of land was carried out, but i agree on one aspect that timing was political

  2. Dear Sujai:

    You have written many posts rationalizing terrorism and defending many terrorists. I am sure for yesterday's Hyderabad blasts also you must be having good reasons to believe that those who blasted bombs were actually decent people somehow driven by circumstances and pushed to the wall by injustice, discrimination etc. I would not ask you to suddenly take a reverse turn on your consistently argued line that terrorists are in fact victims of insensitivity of the society and therefore deserve our sympathy, while those who get killed are part of the larger society that wrongs decent people and forces them into desperate acts of self defense. But would it also be too much to ask you to entertain the possibility that may be (just may be) those who got killed and wounded were not as guilty as you believe them to be.

    I understand that you may not have time to write a full post taking the side of those who get killed in terrorist attacks but even a simple line somewhere on your blog giving some benefit of doubt to those who get killed by "innocent" terrorists would be a welcome change.

    With best regards
    Anuj Mittal

  3. This is a very sensitive issue, there are many people in our society who are totally against capital punishment in all forms. This has to be a public debate in reality.

  4. The present clinging, and the past clinging of Ajmal Kasab, has surprisingly rallied the feelings in Indian. For few times, Indians have neglected their problems and famous in unmatched oneness, which only comes hardly ever when Indian victories a cricket activity against competing Pakistan.


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