Afzal Guru: Will one hanging satisfy our 'collective conscience'?

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 11, 2013 09:13 hrs

13 December: a Reader. The strange case of the attack on the Indian parliament.

That was the name of the book launched by Penguin at Delhi's Tony India Habitat Center on a chilly evening in December 2006.

The book is essentially a collection of essays on the subject by people like human rights activist Nandita Haskar, leftist Praful Bidwai, lawyer and author AG Noorani, Kashmiri author Syed Bismillah Geelani, journalist Jawed Naqvi, Marxist economist and politician Ashok Mitra  and author activist Arundhati Roy, among others.

Roy, who also wrote the foreword, did not mince her words at the book launch.

Afzal Guru, whose death sentence for his role in attack on Parliament House had been upheld by the Supreme Court, had been denied a fair trial, she declared. 

Demanding a re-investigation and retrial, she told the small gathering that  '…apart from the fact that Afzal did not have legal representation, the fact is that there is not a single piece of evidence which withstands legal scrutiny.' 

Accusing the media of playing an 'extremely coercive part in the build-up to the death sentence being handed out to Mohammad Afzal,' she said, ‘Eventually the Supreme Court says it has no direct evidence against Afzal, it has circumstantial evidence, it says there is nothing to connect him to a terrorist organisation, but in order to satisfy the collective conscience of society, he must be hanged… is this the kind society we look forward to becoming?’

On December 13, 2001, five terrorists sneaked into the Indian Parliament complex in New Delhi, killing nine people, including eight securitymen and a gardener, before being gunned down. A television cameraman who was hurt in the attack died a few months later.

An enraged India immediately blamed Pakistan-based terror outfits for the attack and launched a massive troop and missile mobilization on the border, but stopped short of declaring war. Pakistan did the same, and the tense standoff continued well into the next year.

In a response to a question in the Rajya Sabha two years later, Defence minister George Fernandes admitted that "The number of Army personnel killed or wounded in Jammu and Kashmir and the western sector during the mobilisation, Operation Parakram, from December 19, 2001 to October 16, 2002, was 1,874." These included troops killed while laying mines, as well as those killed in Pakistani artillery fire and counter insurgency operations along the Kashmir border.  

Within days of the attack on Parliament House, a special cell of the Delhi police arrested four people and charged them with aiding and abetting the swine.  They were:  SAR Gilani, Shaukat Hussain Guru, his wife Navjot Sandhu alias Afsan Guru, and his cousin, Mohammed Afzal Guru. 

While the three men were convicted of waging war against the state and sentenced to death by a special anti-terror court, Afsan was acquitted of all charges except attempting to conceal the plot, and sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Geelani and Afsan were later acquitted by the High Court and by the Supreme Court, which also commuted Shaukat's sentence.

Afzal Guru's death sentence, however, was not, and the government announced that he would be hanged on October 20, 2006. But this was postponed following a mercy petition filed before the President. The postponement led to allegations that the government was afraid of a 'Muslim backlash', particularly in Kashmir. 

Arundhati Roy, however, remained adamantly sceptical, believing that Guru was a scapegoat in a much larger conspiracy.

'When the special cell arrested S A R Geelani a day after the Parliament attack, from that day on, there was a deadly game that was played out,' she declared.

'The special cell put out propaganda of the most abominable sort, which was disseminated even by the most respected mainstream newspapers and television channels in this country. And then followed a sort of parallel game, where you build up national hysteria by telling these lies again, while the judicial system never looked at these reports, which never come under judicial scrutiny. This allows the courts to function in a completely unaccountable way. Because apart from the fact that Afzal did not have legal representation, the fact is that there is not a single piece of evidence which withstands legal scrutiny.'

In her introduction to the collection of essays (which includes one of her own, titled 'And his life shall become extinct') Arundhati raises 13 questions, which essentially point fingers not just at the police, the media, the intelligence agencies and the dreaded Special Task Force in Kashmir, but also the judiciary.

'Given the track record of Indian governments, (past, present, right, left and centre),' she concludes, 'it  is naive – perhaps utopian is a better word –to hope that any government will have the courage to institute an inquiry that will, once and for all, uncover the real story. A maintenance dose of cowardice and pusillanimity is probably encrypted in all governments. But hope has little to do with reason….'

Eleven years, one month and 27 days after 13 December, 2001, Afzal Guru has been hanged.

But the questions linger on.

And so do the swine who belong to outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Until they are buried, our 'collective conscience' is unlikely to be satisfied.

More from the author:

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Ramananda Sengupta is a senior editor and strategic analyst

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